By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Every now and then, while doing research, this writer comes across an interesting life story. Such is the case with the subject of this month’s post at Sweethearts of the West. What started as an intriguing bit of information about a 19th century scholarly explorer of the Sierra Nevada who wore lilac gloves, took me on a roundabout journey about a man who made great discoveries and had dual identities.
He attended Yale where he studied applied chemistry, physics, and geology; a young man whose privileged, prestigious academic background did not quite fit the Alpha male image most people have about rugged adventurers who ventured West.
In truth, using today’s vernacular, King was considered a geek. Yet he also had the heart of an explorer. And just as it is not good to judge a book by its cover, the same applies to people and, in particular, this man.
King was the first person to scale some of the mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada. His work as a geologist led him to parts of the country where white men were a rarity, especially one who wore rather unusual attire. Now, we might not bat an eye today seeing a man wearing violet gloves and deerskin trousers that are exceptionally ‘tight-fitting’, but back in the mid-1800s one can only imagine the raised eyebrows. However, regardless of how he dressed, King made some extraordinary contributions to geological research of the American West.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island on 06 Jan 1842, his father and only two siblings died by the time he was six years old. Raised by his mother, King attended the Christ Church Hall School in Connecticut, where his interest in natural history and exploration were kindled. At 13 years of age, King was accepted into the prestigious Hartford High School. In 1860, his mother married George S. Howland, who then assumed the costs for furthering King’s education at the Sheffield Scientific School, the science and engineering school of Yale College.
King graduated from Yale in July 1862 with a Ph.B. In October of that year while visiting one of his former professors, King heard how botanist William Henry Brewer had climbed Mount Shasta in California. At this time, Mount Shasta was believed to be the tallest mountain in the United States. Within a year King would embark upon his dream of also exploring mountains out West and performing geological studies.
In May 1863, King traveled by train to Missouri. Accompanied by childhood and college friend, James Terry Gardiner, he joined a wagon train destined for Carson City, Nevada. From Nevada, they continued further west to California.
After joining the California Geological Society, King worked “without pay” alongside Brewer (the man who climbed Mount Shasta) and Josiah D. Whitney (a geologist and professor of geology at Harvard). Soon, other eminent scientists joined their work and an extensive survey commenced involving geology, geography, zoology, botany, and even paleontology.
During his time with the California Geological Society, King accomplished his first ascent at an elevation of 14,025 feet on 06 Jul 1864. King named it Mount Tyndall after one of his heroes, Irish mountaineer and scientist, John Tyndall. He was also present when other higher peaks were discovered, including Mount Whitney, named after Josiah Whitney.
In September 1864, after President Lincoln designated the Yosemite Valley a public reserve, King and Gardiner were appointed to prepare a boundary survey about the rim. After completion of this project, King and Gardiner traveled back to the East Coast.
During the spring and summer of 1865, King suffered attacks of malaria. Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney (who had also returned to the East Coast) focused on securing additional funding for their research.
In the fall of 1865, King, Gardiner and Whitney returned to California. A survey project (with the US Army) was assigned to King and Gardiner in the Mojave Desert and Arizona. After a brief return to San Francisco during the spring of 1866, they resumed work in Yosemite that summer, focusing on compiling field notes for Whitney.
However, when King learned his stepfather had died, he resigned from the Whitney survey, and returned home. Gardiner also accompanied his friend and colleague. Both King and Gardiner had been working on a plan to survey the Great Basin region and in 1866, King traveled to Washington, D.C. to request funding from Congress.
In 1867, federal funding was granted and King was named United States Geologist of the Fortieth Parallel Survey. With good friend Gardiner as his “second in command”, they created a team. From 1867 to 1872, they explored terrain from eastern California to Wyoming. King also published his book, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.
As their work on the Forteith Parallel Survey was winding down, King heard rumors of a great diamond deposit discovery in northwest Colorado. After tracking down the secret location, King investigated and exposed the claim as fraud.
The Diamond Hoax of 1872 involved prospectors Philip Arnold and John Slack who boasted of discovering a rich diamond mind to swindle unsuspecting investors. Several prominent investors including Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Company and Baron von Rothschild purchased Arnold and Slack’s interest in the mine for $660,000. However, as a geologist for the US Government, King discovered Arnold and Slack had salted the site with diamonds they purchased elsewhere, and he notified investors. By exposing this deception, King became an international celebrity.
In 1878, King published a book considered “one of the great scientific works of the late 19th century", titled Systematic Geology, Volume 1 of the Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel.
In 1879, Congress opted to combine the various geological surveys in the American West and established the United States Geological Survey with Clarence King as director. His acceptance of this position, however, was contingent on it being temporary. After 20 months of organizing the new agency, he selected his successor – John Wesley Powell.
King decided at this time to use his expertise in mining geology for profit. Unfortunately, the success of these ventures did not cover the expensive tastes and lifestyle of King. Although respected by friends and colleagues, King found himself heavily in debt, depressed, and physically unwell.
And here is where the life of Clarence King takes a curious turn of events.
In September 1888, the couple wed. For the next 13 years his wife (and the mother of their five children) innocently believed his lengthy absences were due to his job as a railroad porter. In truth, when not at home, King lived as a white man and had resumed his career as a field geologist working in copper fields in Montana, and hot springs in Arkansas. Still, he sent loving letters to his wife on a regular basis, along with financial support from his earnings.
So, when did Ada Copeland Todd learn the truth?
While working in Arizona, Clarence King realized he was dying of tuberculosis. Only then did he confess the truth to his wife of 13 years…in a letter.
Clarence King (aka James Todd) died at the age of 59 in Phoenix, Arizona on 24 Dec 1901. His body was returned to Newport, Rhode Island for burial.
As a respected geologist and explorer, King’s accomplishments are extraordinary and leave behind a legacy that includes the following places named in his honor:
Mount Clarence King (located in Kings Canyon National Park in California pictured left)
Clarence King Lake at Shastina, California
King’s Peak in Antartica.
As for the wife and children he left behind. Four of the five children born to Clarence King and Ida Copeland survived to adulthood. However, for 30 years following the death of her husband, his wife sued to gain control of a trust fund for her children that her “husband” had promised in his deathbed letter. Although represented by notable attorneys, the Court determined in 1933 that Clarence King had died penniless.
Fortunately, during his widow's lengthy legal battle, one of King’s friends showed great compassion toward Ada Copeland Todd and her young children. John Hay once private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, former Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and a close friend to Clarence King, not only purchased a home for Copeland, he sent a monthly stipend to her. After his death in 1905, his daughter, Helen Hay Whitney, continued the monthly support. Ada Copeland Todd, who after the truth of her husband's identity adopted the King surname, lived in the house John Hay had purchased for her until her death on 14 Apr 1964.
Although it is hard to reconcile the 13-year deception King kept from the woman he married, as well as his white friends and colleagues, it is evident by letters written to his wife during his absences that he loved her and their children dearly. When considering the time in which they lived, this double life was the only way he felt he could marry the woman he loved and also earn a living to support her. And certainly, without question, he contributed greatly to the geological exploration and understanding of the American West.
Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you found this information about Clarence King interesting. ~ AKB
Wild West Pioneers of Discovery (History Revealed Magazine, Issue 44, July 2017)
Driven by Love or Ambition: Slipping Across the Colored Line Through The Ages (Rachel L. Swarns, NY Times, June 28, 2015)
Passing Strange: A Gilded Tale of Love and Deception Across Colored Lines (Martha A. Sandweiss, Penguin Press, 2009)