• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The tortoise ran away, as it did at every opportunity. Unable to leave the premises, Harrison fretted about how Rose would take the loss. When Rose returned, he organized a posse. They went due south and found Chili at La Presa (across from ­today’s Sweetwater Dam), on his way to the Gulf of California. Rose never complained to Harrison (who called Rose “the finest white man I ever knew”), but this incident may have been a turning point. Harrison and the idea of full-time employment parted ­company.

Attitudes in town may also have driven Harrison to his high place of solitude. Judson Ames, editor of the Herald, urged dividing California, and most townspeople favored the “slavery extension” (in the 1864 presidential election, 180 San Diegans voted for General George McLellan, 51 for Lincoln).

Harrison moved north. He befriended the natives at Pala and Rincon — and may have married a woman from the La Jolla Reservation. During the summer and fall, he worked as a sheepherder up in Doane Valley, sometimes baking bread for the shepherds, often hunting the mountain lions, for 11 dollars a hide, that threatened the flocks. “I killed 27 cats in one month,” he boasted, so many that no one wanted the ­hides.

Then he had another turning point. He and two dogs were herding sheep in Doane Valley. Harrison grew tired, says W.C. Fink, of being alone. “I told those dogs to take good care of the sheep.” He rolled up his bedding, packed his grub, and went down to Pauma Rancheria, where the ­sheep’s owner ­couldn’t trespass. Harrison laid low for a spell and participated in the tribal ­dances.

In 1867, Major C.E. Utt, son of the man ­who’d brought Harrison to California, purchased the Agua Tibia Ranch. For the rest of his life, Harrison had a sanctuary at the native-built, adobe house on a western spur of Palomar. He could bathe in the nearby sulphur spring and enjoy the largest figs in the ­county.

Around this time, Harrison abandoned a claim he had at Rincon and began homesteading near the spring, halfway up Palomar. Eventually, he built a 12-foot-square, unventilated cabin of thick, mud-chinked rocks and shake roof. He lived off the land, wild game and herb. A friend wrote, he “knew every trail, every tree, every stream.” He also knew how to avoid poison oak and scorpions, and where the rattlers had their ­dens.

Those who regarded him as “lazy Uncle Nate” misread the man. Along with hunting mountain lions, when he first came to Palomar, he said, there were so many bears “you could hear ’em ­poppin’ their teeth.” Harrison and others hunted them, and “grizzlies too. They was darn hard on ­hogs.”

He loved to recall the time he saw one and was unarmed. “I was riding the pinto horse. Bear was coming up the trail and looked at us good. Then he went down the trail. I was glad he ­went.”

In 1900, a road-construction crew camped near ­Harrison’s cabin. As they sat around the campfire, a worker, pretending to read a newspaper, invented a lurid tale about a fleeing murderer headed their way. Harrison jumped up and ran to the cabin. Amid giggles that ­they’d fooled the old man, Harrison returned, sat down, and laid a shotgun across his lap. “Had a stranger appeared at that time,” writes Catherine Wood, “Nate surely would have taken a shot at ­him.”

Because Harrison knew every inch of the mountain, a rumor claimed he knew where to find gold — even had a pile stashed away. A visitor going to Julian, allegedly “hunting a railroad,” needed a place to stay for the night. Harrison put him up and gave him two blankets. The man, who “snored like 60,” arose the next morning and asked Harrison if he believed in ­dreams.

“No,” said Harrison. The man recalled one about a “fortune coming from the ground.” Then he produced “letters and papers” announcing rich veins in the mountains. Harrison just shook his head. The man rode off, none the ­wiser.

“I was glad to get shed of him,” said Harrison. “I ­didn’t want that sort of a fellow around. ­Didn’t want my throat ­cut.”

A rumor of wealth may have killed Joseph Smith, ­Harrison’s rival for first non-native on Palomar. The six-foot-four, former sea captain came to the mountain in 1852. He built a four-room adobe, raised horses and hogs, and supposedly had a large sum hidden in his milk house. In 1868, a young, barefooted deserter from a British ship befriended Smith. One day, while Smith was repairing a beehive, the youth shot through a window and killed him. A search party tracked the boy down. They brought him back to ­Smith’s house. “Know him?” they asked, pulling a canvas tarp from the ­body.

The boy confessed. Twenty-five men took him to a nearby live oak and draped a noose around his neck. Instead of putting him on a horse and scaring it from under him, they chose a much more painful “stand-up hanging.” Someone looped the rope around a branch and all 25 pulled it. When the boy was six feet off the ground, they cinched it down and watched him squirm to death. Harrison was one of ­them.

Until 1901, Palomar was called Smith Mountain. For decades, Harrison was the water bearer of the west grade. He lived off the land, tips from travelers, and gifts from neighbors: flour, butchered meat, sugar, and tobacco for his short-stemmed pipe. A favorite was Louis ­Salmons’s annual Christmas present, a bottle of Scotch, which Harrison promised to sip till sundown. Whenever he saw Salmons, Harrison always asked, ­“When’s ­Christmas?”

In time, it became difficult to estimate what Harrison had accumulated more of: befriended travelers or tall tales. Salmons, who called himself just a “second-rate liar,” loathed the hogwash. “You go on down to So-and-­So’s ranch, ask some of the liars down there about Uncle Nate. They raise the best liars on ­Palomar.”

In 1920, the stories ­converge.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!