Nathan Harrison: Born a Slave, Died a San Diego Legend

Opening Spring 2020

Few people in the history of the United States embody ideals of the American Dream more than legendary African American San Diego homesteader Nathan Harrison (d. 1920). Harrison was a freed slave originally from Kentucky who lived in a small cabin on Palomar Mountain, located in northeastern San Diego County, from the 1850s to 1920. His is a story with prominent themes of overcoming staggering obstacles, forging something-from-nothing, and evincing gritty perseverance. In a lifetime of hard-won progress, Harrison survived the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, endured the mania of the California Gold Rush, and prospered in the rugged chaos of the Wild West.
 
Developed in partnership with San Diego State University, this new exhibition at the San Diego History Center offers recent discoveries from archaeological excavations at the Nathan Harrison cabin site combined with in-depth research of historical accounts to offer new insights and perspectives into his biography, while also providing a fresh glimpse of everyday life in San Diego during the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era.
 
In this interactive exhibition, visitors will experience the bumpy journey up Palomar Mountain to visit Nathan Harrison in his cabin, view artifacts to help solve historical mysteries concerning Harrison’s private life, see archaeologists at work on the mountain, and participate in a mock excavation.
 
The struggles and hardships that Nathan Harrison faced were likely typical for ex-slaves such as himself, and his story offers insights into the broader experiences of Southern California’s African American community. However, as Born a Slave, Died a San Diego Legend will show through the close examination of what we know about one man’s life, Harrison’s response and actions were extraordinary indeed. Using historical research, stories, and archaeological findings, this exhibition weaves together a narrative of Nathan Harrison and his ability to counter prejudice to achieve acceptance by the many different communities he encountered.