Cashman, Nellie (1845?–1925), frontier entrepreneur and philanthropist, was born in the mid 1840s near Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork. Documentary details of her early life in Ireland and America are few, rendering any chronology of her first twenty-five years largely speculative. According to her most authoritative biographer, she was the Ellen Cashman baptised on 15 October 1845 in Midleton, near Cobh, second among three children of Patrick Cashman and Fanny Cashman (née Cronin); an elder brother had died in infancy. She was brought to America with her younger sister by their widowed mother (c.1850), and lived some fifteen years in Boston, where by the mid 1860s she was working as a lift operator in a public building. The family moved together to San Francisco (1865/6), travelling by ship via Panama, crossing the isthmus on the new railroad (Chaput, 1–6). A more recent biography identifies alternative parentage, and has her emigrating to Boston (1860), and moving to San Francisco (May 1869) on the newly completed Union Pacific railroad (Fischer, 13–30). Her residence in 1869 at 336 Fifth St., San Francisco, is documented by both biographers.
Cashman's first experience of frontier mining camps was the fifteen-month period when she and her mother owned and operated a boarding house in Panaca Flat, during the peak of a silver-mining boom in the Pioche district of south-east Nevada (1872–3). For the next fifty years she lived in a succession of mining camps and boomtowns throughout the North American west and north, operating various types of hostelries and other commercial enterprises, and engaging in prospecting ventures. Intelligent, robust, and irrepressible, a convincing talker with a gift of palaver, she possessed a shrewd business sense, repeatedly demonstrating a knack for arriving at an early stage of a mining excitement, profiting variously from the boom, then sensing the imminent demise, pulling up her stakes in time, and moving on. Through all her relocations she organised and contributed generously to philanthropies, usually for the benefit of hospitals, catholic churches, and religious orders, while practicing private charity towards the needy and victims of disasters and distress.
Active for three seasons (1874–6) in the Cassiar region of British Columbia, Canada, she ran a boarding house on Dease Lake, purchased claims in the rich placer gold fields, and grubstaked several prospectors for a cut of their profits. While wintering in Victoria in 1874–5, she learned that hundreds of miners were trapped in the Cassiar by severe weather that prevented both their egress and delivery of supplies. Purchasing a store of provisions and hiring a party of men, she led a relief expedition, journeying on snowshoes and hauling heavily laden sleds, and personally nursed men back to health. The exploit entered northern frontier folklore, winning Cashman renown as ‘the miners’ angel'. She moved to Arizona territory in 1878, living first in Tucson, then basing herself for six years in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone (1880–86). Operating a succession of restaurants, hotels, and stores, she was prominent in activities of the town's substantial Irish community, including St Patrick's day observances, and fundraising for the Irish National Land League. She bought and sold claims in the region, and grubstaked several of Arizona's future mining millionaires; she named her earliest claim, located in the Chiricahua mountains, the Parnell mine. She was joined in Tombstone in 1881 by her recently widowed sister Fannie and the latter's five children. After her sister's death in 1884 she was the sole support and guardian of the children, all of whom she had educated by catholic religious orders in the south-west.
In 1883 she led twenty-one Tombstone miners to prospect for gold in Baja California, Mexico. When a small advance party nearly perished from lack of water in the forbidding desert terrain, the expedition was abandoned, the miners returning to Arizona with news that the Baja gold field had been worked out. According to legend, Cashman had forged ahead alone, obtained water at a mission, and rescued her partners, promising the mission's padre to scotch the tales of immense gold deposits to spare the tranquil region the disruptions of a gold rush. Folklore also associates Cashman with two celebrated incidents of Arizona's frontier history, uncorroborated by contemporary accounts or her own published reminiscences. It is reputed that, incensed by the carnival atmosphere surrounding the public hangings of five outlaws in Tombstone in March 1884, she aroused a group of miners to demolish a set of bleachers erected to accommodate spectators. During labour unrest in the mines in August 1884, she is said to have warned E. B. Gage, superintendent of the Grand Central Mining Company, of a plot against his life, and to have driven him out of town to safety.
After leaving Tombstone, Cashman entered a frenetically peripatetic period, prospecting and running hostelries in widely dispersed locations in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, the northern Rocky mountains, and Sonora state, Mexico (1886–97). In 1898, aged 53, she joined the Klondike gold rush, entering the Yukon territory by foot through the Chilkoot pass, hauling the 900-lb (408 kg) year's worth of supplies required by Canadian authorities. In later life she explained that she left Arizona ‘when things began to be civilised’, and went north where she ‘could pioneer again’ (quoted in Chaput, 149). She spent six years in Dawson (1898–1904), where she reputedly made $100,000 from a single claim along Bonanza Creek, before moving west into Alaska. After living briefly in Fairbanks (1904–5), she settled for the last twenty years of her life (1905–25) in the sparsely populated, inhospitable Koyukuk country, beyond the Arctic circle, working claims in a placer gold field concentrated on Nolan Creek. Widely known throughout the north country, where her journeys by riverboat or overland by dogsled were reported in the local press, she enjoyed a reputation throughout North America, celebrated as ‘the well known sourdough woman prospector’ and ‘the champion woman musher of the north’. At age 77 she made a seventeen-day, 750-mile (1,200 km) trek by dogsled from Nolan to Anchorage, the first leg of a business trip to New York, unsuccessfully seeking financing for more advanced machinery for her mining works (winter 1922–3). Returning from her last trip stateside, to Arizona, in 1924, she fell ill with double pneumonia and rheumatism, and turned back eighty miles from Nolan. After periods in hospital in Fairbanks and Seattle, she entered the St Joseph's hospital of the Sisters of St Ann, Victoria, BC, whose foundation she had assisted some fifty years earlier. She died there 4 January 1925. Her papers are in the order's archives in Victoria. In 1994 the US Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in her honour in their Legends of the Old West series.