Born in the village of Beaverdam in Hanover County, Virginia, Page popularized the plantation tradition genre of Southern writing. His 1887 collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia, is the quintessential work of that genre. Another short-story collection of his is entitled The Burial of the Guns (1894).
He was married to Anne Seddon Bruce on July 28, 1886. She died on December 21, 1888 of a throat hemorrhage. Page then wed Florence Lathrop Field, a widowed sister-in-law of retailer Marshall Field, on June 6, 1893, remaining with her until his death.
A scion of the prominent Nelson and Page families, he attended Washington College and the University of Virginia in pursuit of a legal career and was a lawyer in Richmond between 1876 and 1893, when he moved to Washington. Here he kept up his writing, which amounted to eighteen volumes when they were compiled and published in 1912. Under Woodrow Wilson, Page served as U.S. ambassador to Italy for six years between 1913 and 1919. His book entitled Italy and the World War (1920) is a memoir of his service there.
Nelson was an activist in stimulating the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to mobilize to save historical sites at Yorktown and elsewhere, especially in the Historic Triangle of Virginia, from loss to development. He was involved in gaining Federal funding to build a seawall at Jamestown in 1900, protecting a site where the remains of James Fort were recently discovered by archaeologists working on the Jamestown Rediscovery project which began in 1994.
A cousin, William Nelson Page (1854-1932), was a builder of the Virginian Railway. The Page family was one of the First Families of Virginia, which began with the arrival at Jamestown of Colonel John Page in 1650 (a founder of Middle Plantation), and included Mann Page, U.S. Congressman and Governor John Page.
The ruins of Rosewell Plantation, the home of early members of the Page family and one of the finest mansions built in the colonies, sit on the banks of the York River in Gloucester County. In 1916, a fire swept the mansion leaving a magnificent shell which is testament to 18th century craftsmanship and dreams, and the site ongoing archaeological studies.
The 1915 silent movie The Outcast is based on a short story of Page's from The Land of the Spirit.