By Mark Ehler
In honor of International Women’s Day, celebrated March 8th, it seems fitting to take an in-depth look at one of the most fascinating and uplifting lives lived in the glory days of the American frontier: Ellen Cashman.
Female prospectors went west with the rest of them but unfortunately, our accounts of them are infrequent. Cashman comes to us because wherever she went in life she built communities around her. Her goodness and generosity shone like a beacon and as a result, it becomes hard to discern the woman from the myth. Those who found her in their lives would refer to her as an angel, a wild woman, a prospector, a pillar of the community, and a saintly entity from another plane of existence. If there is one title that can be fairly fixed on Cashman without bias and with historical accuracy, it would be “Ellen Cashman, the Generous Adventure-Woman.”
Cashman’s exploits make her fit for the lead of an action movie — better yet, a trilogy of action movies. The original would be set in the desert of a lawless Nevada mining camp, the critically acclaimed sequel taking place in the Canadian Rockies, and the grand finale sweeping her across the frontiers of the known world for a reunion in the arctic conditions of the Klondike Rush. Her thirst for adventure was a way of life for Cashman, also known as Nellie, as from a young age she was always jumping at the chance to pull on a pair of heavy boots, her strong bloomers and cloak, and step off into the wilderness. By trade, Cashman took after her mother and sister in the family business of hospitality, but her heart was indiscriminately the quality of an unpolished golden nugget.
Ellen Cashman was born of a devout Catholic family in a County Cork seaport of Ireland. Already widowed, Fanny Cashman moved her daughters, Frances and Ellen, to America during the potato famine. The Irish were coming over in droves and settling in cities like Boston, where she lived and worked as an elevator operator for 15 years. She never received a formal education. Most women at this time were only qualified for domestic service jobs. Fanny was not satisfied with this possible outcome, so she packed up again and took the family west by way of Panama to San Francisco.
By all accounts, Fanny Cashman was a capable and confident mother. She couldn't have stayed in San Francisco long before she left Frances to stay with her new husband and pushed on to Virginia City, Nev., with young Nellie in tow. By arriving in the early 1870s, they had missed the rush and turned to running a boarding house. The shift began by cooking breakfast and work continued into the late evening. Fanny was not satisfied accepting minted coins for her hard work so in 1872 she moved again, this time to the remote mining camp of Pioche.
Pioche is one of those anonymous and bleak western towns popularized by Clint Eastwood vigilante justice. Historian Stanley Paher writes, “The fame of Pioche’s rich mines was matched only by the disrepute of its crime.” A figurative and literal powder keg, Pioche had already blown up and burned to the ground before the Cashmans' arrival when revelers on Mexican Independence Day accidentally ignited a large store of gunpowder. It was said that Pioche’s Boot Hill Cemetery had 72 graves dug in it before anyone had died of natural causes. Rival mining gangs were in a faction war, fighting for land from one another from fortified piñon tree outcroppings. Gunfighters rode into town looking for work as hired guns. One half of the homicides in Nevada from 1871-1872 took place in Pioche, where gunmen sauntered the streets unpunished. This is the town where Nellie Cashman found herself.
In the boardinghouse, Nellie Cashman developed a close rapport with the prospectors as they sifted through the swinging doors. She was a thin, dark-haired lass with a face that made her look far younger than she was. It was a clear disadvantage in the West, but Cashman made the best of her appearance masterfully. Anyone meeting her for the first time would be immediately under the spell of her big brown doe eyes. She was said to stare intently at her customers as they told their stories of their forays. Rapt with a certain curiosity and a lingering intensity, she was fascinated with the kind of person who considered themselves a prospector: rough, darling, indefatigable, and oddly generous, and restless in pursuit of excitement. Blessed with finding a way with words, Cashman would find ways to convince the men in her surroundings to see things her way time and again. Her first feat: to convince the prospectors of the most dangerous town in Nevada to allow her on a run for silver with them.
Cashman’s experience in Pioche stoked a fire inside her and she was compelled to feed the flame for the rest of life. Her next adventure sent her after the promise of riches in Cassiar, British Columbia, in the Canadian Rockies. In time, Cashman would earn a reputation of a saint and even an angel, but not yet. She would have had to establish firm boundaries well in advance of the Canadian expedition. As an attractive woman of eligible age leaving mother for the first time, she was not to be bedded, wedded, courted or otherwise doted on in camp. She took no lover, significant or otherwise, and her firm belief in her religion would seem to rule out wanton behavior on her part. In contrast to those who would praise her, others would have considered themselves egalitarian enough to allow a woman to go where they went and do what they did. Cashman was said to disarm those who would whisper behind her back by saying, “I’m a womanly woman just like any other woman.” She showed a firm spirit and an aptness for leadership by saying, “A woman is as safe among the miners as at her own fireside. If a woman complains of her treatment from any of the boys, she has only herself to blame.”
Cashman ventured south to Victoria, British Columbia, for the winter after a run in the harsh weather of the Stikine River and having established her own boardinghouse close to the goldfields of Cassiar. Surviving that adventure was a feat to be proud of, for she had returned alive and well from places named Poison Mountain and Starvation Camp. Despair was written in this gold rush as a frozen corpse clutching a letter that reads: “Bury me here, where I failed.”
When Cashman received word in December that her friends were stranded in harsh winter conditions and weakened with scurvy, she resolved to save them. Others would call her insane. She had not experienced a single Canadian winter yet, but she convinced six men to follower her into the blizzard because they believed in her. The army commander that had previously sent three failed rescues sent a fourth to turn her forsaken band back before she perished. When the soldiers found her camped on the frozen Stikine humming merrily and cooking supper, she invited them in for tea. Her mesmerizing gaze and unshakable faith in herself convinced the men to disobey their orders and return to base while she pushed on.
At one point when the sled dogs floundered in the deep snow, little 5-foot-tall Nellie Cashman pulled a sled of supplies herself. She couldn't have weighed more than 100 pounds. The biting cold could freeze off limbs and lull the mind into a deadly sleep. One morning Nellie was woken by an avalanche tumbling her tent a quarter-mile from camp. She clawed her way to the surface, undaunted. Her journey took 77 days, but when she found the stranded miners she succeeded in delivering 1,500 pounds of supplies and nursing the remaining dying miners back to health. Edward Morgan, a Klondiker, later said that she “surmounted all the obstacles with which nature had beset her path and had talked out of existence all those put in her way by men.”
Nellie Cashman had earned her angel wings. More accurately, she believed that she had a protective angel at her shoulder. Many others would consider her their own protective angel. Cashman didn’t leave Cassiar before raising money for a hospital in Victoria. After an erratic bout of travel, she would continue her pastime of charitable development in Tucson and Tombstone in Arizona, where she spent her calmest years.
She built schools, churches, and hospitals. Stories of her generosity fill the years between her expeditions. A prospector down on his luck always had a warm meal and a comfortable bed at one of her boarding houses. She never married, but she would become a willing foster mother when her own sister fell ill and died, leaving behind five children.
When she was down on her luck after investing her money in flop stakes or simply giving her money away to charity, mining magnates and friends seemed forever willing to donating with the knowledge that their investment would eventually lead to charity. More than once Cashman dove into deadly block fires with buckets of water and saving the day, adding “unburnable” to her list of fabled traits.
Over a career of 40 years, Ellen Cashman would tramp across the known world in search of a bonanza. She searched in Baja, Mexico, and nearly died of thirst. She failed to find diamonds in South Africa. She was in Colorado for the Pikes Peak rush, Kingston, Prescott, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and back north for a reunion tour with her northern friends for the Klondike Rush. She arrived in Juneau, Alaska, in 1895 much more stout than she was when she was charging through the blizzard in Cassiar, but still she was loved and a bonfire was built on the night of her arrival. She loved the winters in Alaska and continued to make frequent trips to Fairbanks and 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot.
Cashman was prospecting until the age of 80, always with the well-being of the prospectors as her excuse for leaving. She was quoted as saying, “Those prospectors up there need me — and need me badly— and that is the country in which I expect to live the rest of my days.”
She would build one last church in Dawson City in the Yukon, and would continue the venture north until old age finally caught up with her and double pneumonia turned her back from an expedition to Nolan Creek, never to return to Alaska. She laid down in the Joseph's Hospital, in Victoria, the hospital she built with gold dust many years before and Ellen Cashman died in peace in in 1925 at the age of 81.
In the West, it was thought that the mark of eastern comeliness came with the bricks and timber that built schools, churches, and hospitals in the blooming western towns. With these public works came the basic human standards that allowed for women and children. Ellen Cashman scoffed at the lassitude of this thinking. Her form of order earned the respect of her rugged peers without the need for a U.S. Marshal badge. Men who looked like devils, eyes ringed with black soot, beards wild and knotted, faces hidden by wooden masks to beat off the deadly cold, all stopped cursing and assumed their best behavior when she was around. Cashman’s presence at a mining camp was considered a good omen. Her aura in her late age was mythical. No man could have hoped to travel to places as rough as Pioche or harsh as the Arctic Circle and inspired the best in people. For that, you would need a woman, a woman like Nellie Cashman.
Mark Ehler is a portable freelance writer based out of Denver, Colorado. Email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org