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The Legendary Nellie Cashman

Meet the Irish immigrant and onetime Tucsonan who blazed trails throughout the west

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One hot morning in Tucson in July 1879, John Clum looked up from his desk in surprise.

The new publisher of the Arizona Citizen, the first daily newspaper in the Arizona Territory, Clum had been in town only since the fall. Still, he thought he knew what was what in the Old Pueblo. But on this particular day, a most unusual customer had stepped into his office: Not only was she female and white—a rare combination in Tucson in those days—but she also was Irish. And she had just started her own business, the Delmonico Restaurant.

She had come to place an ad.

"It was in this matter-of-fact business fashion that I first met Nellie Cashman," the admiring Clum wrote in a nostalgic reminiscence in 1931, nearly 52 years after this first encounter.

"Tucson was still a Mexican pueblo, numbering very few white women among its bona fide citizens, and Nellie was the first of her sex to embark solo in a business enterprise. Her frank manner, her self-reliant spirit, and her emphatic and fascinating Celtic brogue impressed me very much, and indicated that she was a woman of strong character and marked individuality."

Clum soon learned just how strong this Irishwoman's character was. Cashman was about 34, but she had already embarked on what would be a long career of "stampeding" to gold and silver rushes all around the West. She had demonstrated an uncanny ability to sniff out just where and when a mining strike would yield pay dirt.

When silver was discovered in Pioche, Nev., Cashman got there in the peak year of 1872, and earned good money running a boardinghouse. She next stampeded to British Columbia at the height of the 1874 gold rush.

Now here she was in Tucson, a dusty desert burg that was about to boom—but not on account of gold or silver. The railroad was on its way to the isolated settlement, and once the rails were laid, trains would bring goods of previously unimaginable variety, not to mention travelers in need of the hospitality services that Cashman knew how to deliver.

Nellie wanted in on the action. She named her new eatery Delmonico, after the famous restaurant in New York City, and declared in her Citizen ad of Aug. 14, 1879, that "The Best Meals in the City Can be obtained here."

Yet she stayed in Tucson only a short time before rushing to the silver boomtown of Tombstone, where she earned steady money feeding and housing miners, and less-steady but more-spectacular payoffs from investments in silver claims.

It was a pattern Cashman would repeat over and over, at mining camps in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, British Columbia and Alaska, where she lived the last 27 years of her long life. She would put down stakes, pull them up again when the ore petered out, and embark on another restless search for the next big thing.

She made "pile" after "pile" in her mining and business ventures—the better to help some Catholic order of nuns or a downtrodden workingman, preferably a miner from the Ould Sod. With hospitals and churches and rescues to her name, she earned the titles of "Angel of the Cassiar" and "Angel of Tombstone."

As a rare woman in the rough-and-ready mining world, she regularly made the newspapers. On Nov. 23, 1889, the Arizona Daily Star noted, "Tucson was visited yesterday, or rather revisited by one of the most extraordinary women in America, Nellie Cashman, whose name and face have been familiar in every important mining camp or district on the coast for more than 20 years. She rode into town from Casa Grande on horseback, a jaunt that would have nearly prostrated the average man from fatigue."

Her intuition about whether a mining site would yield gold or worthless dust was so sharp, the reporter added, that old-time miners "believed she had a supernatural source of information and hailed her arrival (at a mining camp) as a good omen."

During her lifetime and after, Cashman was the heroine of countless tall tales. She told some of them herself. In 1889, she casually mentioned to the Star reporter that she was just back from Africa—a trip not documented anywhere in the historical record. She intended to return, she declared, "to explore a hitherto unheard-of diamond mine."

Her nephew, Mike Cunningham, also told quite a few. He loved to regale reporters with the story of how his fearless Aunt Nellie drove her wagon by night in Apache country—before Geronimo's surrender in 1886—to rescue a pair of scared small boys.

Her admirers nearly always remarked on her Irish charm, calling her the "queen of the Irish miners" and praising her Celtic brogue and wit. And given her unconventional life, living among men in rough camps, most writers hastened to assure readers of her modesty and virtue.

After her death, Nellie inspired a stack of books, whose authors inevitably call her "indomitable," "stalwart" and "angelic." She was a character in the late-1950s TV series about Wyatt Earp, and the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a 29-cent stamp in 1994. Cashman has been inducted into the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame, the Arizona Women's Heritage Trail and the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.

It's not always easy to ferret out the truth behind the myth, especially with the passage of time. Researchers clash even on the most basic facts about her life: when she was born, when she came from Ireland to America, and how she traveled to the West.

Still, it's possible to track her trail through public records, and the newspapers that chronicled her exploits and ran ads for her businesses. Her story is remarkable enough in its own right, but it also helps trace the Irish all over the West in the late 19th century, from bustling San Francisco to the most hellish of mining camps.

Out of Ireland

Though Nellie Cashman spent much of her life in the parched American West, she began it in the impossibly green southwest of Ireland. She was born in County Cork, in the parish of Midleton (Irish name: Mainistir na Corann), near the coast, where the Celtic Sea meets the Atlantic.

No birth records survive. Cashman's tombstone in Canada lists a birth date of 1844, but a Midleton baptismal certificate for Ellen Cashman is dated Oct. 15, 1845, according to Don Chaput, author of the detailed biography Nellie Cashman and the North American Mining Frontier. The birth of her younger sister, Frances, several years later is also unrecorded.

Whatever the exact date of her entrance into the world, Nellie was born into a catastrophe. In the early months of 1845, "the potato crops looked splendid," one famine refugee later remembered, "but one fine morning in July, there was a cry around that some blight had stuck the potato stalks."

The fungus destroyed potato crops all over Europe, but in poverty-stricken Ireland, where one-third of the 8 million Irish subsisted entirely on the potato, the results were devastating. By 1846, the blight had destroyed nearly every potato plant in Ireland. The fields were "one wide waste of putrefying vegetation," a priest from Cork reported. Every subsequent year through the early 1850s, the crops failed, and failed again.

The deaths followed quickly. Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people—almost 20 percent of the Irish population—perished from starvation and disease. Unable to pay rent and evicted from their cottages, the starving dropped in the lanes and workhouses.

The Irish, aptly, called the crisis not a famine but An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. There was plenty of food in Ireland, but beef, grain and dairy products continued to be exported to Ireland's colonial rulers throughout the starvation years. The indifference of Protestant England to Catholic Ireland's sufferings is well-documented, but historian Kerby Miller writes that the better-off Catholic Irish also exploited their own countrymen.

Cork was one of the hardest-hit counties, and in the county seat, some 13 miles from Cashman's childhood home, the Catholic mayor ordered his magistrates "to drive rural refugees from the town." Many of the town's Catholic merchants "speculat(ed) in foodstuffs"; small shopkeepers jacked up the prices of scarce food.

The young Nellie would have heard her parents speaking of the hardheartedness of the English overlords and the Irish shopkeepers, and she would have seen the wraithlike beggars haunting the lanes. Perhaps the Cashmans were among the homeless hordes roaming the countryside; Nellie's father, Patrick, was apparently among the famine dead.

The starving Irish scrambled to get off an island that had become a death trap. As many as 2 million escaped in the late 1840s and early 1850s, and Nellie's hard-hit Cork lost more people than any other county, through both death and emigration. The panic-stricken refugees tumbled onto the coffin ships sailing out of the port of Cobh, close to Nellie's village of Midleton, and sailed the Atlantic. Some people died en route; the rest were tossed into Canada or the U.S. cities of the Eastern Seaboard.

Before long, the three remaining Cashmans joined the exodus. Young Nellie had learned lessons that would stay with her all of her life: Work as hard as you can. Make as much money as you can. Share what you have with the desperate.

And get the hell out of Dodge when the money dries up.

Into the West

Nellie's mother, Frances Cashman, brought her two daughters to Boston. The 1865 city directory lists her as a widow living at 328 Federal St. Boston was already a strong Irish enclave, and the directory lists no fewer than 16 Cashman households on one page, along with a cascade of Cassidys and Cavanaughs.

The all-female Cashman family fit the distinctive profile of the emigrant Irish. Some 52 percent of the Irish pouring out of the ships were women, many of them single and looking for work. Most of the young Irishwomen in Massachusetts worked in the textile mills, or as "Bridgets," domestic servants in the houses of the well-to-do. But Nellie took a different path from the get-go.

She often told the story of how she worked as an elevator operator as a young woman. One day, she claimed, she piloted Ulysses S. Grant to his desired floor.

In Cashman's telling, Grant gave her a classic piece of 19th-century advice, with a twist: "Go West, young woman, go West."

Many of the immigrant Irish stayed in the East, where they faced discrimination and poor living conditions in crowded districts in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. But after the trauma of the famine—the deaths, the hard voyage, the loss of home—many never wanted to move again.

Others kept going, clear across the American continent. Scholar David M. Emmons calls these Irish rovers the two-boat Irish. Some—like Nellie—were extraordinarily restless, ricocheting all over the West, laying its railroads and mining its ore. In the far reaches of the continent, they escaped some of the racial bigotry of the East, the land of "No Irish Need Apply." Here, the Chinese, not the Irish, were the reviled minority.

By the late 1860s, the three Cashmans had surfaced in San Francisco, a city that was already one-third Irish.

It's not entirely clear how they got there. Biographer Chaput has them sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus by train, and boarding a second boat to San Francisco. Rival biographer Ron W. Fischer places the journey a few years later, and has Nellie and company riding rapidly across America on the new transcontinental railroad.

Whatever the case, by 1869, the family was jammed into a boardinghouse at 336 Fifth St. Fellow boarder Thomas J. Cunningham, also Irish-born, was now prospering, making sturdy boots for miners. Love blossomed in the close quarters, and by the next year, young Fanny Cashman and Tom Cunningham were wed.

Perhaps it was conversations with her new brother-in-law that persuaded Nellie to head for the mining camps. With Fanny embarking on a childbearing life that would eventually give her six children (five of whom lived to adulthood), Nellie left town with her mother, bound for the silver boomtown of Pioche, Nev.

Nevada

In 1872, the Cashmans opened a boardinghouse in Pinaca Flats, 10 miles from the Pioche mines. Pioche was more camp than town, with hastily constructed buildings and dusty streets, plentiful saloons and brothels, and smoke from the smelters blackening the mountain air. It was a violent place, populated mostly by men on the make, and deaths by gunshot were all too common.

Like most of the Western mines, the place had plenty of Irish—the Cashmans bought their Miner's Boarding House from a David Leahy—and Irish names all too often crowded the crime reports in the Pioche Daily Record. David Neagle, son of an Irish immigrant, shot an Irishman in the face; he later turned up in Tombstone on the other side of the law, as a police chief and deputy U.S. marshal. And the Daily Record gave lavish attention to the town's St. Patrick's Day festivities.

The Catholic priest was a Father Scanlan, and Nellie was only too happy to help him with fundraising, as she would often do for Catholic institutions in the future. Chaput reports that in October 1873, Cashman and a Miss Kehoe ran a table at the church bazaar, selling fancy cakes and cigars, and raking in a surprising $389.

The Cashmans were apparently doing brisk business as well. In Nellie's second year in Pioche, an ad in the local paper announced that the "proprietress" had expanded her boarding house.

But the silver mines were already beginning to play out, and the miners were turning their attention to a silver strike in California's Panamint Mountains, and a gold boom in British Columbia. The miners soon stampeded out of town, and Nellie had no intention of being left behind. On Oct. 17, 1873, she sold her boarding house, so newly and proudly renovated, and skedaddled back to San Francisco. She'd soon be in on that gold rush herself, carrying a new name: Pioche Nellie.

Up in the cold North Country, the Nellie legend accelerated.

She left San Francisco in 1874 with an all-male party of "six adventurous spirits," she related in a late-life interview. "We tossed up a coin, heads for South Africa, tails for British Columbia. It fell tails, so we went up North."

If Clum later exaggerated the scarcity of white women in Tucson, in Cassiar, British Columbia, Cashman was indeed rare. The newspapers regularly reported sightings. "Miss Nellie Cashman was one of the few white women who reached Cassiar last year," The Daily British Colonist reported in February 1875. "She is a native of Limerick, Ireland, aged about 22, rather pretty and possesses all the vivacity as well as the push and energy inherent to her race."

With exquisite timing, Nellie had hit Cassiar just when the gold bonanza was booming. In Pioche, the mines were in the hands of large operators, but here in gold country, an individual could go out on his—or her—own and prospect away. Nellie sold the miners "bed, board and booze," as Chaput indelicately put it, and on her own, she picked up the riches lying out practically in the open. She started buying up claims and investing in other miners, "grubstaking" them with money and supplies for a share of the profits.

She won her angel wings for a daring rescue that sounds apocryphal, though it was breathlessly recorded by the newspapers of the day: Cashman almost single-handedly saved a party of miners snowbound and food-deprived in the freezing hinterlands. She snowshoed in with a team of men she'd hired, and brought the sick men food and lime juice—an antidote to scurvy. When she stuck around to nurse the stricken miners, the authorities back at Fort Wrangel were so alarmed by her long absence that they sent out a search party.

They found Cashman "encamped on the ice ... cooking her evening meal by the heat of a wood fire and humming a lively air," the Colonist reported. "So happy, contented and comfortable did she appear that the 'boys in blue' sat down and took tea with her."

The new Angel of Cassiar evidently accumulated an excellent pile. She sent the huge sum of $500 to her mother in San Francisco. She had befriended the Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, British Columbia, and she dunned her friends and contributed her own cash to build the nuns a hospital.

And when the Cassiar gold mines started petering out in 1876, she took her leave.

Tucson

After alighting in San Francisco for a year or two, the peripatetic Cashman decided to try the desert Southwest on for size, exchanging cold country for hot. In 1878, she rode the train south, switching to the Southern Pacific line at Los Angeles and riding as far as Yuma.

Travelers still had to take the stagecoach from Yuma to Tucson, but Cashman planned to make her next fortune on the tracks that would soon connect West to East—right through the Old Pueblo.

Tucson was still small enough that the Arizona Daily Star reported Nellie's arrival on Oct. 10, 1878. Tucson was a backwater, "an odd city, more like an ancient Bible town than anything else, with its narrow streets, and rows of low-walled, flat-roofed adobes," journalist Clara Spalding Brown reported after passing through in 1880.

But some things would have been familiar to Cashman. The Old Pueblo had long been Catholic, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had arrived almost a decade earlier, in 1870, to open Catholic schools. By 1880, the nuns would have St. Mary's Hospital up and running. Tucson had a small but vibrant Irish community—142 Irish-born in a city of 7,000 people in 1880, as Tucson Weekly writer Dave Devine recounted in "Welcoming the Train" (March 14, 2002).

Cashman settled on a central location for Delmonico's, in the downtown church plaza—a tiny fragment of which still survives among the colorful buildings of La Placita. The eatery wasn't too far from where the new train depot would be, and the first San Agustín Church (since demolished) was a hop-skip away. So were the downtown hotels and saloons, businesses that would guarantee hungry customers.

Nellie was all set to profit from the coming railroad boom—but then her attention was diverted. Cashman's new friend at the Citizen, John Clum, a wanderer on a scale to match her own, had begun running excited articles about Ed Schieffelin's silver strike west of the Dragoon Mountains, 71 miles southeast of Tucson.

Despite being warned he would find only his "tombstone" in those bleak hills in Apache country, Schieffelin had struck ore so rich that he "could sink his pick-head up to its handle," Tom Sheridan recounts in Arizona: A History. A partner pronounced it the best silver he'd ever seen.

No sleepy Bible town could compete with the excitement of hardscrabble Tombstone, where unfathomable riches might be won. Cashman soon hightailed it out of Tucson, and by April 1, 1880, had opened a "gents furnishing store" on Allen Street, Tombstone's incipient main drag. (Clum also took his own advice: He sold the Citizen, decamped to Tombstone and founded the Tombstone Epitaph, publishing his first edition on May 1, 1880.)

Nellie wasn't quite done with Tucson. She went back and forth a couple of times by stagecoach while she got things organized, and she may well have joined her fellow Irishmen in celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Tucson in 1880, when the much-longed-for train chugged into Old Pueblo three days ahead of the planned celebration. Impromptu merrymakers waved flags and lit bonfires downtown, and the next day, the Arizona Daily Star dryly commented on the Hibernian festivities. "The entrance of the S.P. (Southern Pacific) Railroad and the 17th of Ireland both at once," the editorialist sniffed, "was too much for our friends on Main Street."

Tombstone and Beyond

Rapidly growing Tombstone, wild and violent though it could be, was just the sort of place that Cashman relished. The population had zoomed from zero in 1877 to 5,000 in 1880, and that meant easy profits. She started out selling miners the very boots that her brother-in-law was making back in San Francisco. With her usual marketing savvy, she called her business the Nevada Boot and Shoe Store, a name that not so subtly advertised her experience in Pioche, the "baddest town in the West."

In a boomtown where the men outnumbered women 4-to-1, she chose as her business partner a Miss Kate O'Hara. Their shared Irish heritage must have been a bond.

Otherwise, as historian Katherine Benton-Cohen has written, "rigid class divisions kept a chilly distance between the town's few women."

Benton-Cohen counts 30 women of the Episcopal "upper crust" in boom-time Tombstone; a number of "respectable" women working for a living, such as Cashman and the Earp wives, who were at times seamstresses; and "prostitutes of diverse nationalities ... in abundance."

Journalist Brown, who arrived a few months after Cashman, seemed to follow the class rules. In her dispatches to the San Diego Daily Union, later collected into the book Tombstone From a Woman's Point of View, she wrote about restaurants but never mentioned Nellie by name. And she wrote that the town had "frequent dances, which I have heard called 'respectable,' but as long as so many members of the demi-monde, who are very numerous and showy here, patronize them, many honest women will hesitate to attend."

Cashman, whose later Russ House hotel was right around the corner from the notorious Bird Cage brothel, was willing to cross those class lines—she happily accepted the prostitutes' money for her various causes.

Within months of her arrival, Nellie had a reason to beg for their money: She wanted the town to have a Catholic church, and not only for herself. An 1881 Cochise County census found that the Irish made up the highest number of foreign-born people in Tombstone. There were 559 Irish-born and 2,880 Americans, including Irish-Americans like Wyatt Earp's enemy, the deputy sheriff Johnny Behan.

The Catholic Irish needed spiritual sustenance, Nellie reasoned, and she led the charge to raise money. Within months, by Nov. 28, 1880, the town's Catholics heard Mass in their new Sacred Heart Church, an adobe fitted with churchlike Gothic windows. (The old building survives as a parish hall for a newer Sacred Heart Church.) Ironically, the church was just blocks from the notorious OK Corral.

Her charities could also be small and hidden. Nephew Mike Cunningham related that a miner by the name of Con DeLaney told how he'd arrived during the boom from Ireland with his wife and seven children: "We were destitute, and Nellie Cashman rustled up a place for us to live and provided food, etc., until I was able to obtain work."

During her six years in Tombstone—with outside forays here and there—the enterprising Nellie opened and closed businesses with dizzying speed, and changed partners with alacrity. She had a grocery called Tombstone Cash Store (slogan: "Fruits and Vegetables Received Daily from Los Angeles"), and the Arcade Restaurant and Chop House ("Better Meals than any House in Town").

At one point, she got rid of the Arcade and took off briefly for Bisbee, where copper was expected to boom any minute. She rented a hotel, but this time, her vaunted instincts were wrong: Bisbee's moment had not yet come, and when she left town months later, the hotel owner sued her for unpaid rent, Chaput reports.

In that same difficult year, 1881, Nellie inherited almost her entire extended family. Her brother-in-law Tom Cunningham, not yet 40, died of tuberculosis, the scourge of the age. The elderly Frances Cashman stayed in San Francisco, but Nellie's sister, Fanny, and her five young children came to Tombstone to live. (The kids arrived in time for the shootout at the OK Corral in October 1881, and young Mike Cunningham claimed all his life to have seen the bodies lying dead in the street.)

With all those mouths to feed, the two sisters went immediately into business, with Fanny running the Delmonico Lodging House, and Nellie opening Russ House. The business for which she is best known, Russ House was at the eastern edge of town, at Fifth and Toughnut, overlooking slopes filled with silver ore. The nearest mine was steps away, making it an ideal location for a miners' boardinghouse.

But Fanny grew ill with tuberculosis, and both businesses had to be sold so Nellie could care for her. Fanny recovered, and the two of them opened the American Hotel, which nearly burned in a raging fire in May 1882 that leveled central Tombstone. Fanny then died in 1884, leaving the five children in Nellie's sole care.

Even so, Cashman did not neglect her mining operations. She built up a significant pile buying and selling mining claims, including the Big Blue and the Last Chance, and one named for her hero Charles Stewart Parnell, president of the Irish National Land League.

Atypically, she did lead one disastrous expedition to Baja California in search of gold. Dressed in men's overalls—her usual costume when she worked the mines—she and her team took a train to Guaymas and a ship to Baja, where they were to hike to the supposed gold deposits. Arizonans though they were, they were not prepared for the extreme heat on the Mexican peninsula and nearly died of heat exhaustion and dehydration. And they learned there was very little gold to be had.

Though Cashman was hailed in the papers, this time as an "energetic and plucky woman" and even a "Joan of Arc," the fact that her expedition failed helped end the Mexican gold rush.

In the years after the Tombstone boom, after the mines flooded and failed, Cashman's famous instincts seem to have faltered. In 1887, she tried out Kingston, N.M., a heavily Irish silver-mining district where many of the workers were Irish coal-miners from Pennsylvania.

Nellie was soon back in Arizona, briefly enchanted with the gold at Harqua Hala west of Phoenix. Drawing on her knowledge of mining geology, she wrote a learned article for the Arizona Daily Star about the mine's possibilities. When Harqua didn't pan out, she circulated around the territory, hoping for a bonanza, starting up businesses in mining locales from Nogales to Yuma to Prescott to Globe to Jerome.

Then, in 1897, reports leaked out that gold had been discovered in Alaska. Nellie's last big rush was on. In an interview, she declared, "Going to Alaska! I should say I am."

Cashman stampeded to the North Country, where she prospered mightily, ran her own mining companies and lived long. On rare occasions, she returned to Arizona to visit family and once gave an interview explaining that "when things began to be civilized, I left for Alaska, where I could pioneer again." On her last visit, she gave the bishop of Tucson $1,000 to spend on renovations at Sacred Heart in Tombstone.

She was 79 or 80 when she fell ill for the last time. She insisted on going to her friends the Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, British Columbia, whose hospital she had helped build more than 50 years before. When she died on Jan. 4, 1925, she was buried in the nuns' cemetery.

Extravagant obituaries were soon published around the country, many of them mentioning the legendary—not to say imaginary—exploits of the famous pioneer.

The obit in the Tombstone Epitaph claimed that in addition to all her other feats, "she is said to have been a Yankee spy in the Civil War." And in Alaska, the paper added, "at the age of 77, Miss Cashman set a record as champion woman musher of the world. ... She mushed her dog team and sled 750 miles in 17 days, breaking her own trail the entire distance from Koyukuk to Seward, Alaska."

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