Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Explorer King by Robert Wilson

Clarence King was probably the most well-known American scientist of his time. It doesn’t hurt that his scientific reputation was built on exploration of the then still wild west of the United States of that he could spin a tale. Robert Wilson recounts the life of the accomplished geologist in The Explorer King.

King was born in 1842. He was raised in Newport, Massachusetts. He was educated at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School.

As a young man, King was enamored of art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin thought the rugged Alps of Europe to be the best subject of art for their beauty, colorfulness, ruggedness and variety. When he met western geologists and mountaineers through mentors at Sheffield, he wanted to be part of it.

He headed out for California in 1863 and became part of the state’s geologic survey. He would spend the next decade studying the geology and geography of the American west, especially its mountains. He showed great physical prowess and courage as a mountaineer.

After working on the California survey, he went on to lead surveys. In 1864, he was chosen to lead a survey of Yosemite.

He built on his reputation from the Yosemite survey to lobby Congress to fund a survey of the 40th Parallel, roughly the route the transcontinental railroads would follow. Though it was under the auspices of the Army Corp of Engineers, it was the first federally-funded scientific endeavor that was completely staffed by civilians. While working on this survey, he was the first to discover active glaciers in the U.S. His team published new methods of silver smelting to make the mines for productive (the survey’s first report dealt with mining in order to show the commercial value of their research to money-conscious Congressmen).

The 40th Parallel survey made King famous, though not because of the many contributions to science that came from it. King’s team heard rumors of a diamond discovery in Colorado. It would have been very embarrassing for them to have walked over such a valuable mineral resource without observing it. They tracked down the site of the discovery and determined it was a hoax; the site had been planted with rough diamonds and other uncut gemstones that the con men had bought mostly with money from their marks. Stories of massive fraud sells newspapers, especially when the names of big money men in San Francisco and New York are attached to it. King was the hero of the story.

When the U.S. Geological Survey was created, King was appointed to be its first director. His career as a scientist was already on the decline. He would turn his attention to making money in mining, but he would not be successful. He would have no money when he died.

This leads to an interesting point about King, though it is not the focus of Wilson’s biography. King had nothing to leave for his secret family. He was married to a black woman. This was a very unusual thing at the time. To protect his reputation, he kept the marriage a secret. He did not even reveal to his wife his real identity until shortly before he died (she knew him as James Todd). His friend John Hay provided for Ada Copeland Todd (and the five children she had with King) after King died in 1901.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in


Wilson, Robert. The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence King in the Old West. New York: Scribner, 2006.