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Famed geologist Clarence King led a double life in later years.

Clarence King was a human enigma as profound and mysterious as any geologic discovery he made—and he made many. He surveyed the future path of the Union Pacific Railroad, was founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey, helped inspire and stimulate the national parks system, and made huge contributions to both economic geology and paleontology. He shrugged off being struck by lighting in Nevada, studied the gold belt in the Sierra Nevada and wrote scientific works that were the best in their league. King also served as an expert witness in many mining cases. But in the end he left a question in the minds of those nearest and dearest to him—was he really Clarence King or an imposter?

King was born in 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island, of New England stock that dated back to 1637. He was the only son of James Rives King, a trader with the firm of Olyphant, Talbot & Co., respected by missionaries and churchgoing Americans as the only Western company in the lucrative China trade that refused to traffic in opium. James’ older brother Charles would become a partner in the firm and a major player in American-Chinese trade and diplomacy. Charles died at sea in 1845, and James died in China in 1848, but the Kings of Newport remained comfortable, until the trading firm went bankrupt in 1857. His widowed mother sent Clarence to Hopkins Grammar School in Hartford, Conn., and in 1860 solved her financial straits by marrying New Yorker George S. Howland, the widowed owner of a factory in Brooklyn—destined to play a role at both the beginning and end of the King saga.

In 1862 Clarence, with a financial boost from Howland, graduated with a doctorate in chemistry from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, where he was recalled for a winning smile, agile movement and a formidable intelligence. He later studied glaciation at Harvard with Louis Agassiz, the grand old man of anti-Darwinian Creationism. In 1863 King, like Harvard’s Francis Parkman two decades before him, set off west on horseback for California. Joining him was boyhood friend and fellow geologist James Terry Gardiner. Falling in with an emigrant wagon train, the pair reached the Comstock Lode and studied the mine until it burned down. King and Gardiner lost their equipment and actually worked at the diggings until they made a grubstake. The friends then crossed the Sierras on foot and hopped a steamboat headed down the Sacramento River toward San Francisco. While aboard they met the field director of Josiah Whitney’s Geological Survey of California and were persuaded to sign on as volunteers. Over the next few years they learned much about mapmaking and economic geology—the study of potential mining and farmland—and explored the desert region of southern California on an expedition led by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell.

In 1867 King traveled to Washington and proposed to Congress a bold plan he had conceived—a professional and scientific exploration of the 40th parallel, the last stretch along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad, already under construction, and into the Southwestern cordillera. It was a watershed moment between the old-order military expeditions and a new wave of scientific exploration: “The sooner you get out of Washington, the better,” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton warned King. “There are four major generals who want your place.” King assembled fellow geologists, topographers (including Gardiner), cavalry troopers under the nominal command of Brig. Gen. A.A. Humphreys (chief of the Corps of Engineers), a botanist, an ornithologist and photographer Timothy O’Sullivan. Mounting up on horses and mules at Sacramento that July, they negotiated the grimly famous Donner Pass and dipped into the Great Basin, collecting rock and mineral samples, plants and animals, and above all making maps and taking weather observations. That first summer most of the party members contracted malaria, while ambient lightning gave King a powerful jolt.

The expedition lasted almost a decade, though the party wrapped up most of its fieldwork in the first five years. In 1872 word got out that prospectors had found diamonds in Colorado Territory. King, who had surveyed the region, made a detour, dug around a bit and pronounced the diamond field fraudulent (see “The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872,” in the October 2013 Wild West). He was right, was heralded in the press, then completed his own fieldwork.

The survey was such a success, particularly in locating potential mineral wealth, that four competing expeditions took to the field, all sanctioned by the U.S. government and funded by taxpayers. Congress took note of the wasteful duplication, and in 1879 it consolidated the expeditions under the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). King sought the director’s slot, though he expected to make a fortune in mining and would stay only until the survey was organized. He knew which strings to pull. King frequented the same social clubs (the Century Club in New York and the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.) as Yale professor Othniel Marsh, his former classmate, and historian Henry Adams.

“He knew America, especially west of the 100th meridian, better than anyone.” said King’s boon friend Adams, grandson and great-grandson of two U.S. presidents. “He knew the professor [Marsh] by heart, and he knew the congressmen better than he did the professor.” Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz—a reformer in the aftermath of the Little Bighorn, the wars with the Nez Perce and the Cheyenne exodus from Indian Territory—handed King the reins of the USGS in April 1879.

King, however, had no intention of empire-building at the agency. He was a bachelor bon vivant, member of an intellectual clique dubbed the “Five of Hearts” with Henry Adams and wife Clover, and John Hay (Abraham Lincoln’s former secretary and a future secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt) and wife Clara. King couldn’t afford such a lifestyle on his $6,000 annual salary as USGS director, so within two years he handed the reins to John Wesley Powell, a one-armed fellow geologist who had earned fame for leading survey parties down the Colorado River by raft while exploring the Grand Canyon from the bottom up.

King struck out on his own with good prospects. “Whatever prizes he wanted lay ready for him,” Adams wrote. “With ordinary luck he would die at 80, the richest and most many-sided genius of his day.” King’s luck, however, fell short of ordinary. He struck some mineral wealth in Arizona and Mexico, but he still couldn’t afford his lavish lifestyle.

On December 6, 1885, Clover Adams —childless and depressed after her father’s death—killed herself by drinking darkroom chemicals. Henry Adams was devastated. King had long remarked that the upper-class white women he knew were vaporizing neurotics. His family’s respect for the Chinese may have made him glower at Adams’ remark that “Japs are monkeys, and the women very badly made monkeys.” King conversely proclaimed, “Miscegenation is the hope of the white race.”

Three years after Clover Adams’ suicide, King put his words into action when he entered into a common-law marriage with Ada Copeland, a black nursemaid and former Southern slave who had recently moved to Brooklyn. In a strange twist, King convinced Copeland he was actually of mixed African ancestry—he had blue eyes, but he kept his receding dark hair short, and his work outdoors left him deeply tanned. King told Ada he was a railroad porter, and later a steelworker, named James Todd. The couple had five children together even as King was consulting in mining cases to support his new family. His double life— maintaining a deep friendship with the racist and anti-Semitic Henry Adams while living with a black woman and fathering five mixed-race children—must have put an enormous strain on a man already troubled by economic woes. Friends reported traces of mental illness. The Panic of 1893 bankrupted King. In Phoenix on Christmas Eve 1901 he died of tuberculosis, struggling to the last to support the family even close friends didn’t know about. From his deathbed King wrote Ada an apologetic note revealing his true identity. Henry Adams, a son of inheritance, had the last word: “The result of 20 years’ efforts proved that the theory of scientific education failed where most theory fails—for want of money.”


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.