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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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SDSU Archaeological Excavations Unravel Historical Myths on Palomar Mountain

More Than 2,500 Artifacts Discovered at Site of Former Slave's Cabin
By Gina Speciale

Students participating in San Diego State University’s summer field school in historical archaeology have uncovered thousands of artifacts detailing the life of backcountry pioneer Nate Harrison. 

Led by SDSU archaeology professor Seth Mallios, a team of 15 students collected more than 2,500 artifacts and fully exposed the architectural remains of Harrison’s stone dwelling.  They will present their findings at an open house event on Thursday, June 14 at 2 p.m.

Harrison, a former slave brought to Northern California during the Gold Rush, lived at the Palomar Mountain site during the last half of the 1800s and the first two decades of the 20th century.  The artifact assemblage that Mallios’s team has recovered up to this point firmly places Harrison’s occupation at Palomar Mountain between 1865 and 1920.

Mallios was most excited about the recently uncovered artifacts reflecting Harrison’s daily activities and challenge various myths about the Palomar pioneer.  Among the items found during this month’s excavation was an early 20th-century pen cap and multiple pencil leads.

“Those items really question the stories of Harrison’s purported illiteracy,” Mallios said. “We also found leather boots of strikingly different sizes which undermines the established notions that Harrison lived alone on the mountain.”

Other items found include a small make-up container with rouge suggesting a female presence at the site and multiple marbles hint at children’s activities.

Mallios said that archaeology is suited to address issues that traditional written histories fail to resolve.

“The writers of history can make up anything they want, but old garbage doesn’t lie,” he said. 

The 2007 archaeological investigations also revealed the inside of Harrison’s cabin was a perfect 11-foot square, strikingly different from the disheveled appearance it acquired in later years.

“The original plan of the structure was laid out with exactitude and an eye to detail,” Mallios said.  “The cabin was specifically designed to be set in four corner posts.  The door and chimney are centered and at exact intervals along each wall.  The dirt floor is flat and matches up with the door threshold, the base of the chimney, and the bottom row of weight-bearing structural stones.”

Mallios said the cabin bore a striking resemblance to slave quarters from the American South, suggesting that Harrison engineered his mountain home according to building and cultural norms from his previous home. 

Although many later narratives emphasized that the former slave rarely worked and lived off of the charity of others, recently uncovered artifacts also reveal clear evidence that Harrison was an active hunter, and his prey fueled his cottage industry for tanning hides.

The archaeological site has produced hundreds of deer bones, most of which were young and easily hunted, dozens of small arms cartridges, and multiple leather strips. 

“It is worth noting that tannic acid (C14H10O9), the yellow astringent used in leather tanning is derived from oak bark,” Mallios explained.  “Palomar Mountain is covered with numerous oak trees; one is less than twenty feet up the hill from Harrison’s cabin.”

Nate Harrison became a local legend over the years as he delighted in the rugged frontier conditions, greeted travelers venturing up the steep mountain road with water, and befriended members of the region’s many different ethnic communities. 

Historical records regarding Harrison offer many conflicting details.  His 1920 death certificate listed Harrison as born in Kentucky in 1823, while the 1880 San Diego County Census deemed him an Alabama native born in 1830.  In addition, the San Diego Union erroneously noted his death on March 21, 1884.  The paper retracted the premature obituary a month later, claiming that, “…Nate is not drowned as was reported… he still lives to vote the Republican ticket and beat his way through the world.”

A detailed website for Mallios’s SDSU Nate Harrison Historical Archaeology Project has been launched and can be accessed at:

Mallios plans to continue his SDSU excavations at the site for years to come, noting that there are many other areas of the site worth investigating, including the spring, the yard, and nearby trash pits.

“This site is essential for research and teaching, emphasizing the importance of furthering an understanding of San Diego County’s multi-ethnic history and providing students with a rare hands-on opportunity to learn how to dig.”

His long-term goal is to rebuild the cabin as a museum for rural San Diego history.