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Archaeological Myth Busting

at Palomar Mountain's Nate Harrison Site
By Seth Mallios

Legends of Nate Harrison loom large in the historical lore of San Diego County. Mythical stories abound of the region's first African-American homesteader, this former slave from the South who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries atop Palomar Mountain. The tall tales have grown over time. Each subsequent generation has added to Harrison's larger-than-life status as mountain man, pioneer, and emancipated slave. Current popular myths maintain that he made his coffee strong by adding a lizard to the grinds, that he could tame even the wildest of horses, and that he escaped slavery on a raft down the Mississippi River, just like "Jim" in Mark Twain's 1884 classic Huckleberry Finn.

The Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project was started in 2004 in the hopes of adding a new and empirically-based narrative to this local legend. This 21st-century account of Nate Harrison is grounded in archaeological artifacts, the individual material reflections of everyday life from a century ago. San Diego State University students participating in five years of annual summer field schools on the west side of Palomar Mountain have unearthed over 20,000 artifacts and the original stone foundation and dirt floor of Harrison's cabin site. In the process, they have helped to debunk some of the common myths about this famed Palomar pioneer.

Pioneer Nate Harrison at his cabin on the west side of Palomar Mountain in the early 1900s

Discerning fact from fiction regarding the details of Nate Harrison's life is no simple matter; even some of the most seemingly reliable sources present glaring historical contradictions. For example, the San Diego Union errantly reported in 1884 that Harrison had drowned, historical census records in 1880 separately listed his birth state as Kentucky and Alabama, and his birth year on various 19th-century voting records ranges from 1822 to 1835. Nonetheless, a majority of contemporary primary sources and maps suggest a somewhat reliable chronology for Harrison that includes his birth in the American South during the 1820s or '30s, his migration to California during the Gold Rush, and his eventual settlement atop Palomar Mountain during the second half of the 19th century. Harrison's final years are well chronicled, concluding with his death from natural causes at San Diego County Hospital on October 10, 1920.

What did Nate Harrison do at his hillside homestead? A survey of 20th-century accounts written after his demise suggest that Harrison was a hermit, spending his days alone with few possessions and subsisting on handouts from infrequent visitors. Recently uncovered archaeological remains verify the site in question as Harrison's historical homestead; the scientific survey and excavations successfully located and unearthed Harrison's main cabin, patio, and orchard and identified them as part of his frontier settlement, occupied from approximately 1865 to 1919. However, the artifacts raise doubts concerning some of the other stories regarding Harrison, especially those describing him as isolated, destitute, and lazy. On the contrary, the material remnants of daily life suggest that Harrison's home was frequented by many visitors, including women and children, that he owned a range of ornate goods from across the world, and that he processed animal hides as part of a self-sustainable cottage industry.

Aerial photograph of San Diego State University student archaeologists excavating the foundation of the stone cabin in the summer of 2006

According to various 20th-century accounts, Nate Harrison was "Palomar's hermit" and had only "the comradeship of the wild things." The SDSU archaeological team has uncovered artifacts that suggest the presence of women and children at the site, including a cosmetic tin with white make-up, a toy tea cup, and two marbles. Furthermore, dozens of recently archived historical photographs from the early 1900s reveal that Harrison entertained numerous guests and was a tourist attraction for many early San Diegans. It is worth noting that there are more different contemporary historical photographs of Nate Harrison than any other 19th-century San Diegan. Harrison may have chosen to live by himself on Palomar Mountain, but he was neither isolated nor alone.

Certain historical narratives suggested that "Nate [Harrison] didn't have any money... [and] was poor." However, SDSU student archaeologists found a variety of high-status items in and around his cabin. The material assemblage from the site included silver-plated silverware, assorted coins, fancy suspenders and garters, and other ornate goods. In addition, artifacts found at the site were originally produced in areas far from Palomar Mountain, including Germany, England, Chicago, and San Francisco. Like many 19th-century pioneers living on the frontier, Nate Harrison had occasional access to a variety of cosmopolitan goods. He was not destitute.

An early 20th-century photograph shows Nate Harrison at his patio, his primary work area, next to a stack of animal hides

Overt ethnic epithets are commonplace in many of the historical accounts involving Nate Harrison; the road leading to his homestead was officially named "Nigger Nate Grade" until the NAACP successfully petitioned to have it changed in 1955. Less-obvious racial slurs and stereotypes also permeate Harrison's legend, including assertions that he was a lazy black man. Years after his passing, some writers claimed that he "never did a solid day's work" and that he "was absolutely allergic to labor of any kind." It is difficult to assess character traits archaeologically; individual historical artifacts rarely reveal something as specific as one's work ethic. However, the overall assemblage from the site has an overwhelming amount of sheep bones, multiple sheep shears, and two of the historical photographs show stacks of animal hides. Multiple lines of archaeological evidence suggest that Nate Harrison ran his own cottage industry at the site, raising sheep and processing wool, hides, and possibly meat on a regular basis.

Nate Harrison Cabin by Marjorie Reed, oil on canvas, 1952. Courtesy Valley Center History Museum

Even though current San Diego lore often portrays Nate Harrison as alone, poor, and avoidant of work, extensive evidence from the Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project reveals that Harrison engaged many visitors, owned a variety of ornate goods, and participated in a multi-faceted sheep industry. Archaeology is especially well-suited at busting historical myths. Whereas written accounts are carefully crafted by authors who are often all too aware of their audience, archaeological artifacts are originally deposited in the ground with far less agenda, bias, and purpose. It is for this reason, that they reflect a more democratic history.

All photos courtesy Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project.

About the author Dr. Seth Mallios is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at San Diego State University and Director of the South Coastal Information Center. He has written three books and has four active archaeological projects: the San Diego Gravestone Project, the Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project, the Lost WPA-Murals of SDSU Project, and the Whaley House Historical Archaeology Project.

Volume 42 - 2011


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The Hawaiian Connection

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Temple Beth Israel

Archaeological Myth Busting

Chicano Park & its Wondrous Murals

Sleeping Porches & Suffragist Banners

Most Endangered List of Historic Resources

Windemere Cottage

People In Preservation Winners

In Memoriam

Preservation Community

Recent Acquisitions

Save Balboa Park

Lost San Diego

Strength in Numbers

Donations 2010-2011


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