By Laura M. James
If you go to Palomar Mountain by the old West Grade road, just as you enter the trees, pause and go back from the road a short distance. You will find a small clearing, a pile of rocks, a few dead apricot trees, and a dry dilapidated watering trough. The rocks once formed the walls of a small house, the trees were part of a lovely orchard, and the watering trough once overflowed with cold mountain spring water.
In former years here lived at the roadside an old Negro man who was friend to both man and beast. All who traveled this steep grade, which, for years was the only road connecting the mountain with the valley below, looked forward to reaching this spot. They knew that they would be met by this small, smiling man who would first hand them a gourd of ice-cold water, then see that their horse was watered, or their boiling radiator cooled, as the case might be.
“Nigger Nate” was a friendly person, yet very little is known of his early life. All of his life story was never told, even to his best friends, and, try as hard as they would, no one could ever get him to tell the name of his master, for Nate was once a slave. When he passed on in 1920 his true story was buried with him.
There are many versions as to how he came to California. Some say he was the body servant to an Army officer who brought him around the Horn to the gold diggings in the northern part of the state. In order to get to make the trip he had promised to work in the mines for the officer. This he did for one day, then declared his independence, and went to work on his own, and for years did freighting for the miners. Another story is that he came from Kentucky to Sedalia, Missouri, where he waited for several months while a wagon train was being made up to come overland to Merced and on to the mines. However, the following is what Nate told two of his friends, one a lady from the South who lived for years on the mountain, and the other an Indian friend who used to spend a lot of time up at the cabin.
Nate told them he was from the state of Mississippi. When a boy of about sixteen he and a number of other slaves were put up for auction. As he was small of stature (caused, he claimed, because as a child he had been worked so hard and fed so little) he was not attractive to buyers. They were looking for large strong men to work in the fields. During the excitement of the auction Nate saw a chance to slip away. He dropped into the river, and swam and floated for miles. At last he came to a landing where a side-wheel steamer was taking on fuel. He stole into the fuel bunker. There he stayed for days. He lost track of the number, and when he finally saw a chance to get out, he was almost starved to death. He hid out in the woods all day. When the lights in a nearby farm house went out at night, and he figured everyone would be asleep, he crept up to the house and ate food that had been set out for the dogs. He said that was the besttasting food he had eaten in all his life.
What his story was in connection with the long miles and years that stretched between the Mississippi River and California is subject for dispute. Mrs. Elsie Crooks, of Escondido, who is the granddaughter of one of California’s early pioneers tells this story:
Her grandfather, John Welty, brought his family to California in a covered wagon train. At one point they met another party at a river, and the two outfits helped each other to cross. When they were across the Welty’s train came right on. They wanted the others to come with them, but for some reason the other group wanted to lay over a day. They laid plans to overtake the Welty train at a place where the two outfits planned to rest for several days. When they did not arrive as planned, Grandfather Welty rode back to see what was delaying them. He found that the Indians had killed them all, burned their wagons, and made off with their stock. As he was returning to his outfit, he came upon a women, a baby, and a Negro. They had managed to escape by hiding in some tules and willows. For fear the Indians would track them, they had put some of their clothing over their shoes, and were endeavoring to reach the others on foot.
Later, when the Welty train reached a fort, the woman and baby were left in order that they might return to the East with the first outfit going that way, but the Negro came on to California. He was Nate.
The wagon train arrived in San Bernardino in 1864. Almost all of the company settled in or near that city, but a few drifted south into San Diego County. Grandfather Welty first settled up in the mountains back of San Bernardino, where he established the first saw mill in that district. After being burned out twice by the Indians he moved his family to the Temecula Canyon, to a place called in more recent years the Keating Ranch. Mrs. Crooks says that as a child she spent a lot of time with her grandparents, and that there was never a gathering of the San Bernardino friends that Nate did not attend. Everyone always seemed exceptionally glad to see him. He would often come up to the ranch, and after spending several days would say he was going on up to San Bernardino to see the folks, meaning the other members of the wagon train. She remembers him as always laughing and as a great hand to play jokes on the children.
The first home that we hear of Nate having was in the Rincon Valley. Later he took up a homestead on the south slope of Palomar Mountain. Here he lived for years, clearing a small part of the land, planting an orchard, and raising horses. He had the one price of $150 for his horses, regardless of age, size, or kind. And he insisted he be paid in gold. He said he wanted no truck with silver or folding money. During the summer months he acted as herdsman for a Temecula man who ran a large herd of sheep on the mountain. During the winter months he did odd jobs for his friends in the valley, and was always in demand at hog killing time.
People going to and from the mountain would always remember Nate and take him choice bits of food. These he greatly enjoyed, and amused the givers by telling them, “Just wait till I get my tooth in it.” For years he only had one tooth in his head. Especially he appreciated a bottle of liquor, right up to his dying day. He always said he had been raised on corn liquor. For years he rode a white horse. He usually rode at a walk, but his friends could tell just how much he had imbibed by the way he rode. The more liquor consumed, the faster the horse was made to travel, until sometimes he would go up the mountain at a dead run.
Evidently he was not too careful a cook, for an Indian friend tells of going there one day, and, upon finding the coffee pot almost filled with coffee grounds, he decided to empty them and make fresh coffee. Down near the bottom of the pot he found a large lizard that had been boiled over and over.
Nate claimed that the meat of all wild animals was good to eat. One fall his friend Juan Disperto went up to gather acorns. Nate saw him eyeing a string of jerky that he had drying, and told him to take what he wanted of it. When ready to go home Juan took a liberal supply. In a couple of weeks he was back for more acorns. Nate asked him how he liked the jerky, and he replied it was the best he had ever eaten. It was then that Nate told him that it was not deer meat but mountain lion. This made Disperto very angry, and he went on down the mountain without gathering any acorns.
Nate was thrifty in some ways. After he had chewed his tobacco for a long time he would put it out to dry and smoke it in his pipe. One Indian says that the pipe was so strong that all he had to do was to put a coal in it and he could have a good smoke.
Nate was a friend of the Indians and the Indians were friends of Nate’s, so much so that he was adopted into their tribes to the extent that he could take part in their ceremonial dances. He was present at all the fiestas. Late in life he accepted the Catholic faith and was baptized by Max Peter’s mother.
For years, when asked his age, he would reply that he would be seventy-six this coming New Year’s Day. From things he said people figured he was over a hundred when Dr. Milton Bailey persuaded the old man to let him take him to the San Diego County Hospital, where he passed away.
Friends collected money and had a monument erected by the spring at the entrance to his mountain home. It is of native stone; a copper plate set in bears the following inscription:
Brought here a slave about 1848
Died October 10th, 1920, aged 107 years
“A man’s a man for a’ that.”