Nell Shipman (Helen Foster Barham) was born into a family of English immigrants and decided at a young age that she wanted to be on the stage. The family was in Seattle, Washington, when she won the ingenue role in At Yale, a play for Paul Gilmore's travelling theatre company. At the age of 13 she began travelling, sometimes accompanied by her mother, with vaudeville shows and in theatre stock companies. At 18 she married Canadian theatre promoter Ernest Shipman, and by the age of 22 she had earned a professional reputation as a screenwriter and director as well as an actor. In 1915 her romantic thriller, Under the Crescent, was published.
Nell Shipman's first starring role in a major film was in the silent movie God's Country and the Woman (1916), which was an overnight success. Starring roles in 10 other films, mostly for Vitagraph, were followed by a seven-year contract offer from Samuel Goldwyn in 1917. She turned it down in favour of starting her own independent production company with her husband and filming the highly successful melodrama Back to God's Country (1919), which she co-wrote and co-produced. Not only did it present Shipman in the first nude scene by a well-known actress, but it made a feminist statement: a woman was seen to have the ability and courage to behave both heroically and independently, even rescuing a man in distress. Strong, assertive female characters became a trademark of all Shipman's films.
Equally present in her movies were animals and the majestic backdrop of nature. After the breakup of her marriage in 1920, Shipman launched Nell Shipman Productions and proceeded to write, direct, star in and produce outdoor adventure movies that always featured a variety of "wild" animals. These were actually a travelling menagerie of 70 creatures that Shipman trained herself; they included bears, raccoons and skunks. She had a legendary ability to get animals to cooperate with her and spoke out against their inhumane treatment, which was common during filmmaking of the era.
Nell Shipman often did her own stunt work and this was the case in The Trail of the Arrow (1920), where with skill and daring her character drove an Essex car across the Mojave Desert while overcoming many dangerous situations from behind the wheel. Directed by Shipman, the story demonstrated that, as even the lead male character became convinced, women were perfectly capable of driving and deserved the right to vote, too.
None of Shipman's movies achieved the financial success of Back to God's Country. Small independent production companies were going out of business due to a monopoly of the major studios over production and distribution, and Nell Shipman Productions met the same fate. Shipman spent the rest of her life writing short stories, novels and screenplays but was never able to earn a comfortable living or achieve professional success again. Still, she stands out as a pioneer in the making of outdoor adventure movies and as a rare independent spirit among women involved in the filmmaking of the day.