Clarence King

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Clarence King
Clarence King.jpg
1st Director of the United States Geological Survey
In office
1879 (1879)–1881 (1881)
Succeeded byJohn Wesley Powell
Personal details
Born(1842-01-06)January 6, 1842
Newport, Rhode Island, USA
DiedDecember 24, 1901(1901-12-24) (aged 59)
Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Alma materYale University
Known forExploration of the Sierra Nevada
Scientific career
InstitutionsU.S. Geological Survey

Clarence Rivers King (January 6, 1842 – December 24, 1901) was an American geologist, mountaineer and author. He was the first director of the United States Geological Survey from 1879 to 1881. Nominated by Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes, King was noted for his exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Early life and education[edit]

Clarence King was the son of James Rivers King and Florence Little King. Clarence's father was part of a family firm engaged in trade with China, which kept him away from home a great deal, and he died in 1848, so Clarence was brought up primarily by his mother. By 1848, his only two siblings had also died.[1]

Clarence developed an early interest in outdoor exploration and natural history, which was encouraged by his mother and by Reverend Dr. Roswell Park, head of the Christ Church Hall school in Pomfret, Connecticut, that Clarence attended until he was ten.[2] He then attended schools in Boston and New Haven and, at age thirteen, was accepted to the prestigious Hartford High School.[3] He was a good student and a versatile athlete, of short stature but unusually strong.[4]

His mother received an income from the King family business until it met with a series of problems and dissolved in 1857. After a few years of straitened circumstances, during part of which Clarence suffered from a serious depression, his mother married George S. Howland in July 1860. Howland financed Clarence's enrollment in the Sheffield Scientific School affiliated with Yale College in 1860.[5]

College life and early career[edit]

Clarence King as a young man

At Yale, King specialized in "applied chemistry" and also studied physics and geology. One inspiring teacher was James Dwight Dana, a highly regarded geologist who had participated in a scientific expedition to the South Atlantic, South Pacific and the west coasts of South and North America. King graduated with a Ph.B. in July 1862. He and several friends borrowed one of Yale's rowboats that summer for a trip along the shores of Lake Champlain and a series of Canadian rivers, then returned to New Haven for the fall regatta.[6]

In October 1862, on a visit to the home of his former professor, George Jarvis Brush, King heard Brush read aloud a letter he had received from William Henry Brewer telling of an ascent of Mount Shasta in California, then believed to be the tallest mountain in the United States. King began to read more about geology, attended a lecture by Louis Agassiz, and soon wrote to Brush that he had "pretty much made up my mind to be a geologist if I can get work in that direction".[7] He was also fascinated by descriptions of the Alps by John Tyndall and John Ruskin.

In late 1862 or early 1863, King moved to New York City to share an apartment with James Terry Gardiner, a close friend from high school and college (who spelled his last name Gardner at the time). They associated with a group of American artists, writers and architects who were admirers of Ruskin. In February 1863, King became one of the founders, along with John William Hill, Clarence Cook and others, of the Ruskinian Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, an American group similar to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was elected its first secretary. But he was anxious to see the mountains of the American West, and his friend Gardiner was miserable in law school.[8][9][10]

By May 1863, King, Gardiner and an acquaintance named William Hyde traveled by railroad to Missouri and then joined a wagon train, which they left at Carson City, Nevada.[11] King and Gardiner soon continued on to California, where King joined the California Geological Survey without pay, in which he worked with William H. Brewer, Josiah D. Whitney and later Gardiner and Richard D. Cotter. In July 1864, King and Cotter made the first ascent of a peak in the Eastern Sierra that King named Mount Tyndall in honor of one of his heroes. From there they discovered several higher peaks, including the one that came to be named Mount Whitney.[12]

In September 1864, upon the designation by President Abraham Lincoln of the Yosemite Valley area as a permanent public reserve, King and Gardiner were appointed to make a boundary survey around the rim of Yosemite Valley. They returned to the East Coast by way of Nicaragua the following winter. King suffered from several bouts of malaria in spring and summer 1865 while Whitney, also in the East, worked on securing funding for further survey projects. King, Gardiner, Whitney and Whitney's wife sailed back to San Francisco in the fall, where Whitney lined up a survey project for King and Gardiner in the Mojave Desert and Arizona under U.S. Army auspices. They returned to San Francisco in the spring, and King returned to Yosemite in summer 1866 to make more field notes for Whitney. When King heard of the death of his stepfather, he and Gardiner resigned from the Whitney survey and once again sailed to New York. They had been developing a plan for an independent survey of the Great Basin region for some time and, in late 1866, King went to Washington to secure funding from Congress for such a survey.[13] He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1871.[14]

Fortieth Parallel Survey and diamond hoax discovery[edit]

Clarence King; Camp near Salt Lake City, Utah. The exploration of the Survey of the Fortieth Parallel. Photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, October 1868.

King made a persuasive argument for how his research would help develop the West. He received federal funding and was named U.S. Geologist of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, commonly known as the Fortieth Parallel Survey, in 1867. He persuaded Gardiner to be his second in command and they assembled a team that included, among others, Samuel Franklin Emmons, Arnold Hague, A. D. Wilson, the photographer Timothy H. O'Sullivan and guest artist Gilbert Munger.

Over the next six years, King and his team explored areas from eastern California to Wyoming. During that time he also published his famous Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872).[15] While King was finishing the 40th Parallel Survey, the western US was abuzz with news of a secret diamond deposit. King and some of his crew tracked down the secret location in northwest Colorado and exposed it as a fraud, now known as the Diamond hoax of 1872.[16] He became an international celebrity through exposing the hoax.[17]

In 1878, King published Systematic Geology, numbered Volume 1 of the Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, although it appeared later than all but one of the other seven volumes. In this work he narrated the geological history of the West as a mixture of uniformitarianism and catastrophism.[18] This book was well received at the time and has been called "one of the great scientific works of the late nineteenth century".[19]

In 1879, the US Congress consolidated the number of geological surveys exploring the American West and created the United States Geological Survey.[20] King was chosen as its first director. He took the position with the understanding that it would be temporary and he resigned after twenty months, having overseen the organization of the new agency with an emphasis on mining geology. James Garfield named John Wesley Powell as his successor.[21]

During the remaining years of his life, King withdrew from the scientific community and attempted to profit from his knowledge of mining geology, but the mining ventures he was involved in were not successful enough to support his expensive tastes in art collecting, travel and elegant living, and he went heavily into debt. He had a busy social life, with close friendships including Henry Brooks Adams and John Hay, who admired him tremendously. But he suffered from physical ailments and depression.[22]

Common law marriage and passing as African-American[edit]

King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid and former slave from Georgia, who had moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. Their union produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as black during World War I.[23] King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona.[24]

Death and legacy[edit]

King died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona, and was buried in Newport, Rhode Island.[25] Kings Peak in Utah,[26] Mount Clarence King and Clarence King Lake at Shastina, California, are named in his honor, as is King Peak in Antarctica.[27] The US Geological Survey Headquarters Library in Reston, Virginia, is also known as the Clarence King Library.[28]


Works about King[edit]

  • Emmons, Samuel Franklin (1903). Biographical Memoir of Clarence King
  • Hague, James D., ed. (1904). Clarence King Memoirs. The Helmet of Mambrino. New York: Published for the King Memorial Committee of the Century Association by G.P. Putnam's Sons.[1]
  • Shebl, James (1974). King, of the Mountains. A Study of King's Mountaineering in the Sierra as Literature. Stockton, CA: University of the Pacific. Original drawings by L.F. Bjorklund. Extensive bibliography.
  • Wild, Peter (1981). Clarence King. Western Writers Series. Vol. 48. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University. ISBN 978-0-88430-072-4. OCLC 7628120.
  • Wilkins, Thurman; Lawson Hinkley, Caroline (1988). Clarence King: A Biography (1988 revised ed.). University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-1085-9.
  • Sachs, Aaron (2006). The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Viking. ISBN 9780670037759. King, one of four Americans on whom the author focuses, was influenced by Alexander von Humboldt.
  • Wilson, Robert (2006), The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax – Clarence King in the Old West, Scribner, ISBN 978-0-7432-6025-1
  • Moore, James Gregory (2006), King of the 40th Parallel, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-5223-0
  • Sandweiss, Martha A. (2009). Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-59420-200-1.

Works by King[edit]

  • The Three Lakes: Marian, Lall, Jan and How They Were Named. 1870.
  • Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. United States Government Printing Office, 1870–1878.
  • "On the Discovery of Actual Glaciers in the Mountains of the Pacific Slope," American Journal of Science and Arts, vol. I, March 1871.
  • "Active Glaciers Within the United States," The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 27, no. 161, March 1871.
  • Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Boston : James R. Osgood and Company, 1872 (much of it previously published as articles in the Atlantic Monthly)
  • "John Hay," Scribner's Monthly, v. 7, no. 6, Apr. 1874.
  • "Catastrophism and Evolution," The American Naturalist, vol. 11, no. 8, August 1877.
  • "Address of Clarence King on Catastrophism" and "Catastrophism in Geology", Scientific American articles, 14 July 1877, pp. 16–17
  • Statistics of the Production of the Precious Metals in the United States. United States Government Printing Office, 1881.
  • The United States Mining Laws and Regulations Thereunder.... United States Government Printing Office, 1885.
  • "The Helmet of Mambrino," The Century Magazine, Volume 32, no. 1, May 1886.
  • "The Age of the Earth," American Journal of Science, vol. 45, January 1893.
  • "Shall Cuba Be Free?," The Forum, September 1895.
  • Report of the Public Lands Commission. United States Government Printing Office, 1903–1905.


  1. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 26–27.
  2. ^ "Biography of Dr. Roswell Park". University of Buffalo. Retrieved 2014-07-05.
  3. ^ "School History". Hartford Public High School. Archived from the original on 2014-03-28.
  4. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 29–32.
  5. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 35–38.
  6. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 41–52.
  7. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 53–54.
  8. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 57–60.
  9. ^ Shi, David (1996). Facing facts: realism in American thought and culture, 1850–1920. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510653-4.
  10. ^ "The new path". Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art. I (1). May 1863.
  11. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 61–71.
  12. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 119–127.
  13. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 149–182.
  14. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  15. ^ King, Clarence (1902). Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (tenth ed.). New York: C. Scribner and sons.
  16. ^ King, Clarence. 1872. Copy of official letter, addressed November 11th, 1872, to the Board of Directors of the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company, "... discovering the new diamond fields to be a fraud." San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company. [San Francisco? 1872]. pp. 12.
  17. ^ Wilson 2006, pp. 237–253.
  18. ^ Goetzmann, William H. Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey.
  19. ^ Aalto, K.R. (2004). "Clarence King's Geology". Earth Sciences History. 23 (1): 9–31. doi:10.17704/eshi.23.1.rx018782662jv071. Archived from the original on 17 July 2014. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  20. ^ "A Clarence King Gallery – The First Director of the U.S. Geological Survey". United States Geological Survey. Archived from the original on 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-03-29.
  21. ^ "Organizing the U.S. Geological Survey". U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  22. ^ Aalto, K.R. "Clarence King (1842–1901): Pioneering Geologist of the West" (PDF). Rock Stars. Geological Society of America. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  23. ^ "The 'Strange' Tale of Clarence King". American Lives. PBS. August 18, 2010. Retrieved 21 September 2012.
  24. ^ Sandweiss, Martha A. (2009). Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594202001.
  25. ^ "Clarence King (1842–1901)". Find A Grave.
  26. ^ Van Atta, Dale (Jan 22, 1977). "You name it – there's a town for it". The Deseret News. pp. W6. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  27. ^ "Geographic Names: King Peak, Australia". Bethesda, Maryland, United States. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 2015-02-15. Named for Clarence King, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 1879–81
  28. ^ "Clarence King Library". Retrieved 2011-05-18.

External links[edit]

Government offices
New office Director of the United States Geological Survey
Succeeded by