Robert Nelson has felt the heartache of discovering one’s family story has been lost to history. While researching his great-great-great grandparents’ role in aiding abolitionist John Brown in southeast Nebraska, Nelson learned that several boxes of Civil-War-era family letters and documents had been destroyed 70 years before.
A relative who had preserved the family documents had died. The next generation didn’t see the value of the story told in the mouldering papers stored in her attic. And so, a story of great interest to later generations was hauled to the dump, and, in this case, a full accounting of a pioneer village’s role in shepherding slaves out of the South could never be told.
Nelson has written more than 3,000 stories in his 25 years of writing for magazines and newspapers in Nebraska, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Texas. His work, which has earned more than 100 state, regional and national awards, often began with a conversation in which a source argued that his or her story was not worth telling. Invariably, the person told an interesting story, and by getting that story on the record, it was recorded for posterity.
Along the way, Nelson spent seven years in Arizona as an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist. During his time in Arizona, he was twice runner-up for Arizona Journalist of the Year, twice winner of the John Kolbe Government and Politics Award and winner of the 2006 Thurgood Marshall Award for Print Journalism. He was also awarded the top national prize for alternative newsweekly columnists. In 2005, one of his long-form features was included in the HarperCollins anthology, Best American Crime Writing.
While living in Chandler, Ariz., Nelson began diving into his family’s history in southeastern Arizona, where two great-great uncles settled in 1869. One of those uncles, John Dorrington, owned and edited the Yuma Sentinel for 30 years. Another uncle, Elisha Reavis, became the famed hermit farmer known as the “Madman of the Superstitions,” who earned his name by successfully repelling a small Apache war party by brandishing two butcher knives, stripping naked, unleashing a terrifying howl and charging the group with fearless abandon. That research led to the book, Early Yuma, which was written as part of a larger project led by historian and author Jack August to better preserve and promote Arizona’s regional histories.
Nelson now lives in the Washington, D.C. area at the base of the Blue Ridge with his wife and youngest son. His middle son remained in Omaha to pursue his engineering degree. Nelson’s oldest son is finishing up his civil engineering degree at the University of Kentucky. The family has made a five-year plan to relocate to be closer to each other. Like so many Nebraskans throughout the last 150 years, they are aiming for Arizona.