Bounded on the northwest by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway and on the southeast by the James River, Nelson County ranges from rugged mountains and forests suitable for logging to gentle slopes with orchards and vineyards, and to good bottomlands that now often lie fallow. Formed in 1807 from Amherst County and named for Thomas Nelson Jr., a governor of Virginia in 1781, the county has a number of nineteenth-century houses that witnessed the area's early agricultural success. In the mid-nineteenth century the James River and Kanawha Canal brought easy transportation to eastern markets for the county's farmers and tobacco growers. River ports like Norwood on the James River are fading reminders of the importance of river traffic before the introduction of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century.
Recovery after the Civil War was steady but slow as evidenced by the scarcity of prosperous-looking buildings. Two exceptions are Oak Ridge (NE9) and Swannanoa (NE14). The early twentieth century saw rapid growth of the county's extractive industries, notably soapstone (see NE6), and of manufacturing. The Great Depression hit Nelson County early and hard, but had one happy side effect. The nostalgic writings of Earl Hamner Jr. about life in Nelson County during that period became the basis for the long-running television series The Waltons (see NE8). In 1969 Hurricane Camille killed more than one hundred people in the county and destroyed three hundred buildings. Today, the beauty of the mountains attracts tourists and brings new residents. The year-round gated resort of Wintergreen (NE13) is the county's largest employer.
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