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B&C Member Spotlight - Clarence King

By PJ DelHomme 

As a scientist, mountaineer, author, and incredibly good liar, Clarence King led a secret double life that has only recently come to light.

LEFT: Clarence King at the age of 27. RIGHT: King at his 40th Parallel camp near Salt Lake City, October 1868.

Clarence King may be one of the most eccentric members of the Boone and Crockett Club. A noted geologist, he was appointed the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey and became a member of the Club in 1888. When he wasn’t surveying or studying California’s volcanoes, he was pretending to be a blue-eyed, light-skinned Black man named James Todd—or so he told his wife and mother of their five children.

Avoiding Cannon Fodder

Born to a wealthy, well-established family in Newport, Rhode Island in 1842, Clarence King was raised by his mother. His father was killed while working overseas in the family’s trading business, which may have had ties to the opium trade. King was only six years old at the time. His mother did remarry, and she must have married well yet again because King attended the Sheffield Science School at Yale to study chemistry.

King was not a tall man, but he was an athlete. He joined Yale’s rowing team where he eventually became captain. He graduated in 1862. Even though the United States was embroiled in the Civil War and King was a vocal abolitionist, he had allegiances elsewhere, namely in adventure travel. Leaving on a train from Niagara, New York, King and a group of friends traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri. They had befriended a family who invited King to accompany them on their wagon train west in return for taking care of the stock. Eventually, King made his way west to a steamship bound for San Francisco. On the streamer, he met William Henry Brewer of the California Geologic Survey. King offered to volunteer with the survey, and this launched his career.

Gold Dinosaurs, Yosemite, and Diamond Frauds

As part of the California Geological Society, King and a team explored and mapped the northern reaches of the Sierra Nevada range, including Mt. Whitney. They traveled through the Sierra gold fields. For years, King studied the gold belt, eventually identifying an age of gold-bearing rocks by linking those rocks with fossils.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln found time to sign the Yosemite Valley Grant Act and set aside the Yosemite Valley for public use and recreation. King and his cohorts were selected to survey the boundary for such a playground.

After a couple of field seasons together, King and James Gardiner, a close high school friend who had been working and traveling with him, came up with a plan to survey the Great Basin area, but they needed funding. In 1866, King went to D.C. to pitch his idea to Congress. He got his funding and for the next five years, King and Gardiner, his second in command, explored and surveyed much of the area along the fortieth parallel north from northeastern California, through Nevada, to eastern Wyoming.

The year 1872 was a big one for King. That was the year he finished the Fortieth Parallel Survey, published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, and was credited with exposing the fraudulent claim that a giant diamond field was discovered in Arizona—the latter making waves for nearly a century.

The Great Diamond Hoax was an elaborate ruse concocted by two veteran prospectors to squeeze money from investors, including politicians, Baron von Rothschild and Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. The prospectors showed up at a California bank with a sack full of diamonds, and when pressed, they claimed to have discovered a vast, remote area littered with diamonds. In reality, the men had purchased diamond chips and “salted” the area with them. And that’s what potential investors found when the prospectors took them to the site. King was familiar with that remote northwest chunk of the Colorado Territory. When he heard about the find, he was suspicious and sent two men from his survey team. When King investigated for himself, he noted the diamonds were so varied that they would never be found in a single deposit. In fact, many were from South Africa.

By the late 1870s, Congress had more than a few survey parties mapping, exploring, and cataloging the resources of the western U.S. In an effort to unify all the work under one umbrella, Congress established the United States Geological Survey in 1879, and President Hayes nominated Clarence King to be the first director. He was tasked with structuring the bureau and staffing it. After two years, he felt his job was done and stepped down. He was succeeded by John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and geologist who was the first person to run the Colorado River down the entire length of the Grand Canyon.

LEFT: King (far right) is seen here is true prospector uniform. This photo from the mid-1860s was prior to the 40th parallel survey. RIGHT: King at home in a mountain camp.

King’s Secret Family

On the surface, Clarence King’s life was similar to other early Boone and Crockett Club members. He went to Yale, explored the West, became director of a government agency, and lived in New York City. Yet King had more than just an alter-ego; he had another identity altogether.

King met Ada Copeland, a former slave from Georgia living in New York City, late in 1887. He introduced himself to her as James Todd and somehow convinced Copeland he was a Black man, even though his complexion was fair and his eyes blue. She was at least 20 years younger than him. He said he worked as a Pullman porter for the railroad, a common job for Black men at the time. It was also the perfect cover for King, who would be away for long periods.

As his common-law wife, Ada Copeland had five children with King. James Todd set up a home in Brooklyn across the bridge from King’s home in Manhattan. The ruse went on for 13 years.

King died in 1901 after moving to Arizona to help relieve his symptoms of tuberculosis. Before dying, though, he wrote a letter to Copeland, coming clean about his identity. To better understand this strange and fascinating tale, read Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss, whose book dives into the very heart of love and race in the Gilded Age.

We can only speculate on King’s motives in the last decade of his life after he retired from the USGS. We do know that he had a genuine thirst for adventure and lived a life few others could have ever dreamed of living.

If you’re curious why a very white, blue-eyed man claimed to be a Black Pullman porter, this video is a great place to start.

Member Spotlights

Boone and Crockett Club members have come from a cross-section of famous accomplished people whose lives and careers have written and recorded the history of this country since the late 19th Century. They have been naturalists, scientists, explorers and sportsmen, writers and academicians, artists, statesmen and politicians, generals, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, and industrialists. Their diversity of ideas and activities during their careers have made the Boone and Crockett Club rich in its fellowship and achievements. To read more member spotlights, just click here

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal

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-Theodore Roosevelt