On a day in 1884 when the Modoc stage swayed to a halt in Tombstone, the entire population rushed forward to bid a favorite citizen Godspeed—said citizen being Nellie Cashman known up and down the western map as the “Angel of Tombstone.”
Among the small group of men making the trip with her was M. E. Joyce, one time supervisor of Cochise County, and Mark A. Smith, later to become a senator from Arizona. But it was Nellie who intrigued the crowd, dressed in jeans, flannel shirt and wide Stetson with a miner’s pick over her shoulder. This was no pleasure trip for Nellie. With the men, she was heading for the rugged Baja California country to prospect for gold!
As the stage rocked, settled and took-off in a flurry of hoofs, Nellie’s mind roved over her kaleidoscopic life. Born in Queenstown, Ireland, she came to America with her parents, sister, and two brothers in 1868 to settle in Boston. But Nellie, in whose blood adventure flowed like quicksilver, found New England dull. One year later she and her sister, Kate, boarded a train on one of its first transcontinental trips from coast to coast and traveled to San Francisco. Shortly after their arrival, Kate accepted the advances of one Philip Cunningham and settled down to raising a family. Nellie, however, whose Irish beauty even surpassed that of Kate’s, turned a deaf ear to romance and gambled for adventure in the harsh frontier world.
She tried her hand in the diggin’s and came to know the game, but even though she made many strikes, she never grew rich. Her heart held such a deep desire to help unfortunates that every fortune she gained wound up in the hands of the needy.
In 1877 gold was discovered in the Cassiar district. Nellie joined the migratory flood that surged upon the northern wasteland and again proved to be an A-l musher and prospector, but here she suffered for the miners succumbing to scurvy from lack of vegetables and dedicated her wealth and the force of her personality to effecting delivery of commodities necessary to the health of the citizens.
In 1880, tragedy struck. Kate and her husband died, leaving five children. Nellie hurried to San Francisco to claim the orphans and moved her new family to Tombstone, a booming silver town that offered great promise. There she opened a restaurant, the Delmonico, and soon became a ministering angel to every down-and-outer who entered her door. Because of her generosity she earned a name which followed her the rest of her life—the “Angel of Tombstone.”
After four years in Arizona, word of a new gold field reached Nellie. A Mexican walked into the Palace Saloon one day and clumped a heap of nuggets on the bar. Instantly a crowd gathered. “Where did they come from?” Nellie asked, examining them and determining that they were pure gold. “Baja California, Seniorita. There’s plenty there, near Mulege,” he whispered. Then he cashed in his nuggets and disappeared, never to be seen in Tombstone again.
Most of the mining men believed the Mexican a con man and his story a hoax, but Nellie held faith. “He asked for no money,” she pointed out,” and he had no map to sell. And his nuggets were real. If anyone is interested in going to Baja California, count me in!”
Joyce, Smith and a few other men took up her challenge. “But where,” they asked, “in that long strip of lower California are such nuggets likely to be found?” Even a route to Mulege was questionable and the desert around it was vast. By this time an authority on gold, Nellie had a ready answer. “Since th enuggets were round and flat, I’d say they came from a river bed that has been dry for years, or else from under the surface of a lava bed.”
So a party was formed and Nellie set out for Baja California. At Sonora they crossed to Mulege by boat and made camp in the small village which had made little, if any, progress since its foundation two hundred years before. Over the surrounding country stretched wind fingered dunes and forbidding desert broken only now and then by scant green valleys.
“Let’s stay a few days,” suggested Nellie, “and if there’s gold near here the natives will surely know its source.” For a week they camped while Nellie made friends with the peons and visited them in their homes, but when gold was mentioned, they professed ignorance. And yet, Nellie was convinced that it was there. How else would the natives appear so prosperous? They were well fed, lived in comfortable homes and she found no sickness among them. “I’m going to ask point blank where they obtain their means,” she advised her discouraged companions. And she did.
“Ah, Senorita,” one peon told her, “we have no worries. The good Padre Pierre sees to that.” “And where might the Padre be?” Nellie persisted. “I see no mission here.” “Our mission is in the Golo Valley twenty-seven miles from here. It was started by the French when Maximilian was in Mexico. After they shot him, Father Pierre stayed to run the mission.”
With this, Nellie became convinced that the natives really did know nothing about the gold. Nevertheless, she felt sure it was there. “We might as well start looking for a placer in the dunes,” she told her men and they set forth under the scorching sun, digging in every likely spot. Still no color rewarded them. Days passed. One evening they discovered their water almost gone. “We’ll never make it home alive,” the men droned, close to panic.
Nellie controlled an urge to panic with them. “Tomorrow,” she declared, “I’m going, and I’ll bring back water. We have enough to last one more day.” At dawn she started across the dunes, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that she finally came upon a fertile valley spiked with casas. In its center sat a squat adobe mission where Father Pierre welcomed her and promised aid.
“But tonight, child, you must stay here,” he told her, offering to send a guide with her at dawn.
After a brief rest, Nellie set out in the cool of the evening to explore the valley. Soon she discovered herself on the desert again, walking along a dry river bed. As she stooped to test for gold, a voice startled her. “I know you came looking for gold,” Father Pierre said, coming to meet her. Then he pointed toward the tranquil valley. “There my children know peace and happiness. But think what would happen if you were to find gold! Prospectors would swarm into Mulege and not stop until the ground was stripped. And when they were gone, they’d be nothing left but misery.
“This gold is the staff of life for my children,” he continued. “Without it there would be no food, comforts nor medicine. Surely it is the will of God that it is here to help them. Anyone who takes it for his own use will defy God! Stark ruin will be our lot, should prospectors come here. Surely you wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.”
Nellie stared thoughtfully at the dry river bed. Her toe moved hesitantly to shift the rocky soil, and then patted it smooth. “Father,” she promised, “I found no gold here, and I will search no further. As long as I can guard your secret, there will be no gold rush to Mulege.”
Back with her party on the following morn, she distributed goat skin containers filled with water and admitted defeat, suggesting they return to Tombstone. Weary of heat and failure, the men agreed, and the dismal party returned home empty-handed, much to the razzing of those who had known better than to be taken in by the hoax of an itinerant Mexican con man. The others of her party suffered humiliation, but Nellie’s private woe was frustration. For her the chance of a lifetime bowed under the yoke of compassion and even though she swore she had not found gold in Mulege, she never quite brought herself to denying it still might exist there.
Unfortunately, it could have been her last big strike. When a new bonanza beckoned from Alaska, she trekked to the frozen north and there, in 1920, she died-the Angel of Tombstone.