The little-known story of Nate Harrison – a larger-than-life pioneer figure in Riverside and San Diego counties – unfolded before an attentive Temecula audience Monday night.
It is a story that has emerged from the mists of time amid the 6,000-foot tall peak that commands an unblemished, panoramic view of southwest Riverside County and northern San Diego County.
It is a story that owes its telling to a wildfire, and one the protagonist himself would certainly have relished telling.
The presentation, which attracted about 70 history buffs and other audience members, focused on a Renaissance man who escaped slavery and headed west. Harrison eventually settled near the top of Mount Palomar, where he built a life as a homesteader, hunter, horse trainer, shepherd and shearer, storyteller, farmer, friendly hermit and tourist attraction.
“He became somewhat of a mythical figure in northern San Diego County and Riverside County,” said archaeologist Shelby Castellis, who gave the hour-long presentation. “He was the first multi-cultural resident of northern San Diego County.”
The photos and information presented by Castellis held many audience members spellbound.
“It’s very interesting,” Jimmy Moore, a past president of the Temecula Valley Historical Society, said afterward.
Moore, a key figure in Temecula’s incorporation nearly 25 years ago, said he had not heard of Harrison before steps began about a year ago to arrange the presentation.
Several other historical society leaders said that the talk fleshed out the figure of a black man who rode a white horse, worshipped at the Pala Mission, frequented Temecula and Murrieta, spoke English, Spanish and Luiseno and became one of the region’s most photographed pioneers.
“I’d heard bits and pieces about Nate Harrison for years, but I’d never been able to pull it all together,” said Rebecca Farnbach, an author of regional historical books who serves as the society’s program chairperson.
Farnbach said she began working with San Diego State University about a year ago to schedule the presentation and question-and-answer session.
Harrison had faded into historical lore prior to a 2003 wildfire that raked the slopes of Mount Palomar. That blaze exposed the foundation of what the property owners believed was Harrison’s square cabin.
The cabin, which featured a design reminiscent of southern slave quarters, was said to have been razed in the 1930s because it had begun to attract squatters and vandals.
A subsequent quest to obtain information on Harrison led the property owner to SDSU, which in turn received permission to excavate Harrison’s cabin, patio, workshop and orchard.
SDSU students spent four summers there excavating large chunks of the site down to depths of three to five feet. The site is about three-quarters of a mile from the nearest road in a heavily-wooded, difficult-to-find- part of the mountain, Castellis said.
They also gathered, from public records and other sources, 49 historical photographs of Harrison and 87 documents that told of him or revealed personal information.
The excavations netted more than 6,100 artifacts – many of them just pieces of larger objects – from Harrison’s life on the mountain from the early 1890s until 1919, when he became gravely ill and friends led him down the mountain. He died a year later and was buried in a pauper’s cemetery.
Harrison claimed to reach the age of 107 before he died, but some sources say that might have been exaggerated by two decades or more.
The site’s artifacts include a tobacco tin, nails, alcohol and medicine bottles, four coins, a Christian cross, Luiseno cultural items, ceramic dishes, silverware, suspender clasps and shards of an intricately-carved pipe that was costly to obtain in its day.
Castellis said Harrison’s origin is unknown. He frequently said he was born in Kentucky, but stories of his path west may have been laced with embellishment. He apparently told varying accounts of floating down the Mississippi River and traveling west on a wagon train.
He appeared in San Diego County census counts in 1875, married a Luiseno woman and settled in her tribal lands in the Rincon area. He moved to Palomar’s slopes after his wife died, and he homesteaded near a spring that was one of the few water sources in a vast area.
Tourists en route to a resort at the top of the mountain would frequently stop by Harrison’s cabin and listen to his stories as they and their horses drank their fill at the spring. He boasted of serving mountain lion jerky and adding lizards to his coffee grinds to add to the flavor.
“He was definitely well known and well liked in the Luiseno and Pala communities,” Castellis said. “He was a good cook, and he knew a lot about Temecula.”
She said racial and pioneer prejudices as well as changing scientific and cultural views cast Harrison in varying hues during his lifetime and the nearly 100 years that have passed since his death.
He has been alternately described as impoverished or well-to-do, lazy or a hardworking homesteader, self-deprecating or proud, childlike or self-promoting.
“He encountered a huge amount of racism in his life,” Castellis said. She said he was sometimes referred to as “the first white man on the mountain.”
His stories – which followed traditional themes, incorporated colorful characters and animals, and included ample exaggeration – were typically adapted to his individual audiences.
A written account of Harrison’s era described the protocol for visiting the homesteader at his perch by saying: “Everyone brought donations to the old negro when they came up the mountain.”
Castellis said several of the SDSU graduate students wrote their final papers on the excavation project, and a display of materials has been created at SDSU. The archives from the excavation are housed at the university library, and interest in Harrison and his life and times has not ebbed, she said.
The students have not been back to the site in years, she said, because the Palomar Mountain property slipped into foreclosure and they do not know who currently owns the historic site.
“People were talking about Nate Harrison long before the (excavation) project,” Castellis said. “Now it’s been over 100 years and we’re still talking about Nate Harrison and the first non-Indian to live on Palomar Mountain.”