No, that’s not a typo in the headline. The local historical figure and namesake for Louden Nelson Community Center was actually named London—not Louden—Nelson. Which brings us to the first of seven fascinating facts about the man, who was born 213 years ago this Sunday, May 5.
1. His name was London, but, starting in the 1930s, it appeared as Louden. In an April 2007 missive, local historian Phil Reader wrote, “One of the more perplexing and frustrating aspects of the London Nelson story is the constant misspelling of his given, or Christian name. Perplexing in that it is difficult to determine the origin of this mistake and frustrating because of the countless number of well-meaning people who continue to perpetuate and compound the original error.” In his investigation into the matter, Reader found that all primary sources up until the 1930s correctly listed Nelson’s first name as London. But after that, it mysteriously shifted to Louden. The source may be the engraver of (or the person who gave the engraver the text for) a marble headstone, which read “Louden,” that replaced the original wooden monument to Nelson. Reader concludes his memo with the following plea: “It is my hope that someday, someone will bring this mistake to the attention of those who can take the necessary steps to change all of the monuments and plaques so at last the true name of LONDON NELSON can take its rightful place of honor in our community.”
2. He was born May 5, 1800 as a slave on a cotton plantation in North Carolina that was owned by the Nelson family. He worked in the fields starting at a young age.
3. The Gold Rush led to his freedom. He eventually became the property of one of the Nelson family’s sons, Matthew Nelson, who took him to Tennessee and then, in 1850, on a journey west lured by the promise of gold. The two slaves he brought were given the opportunity to buy their freedom once they completed the journey. Matthew Nelson eventually headed back to Tennessee, and London, now a free man suffering from what is now known as tuberculosis, decided to stay in California.
4. By 1856, he was living in Santa Cruz, where he was one of only two black residents.
5. He grew melons, onions and potatoes on a rented piece of land and also worked as a cobbler to supplement his income, eventually making enough money to buy his own parcel of land. According to the Museum of Art & History (MAH), London could see the Mission Hill School from his small home. Around this time, the school closed due to lack of funds.
6. Upon becoming deathly ill in early 1860, London established a will that gave over his entire estate—$372—to the Santa Cruz School District. Although he never received an education, he wanted to be sure future children could. According to a document written by Reader in the MAH archives, the will established that the donation was “for the use and benefit of said School District forever, for the purpose of promoting the interest of education … ” This generous donation would forever put him down as a local hero in Santa Cruz history.
7. He died on May 17, 1860 and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, where interested residents can still visit the headstone dedicated to him. The MAH oversees the historical cemetery, and offers tours from May to October (call 429-1964 ext. 7020 for scheduling info), as well as a map for self-guided tours.
Source: MAH archives. Photos, courtesy of the MAH, are of a gravestone rubbing on display in the MAH’s History Gallery, and artist Jack Sprow’s rendering of what London Nelson may have looked like (there are no known photos of him).