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Meet Nellie Cashman – Irishwoman, philanthropist and prospector in Alaska's gold rush

Nellie Cashman was an extraordinary woman from Cork who made her way to the US west coast in search of a lucky strike.

Welcome to the first week of this collaborative blog with the National Women’s Council of Ireland. I will endeavour to post about an interesting Irish woman from the past every fortnight. It will comprise a biography of the woman in question, as well as a list of the sources I utilised.

We all know the big names in Irish women’s history, so it is my hope that some of the women in the coming weeks will not be as recognisable to you the reader. If we spread these stories, we can begin to reclaim these women for their achievements and legacies.

Starting off this project is an extraordinary woman from Cork who made her way to the gold fields of Alaska in search of a lucky strike, Nellie Cashman.

Nellie Cashman (1844 – 1925) Philanthropist, prospector, businesswoman

Nellie Cashman (born Ellen Cashman) had a caring heart, hard-working nature and entrepreneurial mind. She spent most of her life in North America following her passion for mining, at a time when gold fever had taken over. She was a prospector, with a vast knowledge of mining, who operated businesses in order to fund her exploits. She endeavoured to take care of people in need of help, leading to her being affectionately known as the Angel of the Yukon.

Cashman was born near Cobh, Co Cork around 1844 to parents Patrick and Fannie Cashman. In 1850, Fannie was widowed and decided to leave Ireland for America, taking her two daughters with her. They settled in Boston for a time, eventually moving to San Francisco in the 1860s. Cashman left her mother and sister there and travelled to a silver-mining district called Pioche, Nevada, where she set up a boarding house in 1872. She also became involved in the local church, a passion that Cashman nurtured her whole life.

Empathy for her fellow man

The following year she joined a team of prospecters heading to the Cassiar District in British Columbia. In the winter of 1873, she headed a rescue mission of six men to a mining camp in the district that had a dangerous shortage of supplies. The team struggled in dense snow for 77 days, reportedly surviving avalanches to get to the camp. This was the first event that brought to light Cashman’s extreme empathy for her fellow man and her drive to help people in need. During the mid 1870s she also lived in Victoria, helping to raise funds for St Joseph’s Hospital.

Around 1879, Cashman moved to Tombstone, Arizona and for several years she was a leading personality in the town, contributing financially to the town’s first church and running a supply store, boarding house and restaurant. During this time, her sister and sister’s husband passed away, leaving Cashman to care for their five children for a time.

It is evident that she was capable of hard graft and her constant forays on prospecting tours indicate her adventurous spirit. When asked about her clothing choice when prospecting in the Victoria Daily Colonist, she commented, “I dress in many respects as a man does with long heavy trousers and rubber boots. Skirts are out of the question up North”.

In 1924 she set a record as a champion female musher

In the late 1880s she left Tombstone and went on a prospecting tour, in 1888 writing an article for the Arizona Daily Star about a camp in Western Arizona, detailing its history, geology and methods of mining used there. After many years working in mining, Cashman had an immense knowledge and understanding of her field.

In 1897 she moved to the Klondike in Alaska and here again she purchased claims, ran businesses and fundraised for St Mary’s Church and hospital. Cashman’s final two decades were spent in Alaska, spending time in both Fairbanks and Koyukuk, and in 1924 she set a record as a champion female musher, travelling 750 miles in 17 days.

At Coldfoot, one of the most northerly mining camps in North America, Cashman became ill and was sent to Fairbanks for treatment. She was diagnosed with double pneumonia and acknowledging that her time was short, went to St Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria. Here, on 4 January 1925, she passed away and was buried at Ross Bay Cemetery.

A trailblazer 

Nellie Cashman was a true pioneer, an adventurous soul with a philanthropic spirit. She prospected well into her 70s and although she never struck a bonanza, she ran successful businesses wherever she went. Cashman was exceptional when you consider that a mere 1% of miners in the Yukon at the turn of the century were female.

In 1944 the US Postal Service honoured her with her own stamp in their Legends of the West collection, alongside big names like Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson and Sacagawea. Today, there is a restaurant named after her in Tombstone and a resort in Phoenix, Arizona has a Nellie Cashman Café Club. She has also been inducted into the Alaskan Mining Hall of Fame, along with only four other women out of approximately 100 names.

Ella Hassett is a part time library assistant in Trinity College, Dublin, with a master’s in public history and cultural heritage, who devotes much of her time researching remarkable women in Irish history.

This post first appeared on the National Women’s Council of Ireland website and is reproduced here with permission. 

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