If Father William Judge was known as the “Saint of Dawson,” then Nellie Cashman deserved the title of “Angel of the North.”
According to one observer, “Nellie Cashman led a humble life. Her principal business was to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, and her chief divertissement was to relieve those in distress and to care for the sick and afflicted.”
Nellie Cashman was a highly respected businesswoman, prospector and miner, and humanitarian in gold camps all over the United States (Including Alaska), British Columbia and the Yukon.
She was born into a poor Irish Catholic family in County Cork, Ireland, in 1845. Victims of the Irish Potato Famine, she and her mother and younger sister, Frances, emigrated to Boston in the United States when she was still young. It is not known whether her father died, or simply abandoned his family.
When she was 20 years old, the three women moved to San Francisco, where Frances married Thomas Cunningham and bore five children. Nellie first moved to a mining camp in Nevada in 1872 where she and her mother ran a boarding house, and therein followed a pattern of arriving early in new mining camps, and leaving before they had gone into decline.
She first came north to British Columbia in 1874 on the toss of a coin, heading to Dease Lake via the Stikine River in the remote Cassiar mining district. There she established a saloon and boarding house and made enough the first season to take a trip out with the onset of winter.
While Outside the winter of 1874-75, she learned of the plight of starving and scurvy-stricken Cassiar miners trapped in the snow-locked interior region. She enlisted the aid of a half-dozen men and returned with nearly a ton of supplies, including a quantity of potatoes and limes, and she nursed the sickened miners back to health. This was the first of many compassionate acts that earned her the “Angel” epithet.
Cashman, a devout Catholic, supported many churches, hospitals and schools, including the establishment of the hospital in Victoria that was run by the Sisters of St. Anne. But she was not sectarian in her compassionate work. Over the years, she supported the Salvation Army, the Episcopal church and other religious or civic groups that performed important social services in the remote mining camps of the north.
She left the Cassiar gold fields in 1877, and for the next 20 year, she gained respect while she prospected and ran other businesses in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Mexico, and even South Africa. When her brother-in-law Tom died in 1881, leaving her sister a widow with five children, she supported them, and when her sister died in 1884, she took over the sole responsibility of caring for the five orphaned nieces and nephews. In later years, her nephew Mike repaid her by sending her cheques for thousands of dollars, but she never cashed them.
She returned to Juneau in 1895 for a brief visit, and then after news reached the world of the Klondike strike, she came to the Yukon from 1898 to 1904. After that, she moved into Alaska, where she continued to mine until a few months before her death.
I decided to do some history hunting into Nellie Cashman’s activities in the Yukon. In the newspapers, she can be found making plans to go to the Klondike in the fall of 1897. She left Arizona and headed for San Francisco before the end of the year.
She was in Victoria in early March 1898, making plans to head to Wrangell and enter the Yukon via the route she was already familiar with: the Stikine route over the old Telegraph Trail. Instead, she ended up following the thousands who laboured over the Chilkoot Trail to the headwaters of the Yukon River. By the time she headed for Dawson City, she was more than 50 years old, but her durable temperament and her sturdy constitution served her well in the thriving gold rush camp.
While in Dawson City, she performed numerous charitable acts, raised money for the hospital, and helped down in their luck miners, all the while operating a restaurant and small grocery store. Like many others, she pursued mining at every opportunity, and engaged in the popular mining activity of litigation.
She eventually secured a share in Claim No. 19 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek, earning a cool $100,000 from the venture. Today, that would be worth more than $2.5 million, but she gave it all to charity or invested in more prospecting.
She became seriously ill late in 1902 and underwent major surgery. She was given one chance in 10 of surviving the procedure, but she recovered. Within months, she was again active with her mining claims.
Returning from a trip outside in February 1904, she stampeded to the Kluane goldfields, where she optimistically purchased several claims. She then continued north over the Dawson trail, on foot, in temperatures of minus 55 Celsius. Not bad for a woman just shy of 60 years of age!
Nellie moved on to Alaska, where she continued to prospect, speculate, and mine for another 20 years.
In the Fairbanks area, she helped to raise funds for the St. Matthews Episcopalian Hospital. She remained there until gold was found in the Koyukuk region.
In 1907, now more than 60 years old, she harnessed a dog team and mushed to the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. She was as tough as they came and almost twenty years later, on the verge of her 80th birthday, she mushed to Seward with her dog team and sled, a distance of 1,200 kilometres in 17 days, by running behind her team, or standing on the runners. She was going Outside to raise money for her mining.
A short time later, she was on her way back to her claims in the Koyukuk region. She turned back to Fairbanks with a case of pneumonia. When her health rallied, she made a second attempt to reach her claims but had to turn back 130 kilometres short of her objective.
Continuing to suffer from her lingering case of pneumonia, she headed south. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Victoria, the establishment she helped the Sisters of St. Anne to build 40 years earlier, she finally succumbed to her lingering illness on January 4, 1925 and was buried in the Ross Bay cemetery.
Cashman was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp that was released in October of 1994, and was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in 2006. Considering the historic stature that she has achieved in recent times, it is surprising how scant the historical record at first appears for her Dawson City years.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org