Victoria can claim Nellie Cashman, a great pioneer

Gold Rush Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Nellie Cashman
By Thora Kerr Illing
Touchwood, 213 pages, $18.95
 
Nellie Cashman was a century ahead of her time, a woman determined to make a success of herself in business, and without a man by her side.

She was strong and brave, ready to go places and do things that would make weaker souls recoil. She was one of the great women — and one of the great pioneers, regardless of gender — in the Southwest and the North.

Cashman’s links to Victoria might not seem strong, but they are more valid than her links to any other community. Cashman had trouble, it seems, staying in one spot.

Gold Rush Queen, by Sidney author Thora Kerr Illing, is a comprehensive biography of Cashman, tracing her life from her birthplace in Ireland, through the United States a few times, through British Columbia and the Yukon a few times, to her final resting place at Ross Bay Cemetery.

Cashman came to Victoria for the first time in 1873, when she was gathering provisions, along with a couple of hundred men, to join the gold rush in the Cassiar district of northern British Columbia.  

She worked as a miner and ran a boarding house and saloon, and returned to Victoria at the end of the following year.

That winter, she heard that many miners were stranded in the Cassiar area without supplies. She hired six local men, persuading them to join her in a rescue mission. That earned her high praise and respect from the miners and the people of Victoria.

In 1875, she helped raise funds for the construction of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which was being built in Victoria by the Sisters of St. Ann. Then she headed south, eventually settling in Arizona Territory.

She returned to Victoria in 1898 after spending more than two decades in the American Southwest. Again she was pulled north by the lure of gold, this time the Klondike discoveries in the Yukon, and she needed supplies.

Cashman headed to Alaska after her time in the Klondike, and was still working as a miner when she fell ill with pneumonia.

After being treated in hospital in Fairbanks, she asked to be taken to St. Joseph’s in Victoria, where she died in January 1925 at the age of 80.

In her remarkable life, Cashman proved that women could be as tough and as adventurous as men.

She met some of the most remarkable people of her time, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Robert W. Service.

She set an example for those men, we can be sure, as well as thousands of others.

In compiling this biography, the author has drawn from previous biographies of Cashman, as well as many other books on the Klondike gold rush and other related topics. She also relied on accounts in newspapers, including the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist.

The book would have been stronger with some maps and a chronology of Cashman’s life, since both of these things would have helped readers keep track of what she was up to, and when and where.

Cashman was a busy person, so we could have used a play-by-play.

Those points aside, Gold Rush Queen is certainly worth reading. Victoria can claim Nellie Cashman as one of its own, and this biography will make her accomplishments known to a wider range of readers.

Her life is one we should celebrate. Gold Rush Queen helps to make that possible.

The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.

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