Another Perspective

The Many Lives of Clarence King

The great geologist who surveyed America's West took a most unusual turn.

By 2.28.11

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Clarence King distinguished himself as a geologist when the discipline was young, and wrote a noteworthy book about it. He knew some of the notable political figures of his time. His last years saw him living a bizarre double life hidden from his famous friends. He died in penniless obscurity after seeking escape from a shining public life.

King's influence on Western expansion was enormous. He was the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), serving from 1879-'81. In a preceding six years of fieldwork he had participated in two of the Western surveys that opened the region to economic development , benefitting the mining industry and railroads. His bestselling Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872) was the 19th-century primer on Western geology. It's a scientifically thorough collection of sketches that illuminate the Western landscape and not a dry scientific text, hence its popularity with general readers at the time. For another of King's attributes was literary excellence.

King was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1842 of a family with colonial antecedents. His father was a wealthy businessman with a shadowy connection to the Chinese opium trade. King's education reflected his social standing. He excelled in the sciences at the Sheffield Science School at Yale. This and his strong political connections enabled the ambitious King to quickly advance himself. One friend was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents. Another was John Hay, private secretary to the martyred Abraham Lincoln and later a diplomat of some stature.

King appears in The Education of Henry Adams, the classic American memoir written in the third person. Of his friend Adams writes: "He knew more than Adams did of art and poetry; he knew America, especially west of the hundredth meridian, better than anyone…. Incidentally he knew more practical geology than was good for him, and saw ahead at least one generation further than the text-books…. He had in him something of the Greek, a touch of Alcibiades or Alexander. One Clarence King only existed in the world."

After visiting Nevada and California in 1863 and working as an unpaid member of the California Survey of the Sierra Nevada, King (lobbying Congress himself) secured in 1867 a position as the primary geologist on the Fortieth Parallel Survey. He thrived on these rough expeditions, bringing a bit of culture, learning, and wit to the nightly campfire. One is reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's outdoor life in this regard. Six years of roaming fieldwork from Wyoming to California let the American West sink into King's pores. He was equally at home in a sophisticated Washington political salon or a tough mountain mining camp.

In 1872 he was prominent in debunking the notorious "diamond hoax," in which a con man named Philip Arnold sought investors to finance America's first diamond mine. King examined the mine in Colorado and determined it had been "salted," that is, the diamonds were planted. His brilliant detective work and the accompanying media frenzy got King on the front page of newspapers nationwide as a reform-minded hero in an age of financial scoundrels. The publication of his book the same year cemented his national celebrity.

His appointment by President Hayes as the first Director of the USGS in 1879 was an anticlimax in some ways in that it was the official bureaucratic reward for twelve years of vigorous work. The seven-volume folio that resulted from the Fortieth Parallel Survey had consumed King's energies the previous four years and was breathtaking in its detailed knowledge of what the "public domain" of the American West actually was. The West even as late as the 1870s was still an almost mythical place in the American imagination. After the Survey report was published, the region's mountains and rivers, weather and geological wonders were vividly apparent. Still, King was bored in his new position, and like public servants in our own time, left his job to pursue investments in business (especially mining) projects that he was intimately familiar with. He enriched himself for a decade, then lost it all in the financial Panic of 1893. About that same time he developed the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him.

King as interesting historical figure has made him attractive to novelists as a literary character. In Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose (1971) we find the young, golden King as the witty guest at a dinner party of erudite mining geologists in the crude surroundings of a Leadville, Colorado Survey camp where he "possessed an apparently inexhaustible supply of fine wines, brandy, and cigars, and that his riding clothes… were made by London tailors out of snow-white deerskins." He pops up in Gore Vidal's Empire (1987) in his role as confidante of Adams and Hay, and by then in decline as "… the geologist, naturalist, philosopher, world-traveler, creator of mining enterprises, Renaissance man who, now that his life was near its end, had managed to fail on the grandest scale."

King's later years are the most bizarre of an eccentric life. In 1888 he met a black woman named Ada Copeland in Brooklyn, New York, and convinced her he was a black man himself (which is odd because of his exclusively Caucasian features) named James Todd, who worked as a railroad Pullman porter. After the Civil War Reconstruction legislation in much of the country (especially the South) dictated that a person with only a one-eighth Negro ancestry was considered a member of that race. It seems King used this as a ploy to woo Copeland. In reality, he went about his travels as a geologist and businessman, and cultivated, as usual, his influential friendships, all without Ada's knowledge. This happy common law marriage produced five children. King maintained this façade for years, only informing Ada of his true identity in a 1901 letter from Phoenix, Arizona, where he died soon after of the tuberculosis he'd been suffering from for years.

Near the end of The Education Henry Adams quotes a letter he received from John Hay, the latter greatly touched by King's death: "….the best and brightest man of his generation, with talents immeasurably beyond any of his contemporaries….dying at last, with nameless suffering, alone and uncared for…."

Neither of these two men -- King's closest friends -- were aware of their friend's double life lived with Ada Copeland.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.