Life in the Old West

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Nellie Cashman’s generosity brightened gold mining camps

Nellie Cashman left her mark on the history of gold prospecting and the gold fields of the Old West as both a successful miner and a deeply generous, kindhearted person. At a time when many women were warned to stay away from the mining camps unless they were accompanied by a husband or other male friend who could protect them, Nellie Cashman enthusiastically staked claims, worked like a man to develop them, reaped success in both gold and silver riches — and offered both “grub” and “grub staking” to less brave and less successful men.

When asked near the end of her life, which included travels and prospecting ranging from Boston to Arizona to California to the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, whether she ever feared men or disliked working with male prospectors, Nellie told the Arizona Daily Star:

“I have mushed with men, slept out in the open, washed with them and been with them constantly, and I have never been offered an insult … A woman is safe among miners as at her own fireside. If a woman complains of her treatment from any of the boys, she has only herself to blame … I can truthfully say that there was never a bigger hearted class of men than the genuine sourdoughs of Alaska.”

(The quotation and the source for most of my information on Nellie Cashman comes from the chapter “Nellie Cashman: Toughest of the Lady Sourdoughs” in Chris Enss’ fascinating little book, A Beautiful Mine.)

Nellie Cashman spoke those words near the end of a long career as a prospector and mine owner in Alaska in 1923. She died about two years later at the age of 75, following a 17-day dog sled mushing trip.

But Nellie (full name Ellen) Cashman’s impact on the gold fields of the Old West and the men and women who sought their fortunes in them was well known throughout the West. She came to Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880 following the lure of gold as did many others. But as she said to her family and friends: “Looking for nuggets is like hunting for a whisper in a big wind. You have to have an occupation to fall back on while you’re searching for a strike.”

Nellie’s “fall back” occupation was just as successful as her gold prospecting — she opened boarding houses such as her Russ House in Tombstone. The beauty of Nellie’s charitable spirit shone from her earliest efforts: She made it clear that Russ House was open to everyone who needed a place to live and a good meal, even if they were broke.

But by 1880, when Nellie hit the Tombstone chapter in her life’s adventures, she had already made gold strikes in Canada and Nevada — and had done fundraising for such charitable causes as hospitals.

Nellie sold the Russ House in 1886 and spent time in the gold fields and adventuring around Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. During the next 10 years she owned and operated boarding houses in New Mexico, in Idaho, and again in Arizona. A newspaper story she saw in Arizona in 1897 alerted her to the Alaskan Gold Rush. Just over six months later, at the age of 47, Nellie Cushman reached Skagway, Alaska, in February, 1898. She made a three-week trek into a remote wilderness region on the Dyea River in the Rocky Mountains. She filed four claims there.

By September, 1898, this remarkable hard-working middle aged woman had amassed more than $100,000 from those four claims. In October, 1898, Nellie took a break from gold prospecting and mining and bought a combined restaurant/mercantile store in Dawson. She spent seven years there, dividing her time between running the restaurant and mercantile, donating goods and services to everyone from those down on their luck to orphans, and gold mining on the side. She was responsible for funding hospitals and helping to fund and build churches.

Following her time in Dawson, Nellie’s adventuresome spirit led her to travel all over the Alaskan territory seeking those elusive whispers of golden nuggets. She even founded a mining company, the Midnight Sun Mining Company, and traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities in the States seeking to find investors.

Her long life of adventure and charitable works ended when she died on January 4, 1925, from pneumonia.

Nellie Cashman’s life may have ended in 1925, but her legacy lives on in many ways. Many business organizations throughout the western states honor women business owners with awards in Nellie’s name. The Women Business Owners (WBO) community in Seattle, Washington, for example, present the WBO Nellie award annually in her name — “to share the inspiration of our most prominent women entrepreneurs and business owners” in the Puget Sound region.

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