- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

WINNEMUCCA, Nev. (AP) - A gravesite is sometimes referred to as a person’s “final resting place.”

But there has been no final rest for members of one pioneer mining family, the Nelsons, who were buried in the Humboldt Range near the mines where they had attempted to eke out a living after the Civil War.

Over the decades, the family’s graves have been repeatedly disturbed.

The Nelson family’s gravesite first came to the public’s attention in 2003, when a mining company applied to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection for a permit to mine in the area. It was obvious that someone was buried in the area because an ornate headstone was broken and lying on the ground in pieces.

The headstone bore the name of a little girl, Mary Nelson, who was 13 years old at the time of her death in 1883.

Ultimately, the company received the permit to mine and agreed to move the remains of Mary Nelson. However, when miners began digging, they found the remains of three others. They were identified as John and Eliza Nelson, Mary’s parents, and an unknown fourth man.

The company agreed to reinter the remains nearby. Mary Nelson’s headstone was removed and restored to await the day it would once again mark the gravesite of the Nelson family.

The company put the remains of the Nelsons in makeshift wooden coffins it fabricated, but it did not reinter them. Instead the coffins sat above ground and exposed to the elements - for two years.

What ensued was a bureaucratic nightmare in which there were allegations the family’s remains were improperly and illegally removed, delaying their interment nearby.

The family was finally buried nearby during services in October 2005.

“We agree that it is a good feeling to know the Nelson family are finally at rest,” wrote Pansilee Larson, the director of the Humboldt Museum at the time.

Mary Nelson’s headstone was repaired and restored to its former elegance. The graves of her mother and father were also marked. The identity of the fourth person is unknown, but some speculated it was John Nelson’s brother, Vance Nelson.

But the Nelson family’s ordeal was not over.

In early October 2014, someone in the area stopped and checked on the gravesite, only to find Mary’s headstone had been knocked over, broken, and was once again lying in pieces on the ground.

When Mary’s grave marker was restored 10 years ago, two stainless steel rods were installed to connect the headstone to the base. Someone had taken a heavy object and pounded the rods in what looked like an effort to steal the headstone.

Historic grave markers can be sold for considerable sums to antique collectors. In one episode of the show American Pickers, the two stars of the show purchased a grave marker from the 1880s valued at $600-$700.

After public outcry, the History Channel released a statement indicating the grave marker was from a company that made headstone a long time ago. The company had many in storage that were ordered but never paid for, and the one featured on the show was not taken from anyone’s grave.

The vandalism to Mary Nelson’s headstone was reported to the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office, but it seems unlikely the culprit will ever be found.

A concerned person from the area picked up the broken pieces and took them back to his shop and has since contacted a company with expertise in headstones to determine if the headstone can be saved.

Until then, Mary Nelson’s final resting place is once again unmarked.

The story of the Nelson family’s journey from Ohio to the mining camps of the Humboldt Range - just as the dust was settling from the Civil War - was told by John and Eliza’s eldest son, William Nelson, in an undated newspaper article found in the files of the Humboldt Museum.

William Nelson said the family left Ohio and moved to Charleston, Illinois while his father went on to the gold fields of California, lured by stories of opportunity.

The article quotes William Nelson as saying, “At that time, a man’s claim extended as far around as he could make a circle with his shovel. The man next to him dug out wealth while Dad’s piece of land produced nothing.”

Looking for better opportunities than those in California, John Nelson made his way to Pershing County and was then joined by his family.

The family’s presence in Pershing County was noted in the 1870 Census. The 1880 Census shows John Nelson, his wife Eliza Nelson, and six children ranging in age from 3 months to 21 years old.

John identified himself as a gold digger and Eliza’s occupation was listed as keeping house.

However, mining was not as profitable as John Nelson would have hoped, and he later turned to farming.

John’s brother, Vance Nelson, mined a bit longer than his brother. However his luck ran out when a substantial amount of his gold was stolen just days before it was to be shipped. He, too, turned to farming and ranching.

The Nelson family’s time in the Humboldt Range was marked by one tragic event after another. In addition to the death of Mary, and the loss of Vance Nelson’s gold, John Vance was killed in an accident in 1890.

A newspaper account published in the Silver State, dated Dec. 17, 1890, outlined how John Nelson died on the road home in an accident involving his horses and wagon.

“It was a sad, sad death and funeral. Think of the loving mother waiting for the kind and indulgent father to come home to supper, and then going down the road and finding the husband cold and rigid in death,” the article says.

Eliza Nelson died 10 years later and was buried with her husband and daughter.

William Nelson, who told the story of his family’s migration to Nevada, married Katie Thomas in 1874. Thomas was a member of the Thomas family that established a ranch near Winnemucca. A popular recreation area, Thomas Canyon, is named for the family.

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Information from: Elko Daily Free Press, https://www.elkodaily.com

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