In 1904, young Elise Roberts and her family summered on Palomar Mountain. They left their Long Beach home in a roofed wagon, half packed with clothes and bedding, the other half filled with hay for their four horses. Three days later, when they reached the mountain’s base, the looming expanse surprised them. They’d expected a solitary peak, blocking out the sky, but before them stood a massive ridge that looked, said long-time resident Robert Asher, like an “upturned rowboat.” The family knew the native legend: In the beginning, a flood covered the world. Then “Paaw” — “mother” and “mountain” — rose and saved the children. The astonishing majesty of Palomar, stretching both ways as far as the eye could see, gave the legend credibility.
It would take the wagon a full day to climb the west grade, converted from a horse trail to hard-packed dirt in 1900. The switchbacks curled in precipitous slaloms, an average pitch around ten percent, though steeper ascents rose unexpectedly. Many who made the trek walked, to make less pull for the horses.
Most of the way, the road was just wide enough for a single wagon. One of the dangers: a vehicle coming down, often dragging a tree trunk for brakes.
By the time the family reached the tree line, at 3500 feet, the horses were soaking wet. They came to a sweeping, horseshoe bend in the road, shaded by coastal live oaks. There stood a “grinning black man waving a greeting.” At his feet, two galvanized pails of spring water for the horses, and gourds of the ice-cold liquid — praised by many as the most refreshing they ever drank — for travelers. The man wore a sweat-soaked, gingham shirt, overalls pocked with frayed holes, and a wide-brimmed felt hat. His beard was as white as his only tooth. “I’m Uncle Nate,” he announced, raising a long, canelike walking stick. “Nate Harrison. I was the first white man on the mountain.”
He had to be in his mid-70s. Gnarled wrinkles suggested at least that. But he might have been older. Whenever asked his age, Harrison would reply “Seventy-six next New Years.” And people believed him, for decades.
Around 1870, by most estimates, Harrison took a claim just off the west grade, near a flowing spring above Billy Goat Point, which commanded a view of fertile Pauma Valley and, during Santa Ana winds, the Coronados to the far southwest. Harrison greeted thirsty travelers. His reward: spare change or food. (Of the latter, he’d say, “Just wait till I get my tooth in it.”) In an era of overt racial divisions — for years after he died, maps referred to the western climb as N-word grade — Harrison was the most welcome sight on the mountain.
“He was a fluent talker,” writes Catherine M. Wood, “but not about himself, unless encouraged by a little whiskey.”
In one bourbon-laced version, Harrison said he was born a slave. By his teenage years, he had toiled so hard, and been fed so little, he stopped growing and remained small of stature. When he was 16, he and several other slaves were put up for auction. No one bought him. As friends went off to the fields in chains, he crept toward the nearby Mississippi River, keeping low in the high grass. He slid into the roiling brown current and floated downstream. He slept in the fuel bunker of a sidewheel steamer and snuck onto farms at night, stealing food — “best I ever et” — set out for the dogs. He eventually came west.
The sober version: Lysander Utt left his plantation in Westfield, Virginia, and headed for gold country in 1849. With him he took “one healthy Negro man slave,” Nathan Harrison. They joined a covered-wagon caravan at Independence, Missouri. After fording rivers, climbing mountains, and braving deserts, they came to El Pueblo de Los Angeles — a smattering of dirt-caked, one-story adobes — on Christmas Eve. Then they went north to the goldfields near Auburn.
Like the majority of those infected with luster-dust fever, Utt didn’t make a dime. He and Harrison moved south to today’s Anaheim/Tustin area, where Utt opened a trading post.
When California sought statehood in 1849, a key question at the first Constitutional Convention was: should it be a free or a slave state? A handful of the 48 delegates at Colton Hall, in Monterey, argued for “slavery extension” — even for splitting California in two, the northern half “free.” Though many did so begrudgingly, all delegates adopted the resolution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated.”
California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850. Around that time, Utt gave Harrison his freedom.
In 1909, when it was first minted, W.C. Fink recalled giving Harrison a bright Lincoln penny and telling him what the president did for the slaves. “I know about Abe Lincoln,” Harrison replied. “I had my freedom long before that.”
Accounts vary about what he did with his liberty. Among them: he was a woodcutter for many years at San Gabriel Mission; no, he helped carve the road out of Tejon Pass (and drove an ox team as part of the first wagon train). In either case, Harrison grew to hate Los Angeles, which he called “the Pueblo” to the end of his days. Whenever he was there, he slept far from town. “They was killing people every night,” he told his neighbor Louis Salmons. “They had a sign: ‘[N-word] don’t let the sun set.’ ”
Harrison found the same conditions in San Diego. “When I came to the country, no Indian was allowed to speak to the priest without taking off his hat. Mexicans about the same. The Indians were treated like slaves.”
He landed a job at Louis Rose’s store. The town’s first Jewish settler, Rose “never shut his hospitable doors” to anyone (Herald). He had a tortoise, called Chili, so large children could ride on its back. One day, Rose had to leave for business; he’d be away maybe two or three weeks. He told Harrison to mind the store, and also Chili, which Harrison dubbed “the turkle.” (He liked to rename: he called Escondido “Skundido.”)