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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.
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.