Gold Rush Queen – Thora Kerr Illing

During my research for the BC Folk Song Project, I’ve come across the formidable Nellie Cashman a few times. When I came across her detailed biography on the ferry, I’d already written Whoah, Nellie. The song is based on her daring trip up the frozen Stikine River in the dead of winter to rescue a party of stranded miners from the menace of scurvy.

That trip took almost eighty days, exposed her to wolves, avalanches, freezing wind, and a considerable deviation from the trail, but by all reports she was never anything other than cheerful. Despite these delays, she arrived in time to save the miners from an excruciating death with her shipment of potatoes and lime.

It should not have surprised me, given the magnitude of that act of heroism, that Cashman’s entire life was filled with adventure. Every cowboy town you’ve ever heard of, she was there, hob-nobbing with the likes of Wyatt Earp, running restaurants, groceries and hotels, and wringing charitable donations from the townsfolk to fund hospitals and Catholic churches.

In an era when the well-traveled road for women involved marriage, children, and a voluntary surrender of personhood to become the ward of a man who controlled the family’s assets, Nellie never married. She had a terrific case of gold fever, and followed the rumours of hot strikes wherever they might lead. She often worked her own claims and generally dressed in men’s clothes because a skirt was useless attire for the wilderness.

From Ireland to Boston, from Mexico to Alaska, Cashman’s biography is a rich, meaty read.