The Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project

Palomar Mountain - San Diego County, California
The Official Site of the SDSU Historical Archaeology Field School

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Nate Harrison at SDSU

Nate Harrison sits in front of his mountain home

A new exhibit, titled
"The Archaeology of
Nate Harrison: Legacies and Legends of an African-American Pioneer in San Diego County,"
opens September 15, 2008, and runs through January 15, 2009. The exhibit will be on display in the Donor Hall. To kick off the exhibit opening, Seth Mallios, professor of anthropology at SDSU and director of the Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project, gave a free lecture in Room LL430 of the library on September 15.

Nate Harrison Poster
San Diego State University Exhibit
Love Library

The Archaeology of Nate Harrison: Legacies and Legends of an African-American Pioneer in San Diego

September 15, 2008 to January 15, 2009

Nate Harrison is one of San Diego County’s legendary pioneers. Fables abound regarding this former enslaved African-American from the South who lived high upon the west slope of Palomar Mountain into the early 1900s. There are numerous quaint tales of his frontier life. For example, this rugged yet compassionate mountain man allegedly added lizards to his coffee grinds for extra flavor, made batches of homemade mountain lion jerky, and met every visitor with a warm smile.

Many historical photos add to his legend. Over two dozen stunning turn-of-the-century black-and-white photographs of Harrison exist. He is shown in various poses; sitting at his cabin, engaging with white traveler-tourists, and walking his dogs. Harrison may be the most frequently photographed 19th-century San Diegan. It was as if he was San Diego’s version of the Eiffel Tower; tourists frequently took his picture to prove that they had visited the precipitous mountain and made it to the top.

Historical archaeology has the potential to evaluate, scrutinize, broaden, and deepen insights into Nate Harrison’s life and legend. This report presents findings from the inaugural 2004 San Diego State University field excavation season at the Nate Harrison site. The three-week field school successfully located the remains of Harrison’s cabin and uncovered over 6,100 artifacts that date to Harrison’s late 19th-century and early 20th-century occupation at Palomar Mountain. Although there had been previous pot-hunting on the site, the 2004 excavations marked the first scientific archaeology on the property.

Current land owners Jamey and Hannah Kirby not only allowed excavations on their property, they went out of their way to make the field school a resounding success. They gave the archaeological team unlimited access to their campsite, latrine, generator, and tractor. In addition, their interest in local history and care for the site over the years has been nothing short of inspirational.

The Kirby property is about two-thirds of the way up the west slope of Palomar Mountain. It is off of Nate Harrison Grade, northeast of Pauma Valley. USGS aerial photographs and topographic maps offer an overview of the region. The site location is not specified here for confidentiality and security reasons established by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and maintained by the South Coastal Information Center (SCIC).


Nathan Harrison
Nathan Harrison
  circa 1823 - 1920

"Born a Slave ...
        Died a Pioneer."


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