San Diego History Center | Virtual Exhibit

Nathan Harrison - Born Enslaved, Died a San Diego Legend

Nathan Harrison’s life was significant and remains of great consequence to San Diego, California, and American histories. His story brims with themes of prevailing against staggering hardships, forging something from nothing, and demonstrating unwavering perseverance. As such, Harrison’s life was intriguing, insightful, and inspirational. His story is clearly worth being told.

Discover The Time Period

  1. 1850s The California Gold Rush

    Wasn’t California a Free State?

    Although California was admitted to the Union as a “free state” in 1850, the Golden State was no land of equality for African Americans. California’s laws discriminated against Blacks, preventing real freedom for most of the more than 2,000 that lived in the state by 1852. In one legal loophole, California explicitly denied the freedom claims of enslaved African Americans if they were brought into California by gold-seeking whites. In other instances, some California slave owners simply refused to liberate their slaves. Since Nathan Harrison was brought to California as an enslaved person during the Gold Rush, this meant that he was not free.

    What do these census documents show?

    Among details like how the federal government classified enslaved people, these documents evidence the movement of Nathan Harrison from east to west, arriving in Santa Clara, California by 1852.

    1830 Census, Caldwell Kentucky“Schedule of the Whole Number of Persons within the Division Allotted to…”

    Lists Benjamin O. Harrison (enslaver) as head of household containing one free male 20-29 years of age; one free white male 50-59 years of age; one free white female 20-29 years of age; one male slave under 10 years old; and one female slave 20-29 years old.

    1840 Census, Pettis, Missouri“Schedule of the Whole Number of Persons within the Division Allotted to…”

    Lists Benjamin O. Harrison (enslaver) as head of household with one free colored male age 24-35, and an additional six enslaved persons ranging in age from children to adults.

  2. 1860s The Civil War

    Why are there so many memorials to Confederates in Southern California?

    Southern California was a hotbed of Secessionist activity during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Former slaveholders and their sympathizers held most of the region’s elected offices, actively defied policies of the Lincoln administration, and even marched in support of the Confederacy. In fact, Judson Ames, editor of San Diego’s first newspaper, openly lobbied for California to be divided into two, with the north being free and the south being a slave state. This bigoted legacy continued for decades as California refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution (which granted citizenship and voting rights for African Americans) until 1959 and 1962, nearly 90 years after they were passed nationally.

    A monument to buried Confederate soldiers sits in the historic city-owned Mt. Hope Cemetery under an American flag.

  3. 1870s The Gilded Age

    Why wasn’t the Gilded Age a prosperous time for all?

    During the last two decades of the 19th century, the US economy rose at a historic rate. It was also a period in which race relations in the US plummeted. In the pursuit of wealth and status, unethical business practices became commonplace, with the most vulnerable being blatantly exploited in order to maximize profits.

    African Americans in particular were regularly robbed of their already limited rights. In the wake of a surge of white supremacy and lynching, they lived in a constant state of fear. Nearby Escondido was an infamous “sundown town,” a municipality where the use of violence and intimidation was allowed in order to forbid non-whites from being within the city limits after dark. Nathan Harrison’s proximity to this location of sanctioned violence, and the inherent discrimination of this time and place meant he had to be constantly on guard. His world was full of scams, scoundrels, and sundown towns.

    This Murine Eye Remedy bottle, one of the first items uncovered by archaeologists at the site, is typical of the many snake-oil products being pushed by duplicitous vendors during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    Company founders even created a fake college with fraudulent degrees to bolster the bogus claims of their dubious product!

  4. 1870s - 1890s Tourism Destination

    What can we learn from the timeless persona Harrison cultivated?

    By the turn of the 20th century, Nathan Harrison had become one of San Diego’s primary tourist destinations. Visitors embarked on a journey that took them through quintessential California terrain and projected a sense of conquering the West. What originally started as a horse-drawn wagon ride up a narrow dirt path would later become a formidable test for early automobiles up the newly widened but still bumpy county road. Once visitors reached Harrison, they found that his homestead occupied a unique spot in place as well as time. At the same moment that Harrison entertained his visitors with stories of the Old West, he poured water into their car radiators, and even engaged with surveyors looking for the perfect spot for what would end up being world’s largest telescope only decades later. The trek up Palomar Mountain is still a steep one through a rugged landscape that unites past, present, and future.

Transformative Journey

Nathan Harrison’s life’s journey—like the grade that still bears his name up Palomar Mountain—was precipitous, riveting, and full of surprises. The spectacular trek to visit Nathan Harrison at his hillside homestead was popular for Southern California tourists during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when many Americans embarked on such trips that symbolized this age of the spectacle. Tourists traveled to Palomar Mountain to verify the tales that circulated about the famous Palomar pioneer.

Visitors came bearing gifts of “provisions and clothing,” which consisted of cans of sardines, a pair of jeans, and a bottle of whiskey. In exchange for these gifts, Harrison posed for photos, offered his visitors water, and regaled them with wondrous stories of the mountain—much to the delight of his mesmerized visitors.

Visit the Cabin

Harrison’s cabin bore a striking resemblance to enslaved peoples’ quarters of the Antebellum South.Harrison could have easily created a much larger structure or fashioned a house with entirely different dimensions. Instead, he built his home in a form that he knew well and that others expected of him.

Nathan Harrison Seated by Cabin | Courtesy of the Kirby Collection

Nathan’s Cabin

Harrison’s cabin bore a striking resemblance to enslaved peoples’ quarters of the Antebellum South. Though some 3,000 miles from the heart of the Confederacy, constructed after the Civil War, and assembled by a free person, Harrison’s Palomar Mountain home was square in plan, small in inner dimensions (11’ sides), and made of local stone, a split-shake roof, and a dirt floor. As contemporary Ed Davis emphasized, “A log house was the ordinary style of architecture in the mountain,” but Harrison chose to construct and inhabit a kind of cabin seen virtually nowhere else in San Diego County.

Recreation of Nathan Harrison’s Cabin on display at The San Diego History Center

Nathan Harrison Seated Outside Cabin

Nathan’s Dual Identities

Hundreds of tourists braved the mountain road and were regaled by Nathan Harrison, the famed Palomar pioneer with deep roots in the Antebellum South. They knew him as a jovial and generous host, who was never short on hospitality or fantastical tales of his time in the Wild West. Visitors had their picture taken with him, were refreshed with ice-cold water from his mountain spring, and delighted in his often self-deprecating old-timey yarns. Artifacts found in his cabin by archaeologists—like a silver quarter from 1899, a bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin, and the back plate to his pocket watch—reflected his daily activities and interactions with the public.

This 1899 Silver Barber or Liberty Quarter was one of six coins found at the site, totaling $0.47.

This Gordon’s Dry Gin bottle was one of many alcohol bottles found at the site, including vessels from England, Germany, and other distant locales.

Time-related artifacts abounded at the site, included this gilded watch case (left) and a central watch component (right).

And yet, visitors were totally unaware of Nathan Harrison’s secret double life. He had a second name, a second identity, and a second community that only historical archaeology could fully uncover and explain. Harrison was baptized Catholic by Rincon Indian Chief Juan Sotelo Calac. He was given the name “Ines,” became fluent in the Luiseño language, married an indigenous woman, and became a full tribal member who was even allowed to dance in ritual ceremonies. This Ines Harrison kept his associations quiet as Catholics were heavily persecuted in the Old West, and the US was actively at war with the local indigenous population.

Chief Juan Sotelo Calac and his wife Encarnacion at the Rincon Indian Reservation in 1933. Both individuals played significant roles in the life of Nathan Harrison; in fact, Encarnacion Calac was Harrison’s godmother.

Harrison, who had successfully endured the horrors of slavery and the Gold Rush, was skilled at surviving. He kept ties to the indigenous community hidden, put strangers at ease with his gracious and non-threatening demeanor, and concealed any aspect of his life that might appear too progressive, like self-armament or literacy. He owned a rifle, but kept it hidden from visitors as, according to California state law, “the sale of firearms or munitions to California Indians or to persons known to associate with Indians” was prohibited. In addition to the site containing hundreds of fired rifle cartridges, it also had multiple writing implements. Feigning illiteracy might have been a crucial survival technique for Harrison when making important civil strides, like registering to vote, claiming water, and owning land. The pen is mightier than the sword (or in this case, the rifle), but Harrison wisely chose to keep both a secret by keeping them out of virtually every picture and government document. It is fascinating to note that Harrison only admitted his literacy to the 1920 census taker when he was off the mountain, at the hospital, and no longer putting on an act for visitors.

Of the assemblage’s 201 fired rifle cartridges, over 50% were rim-fired .22s

The Nathan Harrison site contained multiple materials associated with writing, including a sharpened graphite pencil lead, a pen cap and clip, and multiple eraser components.

Was it really necessary for Harrison to be so strategic? Another former slave from Kentucky who homesteaded property in Southern California had a strikingly different experience. A man named John Ballard, who, like Harrison was a free black landowner in the late 1800s; but unlike Harrison he failed to temper his freedom, and white neighbors burned him off his Malibu property. Harrison did not push his independence, freedom, and non-white alliances on white San Diego. Furthermore, he convincingly playing the role of former slave by living apart, invoking self-deprecating humor, and posing for photographs. Harrison’s ever-present and ever-pleasant mask was yet another fable of the Reconstruction, one that was propagated across the South and in the Old West as well.

Experience the Excavation

Dr. Seth Mallios, professor of archeology at San Diego State University, and his student have worked at Harrison’s homestead location for two decades uncovering the mysteries and dynamics of Harrison’s life.

This map replicates the Harrison excavation on Palomar Mountain. Each “unit” is a 5x5 square and has been assigned unit identifiers. Click on the square to see what was uncovered in that unit.

Cabin corner

A Tour of the Excavation Site

Tools of the Trade

  1. We use a variety of tools like string, tape measures, and SURVEY FLAGS to map the area being excavated. A PLUMB BOB is a weight with a pointed tip on the bottom, suspended from a string and used as a vertical reference line. A TRANSIT helps map the three-dimensional features of the site.

    Survey Flags

    Plumb Bob


  2. When excavating, one of our most common tools is a TROWEL, which allows for the careful removal of dirt while keeping the soil level and uniform. This makes it easier for us to see any new features that may appear in the soil. Soil is scooped into DUSTPANS and dumped in BUCKETS.




    Coarse excavation: We use a SHOVEL when we need to excavate large amounts of soil. A MATTOCK is used to remove small trees or bushes that are in the way of excavation. Delicate excavation: BRUSHES gently remove soil from the artifacts. To break up the soil, a MINI PICKAXE is used.




    Mini Pickaxe

  3. Dirt must be pushed through a SCREEN after it is removed from each square to catch even the tiniest artifacts. After artifacts are screened, we carefully RECORD details of their location in the Excavation Register form and bag all items from the same layer together. We use a MUNSELL BOOK—a collection of color swatches with standardized numbers and names—to identify the exact color of the soil being excavated. This allows for relative consistency in recording soil color.



    Munsell Book

  4. After excavating the unit, we map the sidewalls. Using the LINE LEVEL, we pull the STRING tight to create a top horizontal line that is perfectly flat. This serves as the baseline from which all other depths are measured. We then use a FOLDING RULER to measure elevation at sharp right angles from the horizontal string line so we know the depth of a particular layer and how thick it is. These measurements are recorded on GRAPH PAPER.

    Line Level & String

    Folding Ruler

    Graph Paper

Nathan Harrison: Born Enslaved, Died a San Diego Legend
Presented By



Donations for this Exhibition Can Be Made Here: Donate Now