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King, Clarence Riverslocked

(06 January 1842–24 December 1901)
  • Thurman Wilkins

Clarence King.

From U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1050.

Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

King, Clarence Rivers (06 January 1842–24 December 1901), geologist and first director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), geologist and first director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of James Rivers King, a China trader, and Caroline Florence Little. The King family enjoyed comfortable circumstances until the bankruptcy of King & Company in 1857, after which Mrs. King, her husband having died in Amoy, China, in 1848, solved her financial problem through marriage to George S. Howland, the owner of a white lead factory in Brooklyn, New York.

King entered Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in fall 1860 and completed its chemistry program within two years, receiving the Ph.B. with honors in 1862. Thereafter he read intensively in geology in New York City, taking time out to attend Louis Agassiz’s lectures in glaciology at Harvard. In hope of gaining practical training in geology as a member of Josiah D. Whitney’s Geological Survey of California, he rode horseback across the continent during the summer of 1863. He was readily accepted as a volunteer on the Whitney survey, a position he retained until fall 1866, receiving thorough training in the science of geological surveying.

King’s trip across the continent had sown in his mind the idea of a cross-country geological survey, an ambition that work with Whitney fostered. On returning to the East, King sold the concept of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel to Congress in early 1867, and the survey was assigned to the command of the U.S. Army Engineers, with King reporting directly to General A. A. Humphreys, chief of engineers. It was King’s mission to map the topography and to survey the geology and natural resources of the area that flanked the transcontinental railroad between the Sierra Nevada and the Great Plains. His able corps sailed to California via Panama in summer 1867, crossed the Sierra, and began its fieldwork in western Nevada.

The fieldwork lasted until late in 1872, climaxing with King’s exposure of the Great Diamond Hoax in northwest Colorado, a sensational event that glamorized his personality and earned him a reputation for impeccable integrity. A mesa not far from Browns Park had been salted with diamonds and other gemstones; its “discovery” touched off a “diamond craze” that led to the incorporation of some twenty-five companies capitalized at a total of a quarter-billion dollars for the purpose of working the false diamond field. King investigated the mesa and found it salted, deflating one of the most disastrous swindles ever perpetrated. This exposure alone, according to the Nation (12 Dec. 1872, p. 380), “more than paid for the cost of the [entire] survey” and was the most dramatic incident in the history of all the great western surveys, except Major John Wesley Powell’s epic descents of the Green and Colorado rivers. King’s corps was the first of the four western surveys to complete its fieldwork; partly for that reason its successful methods in the field, its exacting standards, and its distinguished publications served as models for the three other surveys—those of Powell, Ferdinand Hayden, and George M. Wheeler.

King’s Systematic Geology (1878) brought to a climax the seven-volume Report of the Fortieth Parallel Survey, which synthesized the paleontology, stratigraphy, tectonics, and geological history of all the areas that King’s corps had explored. But the book that brought King the greatest literary credit was Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), a volume of fourteen sketches inspired by his adventures with the Whitney survey. Concerning it, the writer William Dean Howells remarked to President Hayes in 1879 that his sole complaint against King was “that a man who can give us such literature should be content to be merely a great scientist.”

Howells’s remark came at the time King was assisting the campaign of the National Academy of Sciences to spur Congress to authorize the U.S. Geological Survey, to supersede and consolidate on a national basis the work of the several western surveys. He worked closely with Abram Hewitt, who was the most active advocate in Congress of the projected USGS. King wrote a crucial clause for Hewitt’s bill—the one that created the office of geological director and defined its duties. After Congress authorized the USGS on 3 March 1879, King competed with Hayden for the directorship, winning it a month later.

As director of the USGS, King appointed excellent personnel and adopted policies that would put the Survey on much of its future track. His program emphasized economic geology, making the USGS the ally of the mining industry. At the same time King projected a wide-ranging scientific classification of the national domain. He also participated personally in the work of the Public Lands Commission of 1879 and in the survey of precious metals for the Tenth U.S. Census. An additional accomplishment of significance was his organization of an extensive publications program for the USGS, which projected at least a dozen volumes on subjects of both theoretical and practical geology, including monographs on the mining districts of Leadville and Eureka, Nevada, as well as the Comstock Lode, treatments of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville and the Grand Canyon region, and O. C. Marsh’s monograph on the extinct Dinocerata. By 1881 King concluded that he had achieved his objective of establishing the USGS on a firm foundation, so he tendered his resignation and left office at the end of the Hayes administration. His choice of successor was Powell, then chief of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

King’s later life was dominated by a futile pursuit of wealth, at first in the promotion of gold and silver mines in Mexico. His promotion of one such mine took him in 1882 to Europe, where he toured the Continent and bought an art collection with most of the money he had earned from investments in three cattle ranches in the western United States. (Two of the ranches were taken over by King’s ranching partner, Hewitt, and the third was bought by Richard Frewen, an Englishman who ran cattle in Montana.) In England he hobnobbed for two years with the aristocracy, including Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and the Prince of Wales. After King’s return to the United States, however, all of his Mexican mines failed, and he spent most of his time thereafter as a consultant for other mine owners and as an expert witness in some of the most spectacular mining litigation of the day. But even during his most depressed days he was an active clubman, belonging to several fashionable clubs in New York such as the Century Association, where he was held in high esteem as a raconteur and good fellow by his associates, including such celebrities as Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, and Henry Adams. Adams idolized King and called him “the most remarkable man of our time.”

In the midst of this most public life King (always attracted to dark-skinned women) entered into a common-law marriage in 1888 with a black nursemaid, Ada Copeland. King assumed the name James Todd for the purpose of this marriage, which he kept secret even from close friends. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy. King provided for his family until his death from tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona. He was buried in Newport, renowned as a writer, raconteur, and one of the foremost geologists of the nineteenth century.


King’s personal papers are at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., part of the James D. Hague Collection. King’s correspondence as chief of the Fortieth Parallel Survey and as director of the U.S. Geological Survey is held in Record Groups 57 and 77 at the National Archives. Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King: A Biography (1958; rev. ed., 1988), contains a detailed account of King’s life, with a bibliography that lists all of King’s writings and the whereabouts of many of his scattered letters. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918), contains glowing passages about King and has been a principal means of keeping his name alive. Richard A. Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (1962), is an excellent source on the King survey. Van Wyck Brooks, New England: Indian Summer, 1865–1915 (1940), contains a vivid literary assessment of King. See also S. F. Emmons, “Biographical Memoir of Clarence King, 1842–1901,” National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 6 (1909): 25–55, for an early treatment of King’s career by a professional colleague. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (1966), considers the full sweep of King’s services as a government geologist. James D. Hague, ed., Clarence King Memoirs: The Helmet of Mambrino (1904), offers intriguing reminiscences of King by twelve close friends as well as an autobiographical sketch by King. Patricia O’Toole, The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880–1918 (1990), places King gracefully in the center of the Hay-Adams milieu. Mary C. Rabbitt, Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defense and General Welfare, vol. 1, Before 1879 (1979), and vol. 2, 1879–1904 (1980), presents a history of both the antecedents of the USGS and its first twenty-five years. Michael L. Smith, Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850–1915 (1987), discusses the work of the California Geological Survey, including the period of King’s membership.