Nelson was the son of Hannah and was and African American child enslaved by Robert M. Smith, who took him to Utah. Nelson was listed as "Nat" in the company report.
At that time, a designation of "yellow" may be indicative of a multi-racial background. While the 1860 Census listed her "color" as "M" for mulatto. "Mulatto" was a term used to identify individuals with mixed racial backgrounds.
There is some inconsistency concerning the correct first name (Nelson or Nathaniel) as both seemed to be used interchangeably in primary and secondary sources. However, at this time it is believed that Nelson and Nathaniel are the same person. Nelson's exact birth year is unknown as records imply a birth year ranging between 1843 and 1847. "John Brown's company of 10, report," listed Nelson's (Nat) age as 3.
While still enslaved, Nelson and his family were taken to California (by Robert M. Smith) where they eventually gained their freedom. In the 1860 census, Nelson was listed under the surname "Sunily.