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The Amazing True Story of Nathan Harrison

Excavations of a mountain cabin uncover the hidden life of a formerly enslaved man who became a California legend

March/April 2021

Harrison PortraitAround the turn of the twentieth century, Palomar Mountain became a popular destination for tourists from San Diego. Though the mountain lies just 60 miles northeast of the city, at the time, the arduous trip to its summit took several days via horse, horse-drawn carriage, or automobile. The final six miles to its 6,140-foot peak, up a winding grade from the mountain’s base, known as Tin Can Flat, took a full day. The single-lane, unpaved track ran alongside sheer drop-offs and was so steep that drivers would often tie trees to their bumpers for the descent in an attempt to spare their brakes. On the dry, dusty way up, it wasn’t long before the horses were panting for water and the Model T radiators were bone dry. So it was with great relief that, two-thirds of the way up the slope, travelers would come upon a spring attended by an aged African American man named Nathan Harrison.


Harrison greeted the travelers with a wide grin and a plentiful supply of water to slake the thirst of man, woman, horse, and car. Then, speaking in a thick accent that nodded to his origins in Southern slavery, he would regale visitors with tales of his life on the mountain. This was a world of grizzly bears that could chew wooden traps to pieces. “When I first came to the mountain, bear were thick,” Harrison once recalled to Robert Asher, one of his neighbors on Palomar. “You could just hear them poppin’ their teeth.” There were mountain lions that leapt upwards of 35 feet—including one Harrison claimed to have taken down that measured “fourteen feet seven inches from tip to tip.” In addition to harrowing run-ins with these wild predators, Harrison told of his confrontations with rustlers who aimed to poach his ample stock of horses, cattle, and sheep.


Harrison MapMany of Harrison’s stories had the air of embellishment—he even told a few children he’d come to California in 1849 by boat, braving the treacherous waters around Cape Horn. Despite the improbability of his tales, or perhaps because of it, Harrison’s audience of white San Diegans exploring the wilderness just outside their city lapped it up. When they returned home, they told others of their encounters with Harrison, and before long, he was one of the highlights of a trip up Palomar Mountain. (See “The Birth of Western Tourism.”) “Visiting Harrison was like stepping into a time machine and going back to the Old South,” says Seth Mallios, an archaeologist at San Diego State University. “People were magically transported back fifty years and three thousand miles away.”


Harrison would often invite travelers to his cabin for further entertainment. Allan Kelly, who trekked up the mountain with his family in 1908 when he was seven years old, later recalled, “He had a lovely spot: a far distant view to the ocean…about an acre of good soil for a garden and a few apple and pear trees.” In exchange for Harrison’s hospitality, the visiting city folk came bearing gifts—typically tins of meat, bottles of alcohol, and clothing. Many also brought along early Kodak Brownie cameras to capture snapshots of their host. Although he lived in a relatively remote location, Harrison was likely the most frequently photographed person of his time in the San Diego area, suggests Mallios, who has extensively researched Harrison’s life and leads excavations of the site where his cabin once stood. “There was nothing convenient about taking his photograph,” says Mallios. “People were aware that he was someone they wanted to take a photo of, whether it was to show that they had made it to the top of this very perilous mountain, or to capture something that you just didn’t see anywhere else.”


In these photographs, and when entertaining visitors, Harrison came across as exceedingly humble. A scraggly white beard hung from his chin, and he wore tattered clothes—his friend Robert Asher reported that he once deliberately changed into his most ragged pair of overalls before being photographed. Whereas a typical rancher of his time would carry a rifle and warily approach visitors on horseback, Harrison greeted tourists unarmed and on foot, aided by a walking stick. “He was very charismatic, smiling,” says Mallios. “He made fun of himself and couldn’t have been less threatening.” However, as he continued to learn about Harrison, Mallios found that there was far more to the mountain man—and the ways in which he managed to prosper—than first met the eye.

Harrison Tourists Car Bumper Tree preview
The Birth of Western Tourism