Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Nellie Cashman
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Nellie Cashman (c. 1845-1925), “Angel of the Mining Camps,” wore many hats: nurse, businesswoman, restaurateur, Catholic philanthropist. For decades she prospected across the American West for gold, in the process giving most of her money to charity.
Stories abound that perhaps skate a fine line between truth and fiction. “Nellie Cashman: The Story of A Real-Life Dime Novel Heroine,” a 2017 piece by Marshall Trimble in True West Magazine, recounts many of them.
She was born Ellen Cashman in County Cork, Ireland. her family was Catholic and poor. One account of her beginnings has it that her father died when Nellie was young and that shortly afterward she, her sister Fannie, and her mother immigrated to Boston, then found their way to San Francisco by way of Panama.
Fannie soon married. Nellie, though petite and attractive, chose not to. She set out to make her way in some of the roughest mining camps in the West, declaring, “If you act like a lady, men will treat you like one.”
A shrewd businesswoman, her strategy was to arrive in a town that was on the cusp of a boom, establish a thriving business, then sell at the height of the market and leave before the boom turned to bust.
Around 1872, she hit Nevada, opening at least one restaurant and a boarding house. It was probably in British Columbia two years later that she began to be known as “The Angel of the Mining Camps.” She organized a daring rescue of a group of stranded miners, snowshoeing up a mountain as part of a team that dragged a sled with 1,500 pounds of donated provisions.
She arrived in Tombstone in 1880. When Fannie’s husband died of tuberculosis the following year, Nellie invited Fannie and her five children to join her there. Fannie herself died two years later, at which point Nellie undertook the full care and education of the children. She befriended the five convicted perpetrators of the Bisbee Massacre and helped prevent their hanging from becoming a public massacre.
A champion fundraiser, Nellie established Tombstone’s first Catholic church, Sacred Heart. “Whether the money comes from an upstanding citizen or a member of the outlaw faction makes no difference to me,” she once noted. What mattered was that the money helped humanity.
She went on to help build schools, churches, and hospitals throughout the West. Her many beneficiaries included Sisters of Saint Anne, the Salvation Army, and Saint Matthew’s, the first hospital in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“Pretty as a Victorian cameo, and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails” was how one wag described her. On a prospecting trip to Baja, California, Nellie was said to have saved the party of more than twenty from dying of thirst. On another trip to Mexico, she purportedly took control of the boat from the drunken captain and landed it safely in Guaymas.
She scoured South Africa in the late 1880’s, looking for diamonds. Near the turn of the century, she joined the gold rush to the Klondike. She opened restaurants and grocery stores, continued to aid the miners, and in her seventies, legend has it, became known as the “Champion Woman Musher of the Yukon.”
She died at Victoria, British Columbia, on January 4, 1925, in St. Joseph’s, a hospital that she had helped to establish some fifty years previously.