The Legendary Nellie Cashman

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

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.