King, Clarence Rivers

views updated May 11 2018


(b. Newport, Rhode Island, 6 January 1842; d. Phoenix, Arizona, 24 December 1901),

economic and regional geology, federal science administration, mining consulting. For the original article on King see DSB, vol. 7.

In August 1887 Clarence King decided that “The one important fact … of my twenty years [sic] Washington career and the most important contribution I ever made to science … was the crushing of the old system of personal surveys” (Marcus Benjamin Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives). King thus ranked as his best achievement his role in discontinuing in 1879 the competing federal mapping and science surveys of the postbellum American West, led by Ferdinand Hayden and John Powell for the Interior Department and by Lieutenant George Wheeler for the War Department, and establishing in their place the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). King rated these events above his three principal earlier accomplishments. He conceived and led the War Department’s U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (1867–1879), which became the model and standard for fieldwork and publications by the three other western surveys. In 1872 King and his men also exposed a new but fraudulent Kimberley in Colorado, saving diamond investors far more than the cost of King’s entire survey. His Systematic Geology (1878) innovatively synthesized the entire geologic and tectonic history of the fortieth-parallel country that flanked the transcontinental railroad’s route between California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s Front Range.

Founding the National Geological Survey . The yearlong process of founding a national geological survey for the United States began in March 1878 as the nation continued to recover from the economic depression that followed the financial panic in 1873. As part of wider efforts to reduce federal expenditures and to improve the civil service, the Forty-fifth Congress requested statements from Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler detailing their accomplishments, expenditures, and the nature and cost of any duplication. In June, Abram Hewitt, an iron manufacturer, a member of New Jersey State Geological Survey’s Board of Managers, and the representative from New York’s Tenth Congressional District, followed King’s suggestion for reform. Hewitt arranged in June for Congress to ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), its statutory adviser on subjects of science and art, for a plan to “secure the best possible results at the least possible cost” (20 Stat. at Large of the USA 230, 20 June 1878) of the scientific surveys by the War and Interior Departments and the land-parceling (cadastral) surveys of Interior’s General Land Office (GLO).

The request from Congress, approved by President Rutherford Hayes, went to Yale’s O. C. Marsh, acting president of the NAS since the death of Joseph Henry in May, and the author of Odontornithes (1880), the last volume of the King survey’s final reports. Marsh decided the NAS must respond by the time Congress reconvened early in December. Between August and November, King, at Marsh’s request, advised and aided the committee— Columbia’s John Newberry and five other informed, not directly involved, and (seemingly) unbiased NAS members—appointed by Marsh to plan the reforms. Marsh served ex officio, as required by NAS bylaws.

The NAS committee proposed two new agencies to replace the surveys led by Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler. A new “Coast and Interior Survey,” formed by transferring to the Interior Department the Treasury Department’s U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, would conduct all federal cadastral, geodetic, and topographic surveys and prepare a national topographic map. A new geological survey, a bureau of practical geology, would classify, scientifically, the public domain—the lands mostly west of the Mississippi River to which the federal government still held title—and study its geological structure and economical resources to help the mineral industry aid the struggling economy by providing additional minerals needed for construction and currency. To protect the integrity and objectivity of the new geological survey’s data and analyses, the founders barred employee speculation in the lands and minerals being studied and outside consulting. At the NAS meeting in New York during November 1878, the attending members approved their committee’s proposals by a vote of thirty-one to one. Marsh hurried to Washington and obtained the approval of President Hayes, his reform-minded Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, Treasury Secretary John Sherman, Superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey Carlile Patterson, and General of the Army William Sherman.

After Congress published the NAS report early in December 1878, Schurz asked Powell to rewrite it as legislation. When Powell added his land-reform clauses rejected by Congress in April, Schurz turned to Hewitt and King to prepare a new version. Hewitt introduced their bill, which substituted national for public domain to

allow operations nationwide, in the House during February 1879. After heated congressional debate and deft maneuverings by Hewitt to ensure that Hayden’s supporters did not highjack the measure, the legislators and Hayes agreed to establish within the Interior Department the USGS, but not the proposed Coast and Interior Survey or to improve the GLO. On 3 March the new appropriations law for fiscal 1879-1880 (20 Stat. 394) established the office of director of the USGS, provided $106,000 (two-thirds the total given to the three surveys it replaced) for salaries and operations, specified the agency’s publications, and required it to deposit its scientific collections in the U.S. National Museum.

King Becomes Director . The struggle for reform then passed to the selection of the initial director of the USGS. The framers, who specified that the director be appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, entrusted the success of their work to Hayes, who, while governor of Ohio, had reestablished that state’s geological survey in 1869 and made Newberry its director. Powell, not yet a NAS member, decided that he alone could not defeat Hayden, the senior candidate in years and experience. Powell joined the campaign for King, who had completed his survey and resigned his commission in January 1879 to promote the reforms and to seek the directorship. Hayes’s choice then lay between the reactionary Hayden and the reformer King. Hayes initially favored Hayden, but requested and volunteered letters by and personal visits from Schurz, Newberry, many other NAS members, and several close friends convinced the president that King was the better scientist and manager. The Senate overwhelmingly confirmed King’s nomination.

King, backed by Schurz, introduced to the USGS the modern methods and appliances used in, the high standards for appointments and work by, and the spirit of his fortieth-parallel survey. King’s continued professional brilliance, personal magnetism, natural style of command, and personal sympathy with everyone who worked with him quickly exceeded his new staff’s expectations, won their enthusiastic affection, and generated their best efforts. King urged American industries to utilize natural resources with technical skill and scientific economy. Responding to the USGS’s twin mandates, King planned a scientific classification of the nation’s lands and a comprehensive assessment of the extent, nature, and geological relations of their mineral resources, including large-scale mapping of mining districts to convince industry of geology’s value in developing districts, locating new deposits, and determining their origins. The supporting basic studies in geochemistry, geophysics, and paleontology also would provide new science to apply and to increase knowledge of the Earth and its history. King directed the limited smaller-scale topographic mapping and general geologic investigations by the USGS primarily toward completing a more reliable national geologic map, a goal of federal agencies since the 1830s.

When the attorney general’s decision confined USGS operations to the public domain, King extended the mineral program nationwide by co-funding and participating in a cooperative program with Interior’s Tenth Decennial Census. King secured $156,000 for the USGS in fiscal 1880–1881. This was a fifty percent rise but still well short of the $350,000 that King and Schurz requested as an increase toward the $500,000 needed for the expanded work and parity with the sum long provided to the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

King’s Later Activities . King intended to remain director, as Powell knew in 1879, “only long enough to appoint its staff, organize its work, and guide the force into full activity” (Benjamin Papers, SIA). King’s failure to reach his full-funding and national-coverage goals, his family and personal financial requirements, and his struggles to avoid ethical compromises confirmed that decision, and he resigned in March 1881, a week after Hayes and Schurz left office. On King’s recommendation, new president James Garfield nominated Powell to take over the USGS. On 7 August 1882, King’s and Director Powell’s friends in Congress and President Chester Arthur overcame the geographical restriction on USGS operations by authorizing the agency “to continue the preparation of a geological map of the United States” (22 Stat. 329). Under this rubric, and to King’s dismay, Powell deemphasized USGS work in economic geology and confined it to the public lands. Powell quickly turned the USGS into an agency for topographic mapping (the needed national program) and staff-selected basic research in geology (less immediately required).

Between 1881 and 1893 King promoted, with mixed success, mines in Mexico and the United States, ranches in Wyoming, banks in Texas and California, and other financial ventures. These years also encompassed Powell’s rise and fall in the USGS. After 1886, the failures of Powell’s policies and programs to meet national needs led four Congresses and two presidents to enact a series of statutory restrictions and investigations intended to encourage Powell to return the USGS to its original practical work. The imposition of line-item budgets, the Irrigation Survey’s demise, and then large reductions in USGS scientific statutory positions and specific appropriations for unwanted investigations, a USGS reduction-in-force, and requests for King to resume the directorship marked Powell’s decline. King agreed to return if the change could be made without strife, but his physical ailments and responsibilities for his public and clandestine families led to a brief nervous breakdown in 1893 that prevented his restoration. The financial panic that year destroyed King’s personal resources leaving him hopelessly in debt to his long-time friend John Hay.

King facilitated the called-for change in USGS management. On King’s recommendation in 1893, Interior Secretary Hoke Smith appointed Charles Walcott (one of King’s hires in 1879) as the agency’s geologist-in-charge of geology and paleontology. Following King’s suggestion in 1894, Smith, President Grover Cleveland, and the Senate advanced Walcott to director when Powell resigned before the appropriations law for fiscal 1894–1895 reduced his salary by one-sixth. Walcott reinstituted King’s administrative control, mission orientation, and high standards for appointment. Walcott also restored congressional confidence and support by promoting and expanding USGS investigations to aid not only the mineral industry but also the wiser use of water supplies, land reclamation, and any other practical objective whose achievement depended on a greater knowledge of the Earth and its natural resources. Walcott, like King, thought applied and basic studies inseparable. Under Walcott’s direction to 1907, and thereafter, the USGS undertook basic research not so much for its own sake, as done during Powell’s years, but to meet specific needs for knowledge to solve specific problems.



Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1872. A facsimile reprint was edited by Thurman Wilkins, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963.


Bartlett, Richard. Great Surveys of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

———. “Scientific Exploration of the American West, 1865–1900.” In North American Exploration: Volume 3, A Continent Comprehended, edited by John Allen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1997. Chapter 22 summarizes the section on King’s fortieth-parallel exploration found in Bartlett’s 1962 volume.

Burich, Keith. “‘Something Nobler Is Called into Being’: Clarence King, Catastrophism, and California.” California History 72 (1993), 234–249, 302. Burich concentrates on King’s years with that state’s survey led by Josiah Whitney.

Hausel, Dan, and Sandy Stahl. “The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872.” In Resources of Southwestern Wyoming. Wyoming Geological Association Guidebook 1995 Field Conference Guidebook, Rock Springs, Wyoming, 19–22 August 1995, edited by Richard Jones. Guidebook 46, Pt. 1, pp. 13–27. Casper: Wyoming Geological Association, 1995. This is the forerunner of a book-length analysis of the swindle and also based on the results of Hausel’s study of the discovery site and adjacent locales as a member of the Wyoming State Geological Survey.

Moore, James. King of the 40th Parallel: Discovery in the American West. Stanford, CA: Stanford General Books, 2006. USGS geologist Moore, who has worked extensively in the Sierra Nevada, reviews King’s studies in that range, the Great Basin, and the Rocky Mountains. From a private collection, Moore prints several letters written by King’s friend and colleague James Gardiner.

Nelson, Clifford. “Toward a Reliable Geologic Map of the United States, 1803–1893.” In “Surveying the Record: North American Scientific Exploration to 1930,” edited by Edward Carter II. American Philosophical Society Memoir 231 (1999), 51–74. Nelson evaluates King’s contributions to this improving cartography.

———. “King, Clarence Rivers.” In The History of Science in the United States: An Encyclopedia, edited by Marc Rothenberg. New York: Garland Publishing, 2001.

———.“King, Clarence (Rivers).” In The Development of the Industrial United States, 1870–1899, edited by Ari Hoogenboom. New York: Facts on File, 2003.

———, and Mary Rabbitt. “The Role of Clarence King in the Advancement of Geology in the Public Service.” In Frontiers of Geological Exploration of North America, edited by Alan Leviton. San Francisco: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pacific Division, 1982. This is a briefer evaluation of King’s role as a participant in and leader of mapping and science agencies.

———, and Mary Rabbitt. “King, Clarence Rivers.” In Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists, edited by Kier Sterling. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

O’Toole, Patricia. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880–1918. New York: C. Potter, 1990.

Rabbitt, Mary. Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defense and General Welfare, Vol. 1, Before 1879. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 1979. Vol. 2, 1879–1904. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 1980. Rabbitt appraises King’s role as a participant in and leader of mapping and science agencies.

Sandweiss, Martha. Passing Strange: The Secret Life of Clarence King. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Sandweiss explores Wilkins’s and O’Toole’s views of King’s last two decades.

Smith, Michael. Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850–1915. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream, 1859–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Chapter 5 assesses King within a development context.

Wilkins, Thurman. Clarence King, A Biography. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Revised and expanded edition, completed with the assistance of Caroline Hinkley, significantly improves the groundbreaking version of 1958.

———. “King, Clarence Rivers.” In American National Biography, edited by John Garraty and Marc Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wilson, Robert. The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence King in the Old West. New York: Scribner, 2006. This journalistic retelling, like Moore’s book, relies heavily on Wilkins’s volume as a source.

Clifford M. Nelson

King, Clarence Rivers

views updated Jun 11 2018

King, Clarence Rivers

(b. Newport, Rhode Island, 6 January 1842; d. Phoenix, Arizona, 24 December 1901)


Clarence King’s ancestors included Rhode Islanders distinguished in politics, business, and the arts. He was the son of Caroline Florence Little and James Rivers King, a Canton trader. Mrs. King raised her son to be a Congregationalist and helped him with classical languages as a youth. His father died in 1848, but the family business prospered until the Panic of 1857. In 1859 Mrs. King married a merchant who paid for her son’s college education. Clarence King took the intensive chemistry course, which included James Dwight Dana’s geology lectures, at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School from September 1860 to July 1862, when he graduated with a bachelor of philosophy degree. Between graduation and April 1863, King read further in geology and audited Louis Agassiz’s lectures on glaciers.

King joined the California Geological Survey as an assistant from the fall of 1863 to the fall of 1866. He briefly studied the geology of Arizona as a scienctific escort to a military road survey in the winter of 1865. From 1867 to 1878 he directed the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, a study of topography, petrology, and geological history along the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines. The twenty-five-year-old King had obtained this responsibility over the heads of four major generals. During May 1879 to March 1881 he was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, winning the appointment with the support of John Wesley Powell, who became his successor in 1881. King also led the mining investigations for the tenth census from May 1879 to May 1882. After resigning he worked as a mining geologist. Despite rheumatism, malaria, and a spinal affliction, King was robust enough for strenuous fieldwork until 1893, when financial and personal worries culminated in a nervous breakdown.

King and Ada Todd, a Negro, were married in New York in September 1888 by a Negro Methodist minister, but fear of scandal kept them from filing the certificate that would have legalized the ceremony. They had five children. Apart from his secret life with his family, King lived in genteel, affluent, literary society when in San Francisco or the East. An intimate friend of John Hay and Henry Adams, King influenced the latter with his enthusiastic adoption of Lord Kelvin’s concept of a short age for the earth. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1876) and was a founding member of the Geological Society of America, in addition to joining the American Philosophical Society and other scientific groups.

King’s scientific work may be arbitrarily divided into practical, descriptive, and theoretical units. In 1870 he outlined the Green River coal deposits and correctly predicted greater silver strikes in the Comstock lode, and in 1872 he exposed a diamond fraud. His descriptive work included mapping parts of the Sierra Nevada while on the California survey. In 1863 and 1864 he found fossils that dated the Mariposa gold-bearing slates as Jurassic, and in 1870 he discovered glaciers on Mount Shasta. King hired the microscopic petrographer Ferdinand Zirkle for the fortieth-parallel survey to prepare the first extensive monograph (1876) on American rocks studied in thin section. He also instructed his topographers to use the new triangulation methods developed on the California survey and to record their data on contour maps. In 1880 King established Carl Barus’ laboratory as part of the U.S. Geological Survey to measure physical constants of rocks, and in 1893 he used Barus’ data for diabase to calculate the age of the earth’s crust. King’s calculation of twenty-four million years, based on Kelvin’s theory of the cooling of the earth, was a much shorter time than the uniformitarians had assumed. This figure was widely accepted until the concept of radioactive energy upset the basis of King and Kelvin’s work.

In 1877 King, faced with having to explain the geological past of the American West, promulgated a new catastrophist theory that employed more rapid rates of geological change than those operating on the present landscape. In 1878 he extended his theory to account for the source of volcanic lava: when very rapid erosion took place, decreased pressure allowed subcrustal local melting. He refined Ferdinand von Richthofen’s law of the succession of volcanic rocks by adding acid, neutral, and basic phases resulting from gravity separation in the magma chamber. His neocatastrophism led him to propose a modification of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution: natural selection explained biological change in geologically quiet times, but in revolutions only flexible organisms adapted and survived the rapid change in environment, while the others died out. Given King’s prestige, his ideas eventually helped theories such as diastrophism and neo-Lamarckianism to gain a hearing.


Thurman Wilkins’ scholarly, well-written Clarence King, A Biography (New York, 1958), includes a bibliography of King’s popular and scientific publications, a list of MS collections which have material on King, and citations to printed secondary works.

Treatments of scientific institutions with which King was associated have appeared since Wilkins’s book. See, for example, Gerald Nash, “The Conflict Between Pure and Applied Science in Nineteenth Century Public Policy: The California Geological Survey, 1860-1874,” in Isis,54 (1963), 217-228; Thomas Manning, Government in Science: The U.S. Geological Survey, 1867-1894 (Lexington, Ky., 1967); Gerald White, Scientists in Conflict: The Beginnings of the Oil Industry in California (San Marino, Calif., 1968), ch. 2, on the California survey; and the section on the fortieth-parallel survey in Richard Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (Norman, Okla., 1962).

William Goetzmann reviews King’s entire scientific career in Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1968), chs. 10, 12, 16; Loren Eiseley, in Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It (Garden City, N.Y., 1958), ch. 9, discusses the importance of the problem of the age of the earth; and Edward Pfeifer, in “The Genesis of American Neolamarckianism,” in Isis,56 (1965), 156-167, comments on King’s relevance for other American scientists.

Michele L. Aldrich

Clarence King

views updated May 18 2018

Clarence King

Clarence King (1842-1901), American geologist and mining engineer, was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Clarence King was born January 6, 1842, in Newport, R.I., into a family that traced its origins to colonial times. He attended the Hopkins Grammar School in Hartford, Conn., until his mother moved to New Haven following his father's death. In 1859 he entered the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, where he broadened his early interest and education in science.

In 1862, the year after graduation, King headed west with a friend. They finally arrived in Virginia City, Mont.; this was the time of the Comstock Lode boom. Through a chance meeting with an assistant on the California Geological Survey, both men landed jobs with the survey. The next 3 years, during which he worked with highly trained geologists, were invaluable to King. His reminiscences of the California Geological Survey were later recorded in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872).

Returning east, King convinced the U.S. Congress to finance a survey of the mountainous region from eastern Colorado to the California boundary, an area along the 40th parallel, approximately 100 miles wide. Nominally under an Army general, King operated as a civilian scientist in directing the topographical engineers. His party engaged in fieldwork between 1867 and 1873. During the next 4 years King supervised preparation of the report, comprising seven large folio volumes, that became one of the most important scientific publications to that date. He contributed the still valuable volume Systematic Geology; his colleague J. D. Hague wrote Mining Industry; and Arnold Hague and S. F. Emmons prepared the summary Descriptive Geology. In 1872 King's knowledge of the 40th-parallel area and his clever detective work uncovered a hoax—the reported discovery of huge diamond fields in northwestern Colorado.

Congress decided in 1878 to combine the numerous surveys sponsored by the government into the U.S. Geological Survey, and King was appointed director. Three years later he resigned to enter the cattle business and become a mining entrepreneur. Although he sold his cattle holdings to advantage, he never had material success. His life ended in tragedy; he suffered repeated failures in mining promotions, physical and mental illness, and a lonely death on December 24, 1901, in Phoenix, Arizona from tuberculosis.

Further Reading

The recent biography of King is Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King: A Biography (1958). An older, valuable remembrance is Samuel Franklin Emmons, "Biographical Memoir of Clarence King, 1842-1901" in the National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs (42 vols., 1877-1970). Three important books placing King's career in larger context are Richard A. Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (1962); William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in Winning the American West (1966); and Thomas G. Manning, The United States Geological Survey, 1867-1894 (1968). A single, dramatic aspect of King's life is revealed in Bruce A. Woodward, Diamonds in the Salt (1967).

Additional Sources

Shebl, James M., King, of the mountains, Stockton, Calif.: Pacific Center for Western Historical Studies, University of the Pacific, 1974.

Wild, Peter, Clarence King, Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1981.

Wilkins, Thurman, Clarence King: a biography, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. □

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