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An Up-Close Look at Historic Artifacts from Palomar Mountain

The San Diego History Center recently opened their long-awaited Nathan Harrison exhibit

By Erica Nichols

Sometimes the smallest things can leave the biggest impact. So it goes atop Palomar Mountain, where archaeologist and San Diego State University professor Seth Mallios uncovered this small collection of equestrian accessories, often called horse tack, from the site of Nathan Harrison’s cabin. Born into slavery, Harrison was brought to central California during the gold rush, gained his freedom when his owner died, and eventually moved south to our local backcountry and became the first Black homesteader in San Diego County. He built a life for himself working with his horses, ranching, and ingratiating himself with the tight-knit community in the mountains.

Mallios says the six horseshoes pictured here are everyday-style shoes that were handmade by a blacksmith, evident by the asymmetric nail holes that line the outer edge. Below those are ten tiny spur rowels that would poke the horse to guide it in a certain direction; Harrison filed down these rowels to avoid scarring his horses.

They also found various leather fasteners, brass rivets, buckles, and metal straps that would make up the horse saddles and bridles. Though they were all common items at the time, these pieces reflect the life Harrison led—one where horses were not just a mode of transportation, Mallios says, but the homesteader’s most essential and non-negotiable assets.

These are just a sample of the thousands of artifacts Mallios and his team have uncovered over the 17 years they’ve been working at the site. Now they’ve partnered with the San Diego History Center to develop an interactive exhibit detailing who Nathan Harrison was, and sort the facts of his life from the many tall tales he inspired among visitors to his home. Through virtual tours and artifact displays, the exhibit shows how each fragment they’ve uncovered, no matter how small, pieces together an image of a man who was larger than life.

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