Sunday, July 30, 2017


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.

CLARENCE KING has been called the “Indiana Jones of the geological world”.

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.

[Pictured: California Geological Survey, December 1863: Chester Averill, assistant, William M. Gabb, paleontologist, William Ashburner, field assistant, Josiah D. Whitney, State Geologist, Charles F. Hoffmann, topographer, Clarence King, geologist and William H. Brewer, botanist Courtesy: Bancroft Library]

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.

[Pictured: James Gardiner and Clarence King]

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.

[Pictured: Illustration of the 44th Parallel Survey by Clarence King.]

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.

[Pictured: Investigation of Diamond Hoax of 1872; Clarence King on far right.]

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 1887, King met and promptly fell in love with an African American nursemaid named Ada Copeland. A former slave from Georgia, she had moved to New York City a few years earlier. Since interracial relationships were discouraged and illegal in many states, King hid his true identity from Copeland. Regardless of his fair complexion and light eyes, he convinced the woman he loved that he was not only an African American from Baltimore, Maryland but a Pullman porter named James Todd.

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:

Kings Peak in Utah (the highest peak in Utah)

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)


  1. Wow that was a terrific look into the life of a truly interesting man. I love when I stumble across such treasures while researching. Thanks for sharing. Lots of fascinating tidbits to use in other stories.

    1. Thank you so much. I am happy you found the post interesting. Certainly giives a new persoective when writing historical fiction.

  2. This was very interesting! It is amazing at what lengths people went through to be able to live with the one they loved. And what a great explorer.

    1. I agee. There have been many interracial children who were light-skinned and claimed to be white for better opportunity. They kept the truth secret and crossed the color barrier. Clarence's two daughters married white men, but his sons were listed as black on WWI draft registrations. For such a well-known white man to choose to live as black with his family not only (I think) shows the depth of his love for his wife, but the knowledge that trying to bring them into the white community at that time would never have been accepted and subjected them to censure and pain. I choose to think he made his choice to keep his private life secret to protect them, and still work in a way he knew and could earn a better income. As it was, on the 1900 Census, they had two live-in servants to help his wife care for the home. So, his long absences where he wrote his wife and said how much he loved and missed her, was a true desire to provide for them as best he could. However, after his death when the duplicity was revealed, his colleagues always said he idealistically often spoke of a time when people would not be judged by color, or their German, Irish, etc heritage but simply as Americans. They all said they thought it a nice thought but never realized the depth or earnest hope for such a change at that time.

  3. Ashley, once again you outdid yourself. What an interesting post! King led an exciting life on many levels, didn't he?

    1. Thanks very much, Caroline. I imagine it must have been stressful to lead two lives at the same time, and wonder if he worried about getting caught.

  4. What an amazing man! Not only was King an adventurer but he was a man of integrity who did what was necessary to honor his beloved wife. Thank you for sharing your research with us, Ashley.

    1. Thanks, Lyn. It is also interesting the different reactions from people. Many think he should have told his wife the truth, but have heard she would have been ostracized by the black community where they lived. Plus, on the 1900 Census, he was away working and she gave the info to the govt. I think he wanted to protect her as long as he could, or maybe he was afraid to tell her the truth, too. Extraordinary man, extraordinary life.

  5. A great article, Ashley! The life of Clarence King could be made into a fascinating movie. You're right, often while we are researching, we come upon interesting historical people we've never heard or read about before.

    1. I thought the same thing, Cheri! Would definitely make an interesting film. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  6. Wow! What a wonderful and surprising blog. I loved reading about King's accomplishments. Love those geeks. LOL But the part that got my interest was at the end where I discovered from your article that King had a secret identity and life. I was totally intrigued. A delightfully informative and interesting article, Ashley.

    1. Thanks, Sarah J. Yep, his secret identity and other life caught me by surprise. Would have made a great spy, I'm thinking.

  7. Wow, what a fantastic story. Yes, truth is often stranger than fiction. Gotta love the geeks of this world!


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