King, Clarence, 1842-1901

Alternative names
Birth 1842-01-06
Death 1901-12-24

Biographical notes:

Clarence Rivers King (1842-1901) was a geologist, mining engineer, and writer. He graduated from Yale Scientific School in 1862, journeyed West, and joined the California Geological Survey as volunteers. From 1867-1877, King directed the geological and scientific survey of the Fortieth Parallel from eastern Colorado to the California border. The next year he was made head of the newly established United States Geological Survey, a position he held until entering private practice as a mining engineer in 1881.

From the description of Papers of Clarence King, 1859-1902. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 122570814

Graduating with a degree in chemistry from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1862, Clarence King spent another full year preparing himself to become a geologist by studying privately and attending courses at Harvard. Recognizing that practical experience was essential, however, King signed on as a volunteer aboard Josiah Whitney's fledgling California Geological Survey from 1863, setting off across the plains and mountains on horseback for a three year stint in the far west.

While traversing the continent, King conceived of organizing a cross-country geological survey that would cut a transect across the nation parallel to the transcontinental railraod. With Whitney's assistance, the idea germinated in 1867 into the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, one of four great western geological surveys during the mid-century. For five years, King led a company of Army Topographical Engineers from the Sierra Nevadas to the Rockies, work that culminated in an influential series of publications crowned by King's own Systematic Geology .

With the success of the Fortieth Parallel survey on his side, King returned east and soon took up lobbying for the National Academy of Sciences to urge Congress to approve formation of a U.S. Geological Survey, an agency intended to supplant the existing surveys and guide future geological and topographical exploration of the country. After a brief controversy over whether he or F.V. Hayden should be appointed head, King became the first Director of the U.S.G.S. in March 1879.

King's tenure with the Survey was to be very brief. Arguing that he had accomplished his goal of placing the Survey on a firm and permanent footing, he resigned as the Hayes administration left office in April 1881, leaving the directorship in the hands of his hand-picked successor, John Wesley Powell. King retired into private practice as a mining engineer and economic geologist in 1881. His efforts to earn his fortune in mines, however, largely failed, and although he remained active behind the scenes in geological politics until almost the turn of the turn of the century, King spent much of his time as a jovial clubman, socializing at the Union League Club and Century Club in New York. His common law marriage to a Black woman, Ada Copeland, in 1888 was kept largely secret. He died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 24, 1901, leaving his wife and four children.

From the guide to the Clarence King Papers, 1873-1894, 1873-1894, (American Philosophical Society)


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Ark ID:


  • Geology
  • Geologists--Archives
  • Mining engineers
  • Mines and Mineral Resources
  • Mining engineers--Archives
  • Geology--19th century


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  • West (U.S.) (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Utah (as recorded)
  • Cheyenne (Wyo.) (as recorded)
  • Hot Creek Mining District (Utah) (as recorded)
  • Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nevada) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)