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Clarence King (January 6, 1842 – December 24, 1901) was an Americanmarker geologist, mountaineer, and art critic. First director of the United States Geological Survey, from 1879 to 1881, King was noted for his exploration of the Sierra Nevada. He was born in Newport, Rhode Islandmarker.


In 1862, King graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale Collegemarker with a Ph.B. in chemistry. While at Yale, he studied with James Dwight Dana. After graduation King traveled on horseback to Californiamarker with his good friend and classmate, James Terry Gardiner. In California he joined the California Geological Survey without pay where he worked with William H. Brewer, Josiah D. Whitney and Richard D. Cotter. In October 1872, he uncovered a diamond and gemstone hoax perpetrated by Philip Arnold. In 1864, King and Richard Cotter reported the first ascent of Mount Tyndallmarker, at the time labeling it mistakenly as the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada.

In the mid-1850s King began to read works by John Ruskin and associated with a group of American artists, writers, and architects who followed Ruskin's thinking. Through this group he became aware of the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1863, with John William Hill and Clarence Cook he helped to found the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, an American group, similar to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who published a journal called The New Path.

In 1867, King was named U.S. Geologist of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, commonly known as the Fortieth Parallel Survey, a position for which he strongly lobbied. King spent six years in the field exploring areas from Wyoming to the border of California. During that time he also published his famous "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" (1872). After the completion of the field work, in 1878 King published "Systematic Geology."

While conducting field work for the Survey, King met and befriended Henry Brooks Adams. Their friendship lasted for the rest of King's life, and he is often mentioned by Adams in the autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams (1907).

In 1879, the US Congress consolidated the number of geological surveys exploring the American West and created the United States Geological Survey. King was chosen its first director; however, he served for only twenty months.

King died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizonamarker, and is buried in Newport, Rhode Islandmarker. Kings Peakmarker in Utahmarker, Mount Clarence Kingmarker and Clarence King Lake at Shastina, California are named in his honor.

Double life as James Todd

King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and became enamored with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid (and former slave) from Georgiamarker who had moved to New York Citymarker in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and even illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two fell in love and entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. The union produced five children. King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona.


  • Clarence King (1871). Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Boston: James Osgood & Co., New York: C. Scribner’s sons tenth edition 1902: online edition
  • Clarence King, Catastrophism and Evolution, The American Naturalist, Vol. 11, No. 8. (Aug., 1877), pp. 449–470.
  • Thurman Wilkins and Caroline Lawson Hinkley (1988). Clarence King: A Biography, University of New Mexico Press, 1988 revised edition, softcover, ISBN 0-8263-1085-0
  • Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, (Viking, 2006), King, one of four Americans on whom the author focuses, was influenced by Alexander von Humboldt.
  • Robert Wilson (2006). The Explorer King : Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence King in the Old West, Scribner, ISBN 0-7432-6025-2

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