Black History and the U.S. Census in Northern San Diego County

A Local Monument to Nathan Harrison

If you traveled to Julian to buy apples last fall, you may have visited some of the buildings in that gold rush town. Perhaps you stopped at the Julian Hotel. If you did, you visited the site of an early African-American business in San Diego County, for the hotel was built by a Black couple in 1887. Albert Robinson, a former slave, had married a local girl who was raised on her parents' farm in Temecula. After her husband's death, Mrs. Margaret Tull Robinson continued as proprietor of their hotel in Julian until 1925. The hotel today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Research has not uncovered a Black owned business in Fallbrook's early years. The person with Negro ancestry who was encountered most often by Fallbrook people in the first decades of this century was Nathan Harrison, now known as the earliest permanent African-American resident of San Diego County. Many in Fallbrook would have met Harrison because Palomar Mountain was their favorite destination for a vacation which included hunting and fishing, and the road up the mountain crossed his land. Families on their way for a week of recreation stopped at Westfall's hardware store on Fallbrook's Main Street (now the site of the Village Square), where they would buy their camping supplies and ammunition. Then they would take the Pala Road (now Fallbrook Street) out to Reche's Grove (Live Oak Park), and go down through the Gird ranch to reach the main road along the San Luis Rey River.

A few miles after passing Pala, they would start up the steep grade on which the County had constructed a wagon road in 1900. At 3500 feet, the road reached Nate Harrison's 160 acre homestead, and the horses would need water and a rest before continuing the journey up the mountain. The County had contracted with Harrison to permit travelers to obtain water from his spring, and Harrison became an unofficial greeter of visitors to the mountain. Old timers (including Victor Westfall), interviewed many years later, recalled fondly their childhood encounter with Harrison on the journey up Palomar Mountain.

Nathan Harrison had come to the mountain in the 1850's from the gold country of northern California. After herding sheep for homesteading ranchers in the high valleys of Palomar, he located his own claim. He built a stone cabin, cleared some of the land for an orchard and garden, and raised horses. For social life he attended fiestas and ceremonies with Indian friends at Pauma and Rincon.

Others in the area had Black roots, so Harrison had additional opportunities for socializing. Isabel Place Veal, the wife of the Pala postmaster who recorded Harrison's voter registration in 1894, was born in Santa Barbara. Its 1850/52 census listed Isabel's mother as "Indian, born in California", and her father as a "cook, mulatto, born in the West Indies and living in New York" before coming to California. The Place family moved to Temecula, and Isabel and her sister both married white men recently arrived from Europe.

Blacks had been in Mexico since the earliest days of Spanish exploration and settlement, and, through the process of intermarriage and social acceptance, had passed into the general population. After taking California, U.S. officials recorded the Mexican governor, Pio Pico, whose grandmother was part African, as a Californio, not as a Black. Thus U.S. laws restricting Negro people did not apply to the Pico family. When the U.S. Land Commission was settling the boundaries of the Pico brothers' Santa Margarita Ranch, it was Pio Pico's nephew who resided here, in an adobe house where the high school is now located. (The Land Commission eventually reduced the size of the Santa Margarita Grant, thus opening Fallbrook's town area for settlement.) The situation was different for people of African descent who came to California from the United States, for they were classified as "Black." Throughout the early period, the census listed Negro laborers and cowboys on ranches in the San Luis Rey and Temecula areas. Harrison was not the only one of his ethnic background in northern San Diego County.

Harrison's health began failing in 1919, and he died the following year. He was not forgotten, however. G.F. Westfall of Fallbrook (a member of the County Board of Supervisors) chaired a committee to raise money for a monument in his honor. Among the other members of this committee were Felix Calac and Max Peters of Rincon. The monument they installed seventy years ago at Harrison's spring was about five feet high, and was made of roughcut white quartz and granite. Its top two thirds formed a niche, enclosing a copper plate bearing this inscription:

Nathan Harrison's Spring
Brought Here a Slave About 1848
Died October 10, 1920
Aged 101 years
A Man's a Man for a' that

Later African-American residents of the Fallbrook area arrived 52 years ago as part of the military. During World War II, young men in navy uniforms became part of the life of the community, on leave from their barrack homes at the Ammunition Depot (now the Naval Weapons Station). Fallbrook civilians worked with them on the Depot, and gave them first priority on the road to San Diego as they drove the trucks carrying ammunition for U.S. troops fighting in the Pacific. There were also a few young Black men among the Marines who rode guard duty with the convoys of trucks which followed today's Ammunition Road and turned south to travel down US 395 (today's S. Mission Rd.).

The next time you travel to Julian by way of Highway 76, and pass by the sign labeled Nate Harrison Grade, you might remember these bits of local Black history. If you are tempted to visit the monument, however, remember that the road is not maintained, and that it is a very steep grade.

from materials in the Document Room of the new Museum of Fallbrook History at 260 Rocky Crest Road

Copyright © 1998 by Fallbrook Historical Society
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to the Fallbrook Historical Society at this source:
Comments and feedback: Elizabeth Yamaguchi
Last update: 29 September 1998.