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Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax: Clarence King in the Old West

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Robert Wilson paints a compelling portrait of Clarence King, scientist-explorer whose mountain-scaling, desert-crossing, river-fording, blizzard-surviving adventures helped create the West. Born in 1842, King became an icon of the new America: a man of action and intellect, science and literature, romanticism and charm. In a combination of adventure, history, and landscape writing, Wilson covers the West during an explosive time for science, politics, and business. And within this fascinating picture of the nineteenth century we meet a man who, for better or for worse, typified the soul of the era.
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Editorial Reviews

Candice Millard
Although Wilson makes every effort to be honest with his readers, King did not, and in many cases King's own version of events is all we have to rely on. But perhaps such uncertainty is fitting for a man who, in Adams's memory, was "saturated with the sunshine of the Sierras," a man who left behind a hazy impression of vitality and originality and the memory of a life that was often stranger than fiction.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Clarence King (1842-1901) was the Indiana Jones of the 19th century. His dangerous 1864 passage across the Sierra Nevadas in California was hailed as ushering in "a new era in American mountaineering," during which his discovery of metamorphosed fossils helped determine the age of the Sierra Nevada gold belt-time-saving information for prospectors. In 1872, his debunking of fantastic claims of a "diamond field" in northwestern Colorado made him a national hero. King also wrote several landmark studies of mining, geology and mountaineering. American Scholar editor Wilson has produced an affectionate account of King's life that emphasizes the inevitable hardship of exploration as much as King's scientific achievements. King represented "a new paradigm of the western adventurer... the scientist-explorer, who seeks knowledge rather than territory or riches." Wilson judiciously sifts through the record of King's exploits. Almost as if he cannot bear to document his subject's long, slow decline, when he himself became obsessed with extracting riches from the earth, Wilson stops the story at King's uncovering of the Great Diamond Hoax. Wilson adds to our picture of the Wild West: one populated less by bloodthirsty bandits and ruthless ranchers than by earnest, upstanding men defined by their curiosity and courage. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Colorful biography of a geologist who surveyed much of the American West in the mid-19th century. Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, begins by showing King (1842-1901) in the 1880s, when Henry Adams's circle admired him not only as a man of action but as a brilliant mind and a ready wit. The orphaned son of a New England trading family, King attended Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, where he excelled in geology, the most prestigious science of the era. After the outbreak of the Civil War, King headed west and soon found a job with the California Geological Survey, headed by Josiah Whitney, a friend of his Sheffield professors. There the King legend began, as he scaled unclimbed mountains, gathered mineral specimens and accumulated an impressive list of adventures-a fair number of which Wilson shows to be tall tales. But King's experience led to a job as director of the Fortieth Parallel Survey, charting the territory between California and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. This section of the country was important both as a route for the first continental rail lines, and as a possible repository of valuable mineral deposits. Here for the first time, King was leader of an exploration, dependent on the efforts of his team to secure results; while the survey was two years late in finishing, the geological work was some of the most significant of its time. At the end of the survey, King exposed a pair of hoaxers who had conned several wealthy men into investing in a fraudulent diamond mine. At this point the story ends-with King clearly depicted against the background of his time, and his place in 19th-century science firmly established. Lively and well told.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781593761615
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,450,256
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Explorer King

Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax-Clarence King in the Old West
By Robert Wilson


Copyright © 2006 Robert Wilson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-6025-2


The Little White House

In the early months of 1881, in a boxy three-story mansion on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., a small group of friends fell into the rhythm of meeting nearly every day at teatime for witty, often scathing conversation about the city that churned along around them. The Greek Revival structure where they met, white with a modest portico supported by Ionic columns, was known in the neighborhood as the little White House, and it faced that other more imposing White House just across the square. The smaller residence was rented by Henry Adams, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had inhabited the larger one, and by Henry's wife, Clover. The couple had just returned to Washington after eighteen months in Europe while Henry researched a history of the United States in the years when Jefferson and Madison were president. During the two winters of an earlier residence in the city, when Henry was working on a biography and a novel at a yellow house draped in wisteria a block east on H Street, Clover and Henry had stood back from Washington society, which then as now was all about job seeking and job keeping. They favored a smaller circle of friendsselected for their ability to engage and amuse them. This exclusivity had caused their social stock, already fairly high given Henry's lineage, to rise; an invitation to either of the H Street houses was valued in proportion to the difficulty of achieving it. Even senators were sometimes snubbed, although Henry James probably goes too far when in his story "Pandora" he has a character based on Henry Adams say, "Hang it ... let us be vulgar and have some fun - let us invite the President." Adams himself said, "Socially speaking, we are very near most of the powerful people, either as enemies or friends."

The inner circle within this wider group of friends consisted of one other couple, John and Clara Hay, and one bachelor, Clarence King. When they could, the five of them met each day at five o'clock during the winter of 1881, and would often share dinner and then talk well into the evening. John Hay was ending a brief term as assistant secretary of state, and Clara, the daughter of a rich businessman from Cleveland, was living in town with him that winter. Hay had first come to Washington two decades earlier as a young man, employed as personal secretary to the new president, Abraham Lincoln, and had resided in the White House until the assassination. In the intervening years he had worked in the diplomatic corps in Europe, written editorials for the New York Tribune, published several books, including a popular collection of poems, and begun a massive biography of Lincoln that would occupy him for a decade. After his marriage to Clara in 1874 he moved with her to Cleveland to help her father tend to his millions. When Hay went to Washington for the State Department job in 1879, he left Clara and their young children behind, and took a room at Wormley's, a comfortable hotel on 15th and H streets.

There Hay fell in with another resident who was an acquaintance from New York, a brilliant scientist, explorer, and writer who at the age of thirty-seven had already done enough living to fill several lifetimes. This was Clarence King. He was in Washington serving as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, which had been established by Congress in 1879 after intense lobbying by King and his friend John Wesley Powell. Hay and King were soon together all the time, meeting for breakfast and attending social functions in the evenings. Before long the two of them and a third man, General Francis A. Walker, the superintendent of the tenth national census then under way, rented a house at 1400 Massachusetts Avenue, which Hay referred to as the "bachelor castle." They kept a private dining room at Wormley's, where the food was much better than at home and where, according to one man who sometimes joined them for lunch, "I doubt whether there ever was table-talk more brilliant than that to which we listened in that room."

King basked in the admiration of the other four members of the group that gathered at the Adamses' house that winter, who were drawn not only to his table talk but to his charm, wit, and intelligence. "No one is as good company," Clover wrote to her father. Henry, who had known King for a decade, had also taken a serious interest in his scientific pursuits, and through King was drawn into what Adams's biographer Ernest Samuels calls the "scientific renaissance" taking place in Washington at the time. Even Clara, the one member of the group who was not dazzlingly verbal, must have admired King, given his admiration for her. He was not often drawn to women of his own class, but he found the handsome Clara "calm and grand," a person who represented "the best of the 19th century." So close did the five of them become that winter that they began to call themselves the Five of Hearts, a little joke but also an acknowledgment of their mutual affection and of the exclusivity of their club. The name evoked some jealousy and even a nasty rumor or two among the other residents of Lafayette Square. But within the group the name was a bit of harmless whimsy, soon reinforced by notepaper with the five of hearts engraved on it. King took the joke to its extreme when in 1885 he gave Henry and Clover a china tea set, complete with heart-shape cups, teapot, and a double-heart sugar bowl. Each piece carried the face of a clock whose hands showed five, teatime, the hour when the gossip would begin.

Both King and Hay served as emissaries to the other three from the world that their salon held at bay, the daily give-and-take of Washington politics. King, especially, as the head of a government bureau, had to keep up his contacts with members of Congress, whose yearly appropriations, and the meddling in his affairs that went with them, were necessary to his success. Because Wormley's, owned and run by the black son of a former slave, was considered to be the best hotel in Washington, congressmen and cabinet officers often lived there; it was a place where backroom deals were made, including the compromise in 1877 that made Rutherford B. Hayes the winner of that contested presidential election. All of the five friends knew important cabinet officers, foreign diplomats, and the more interesting sort of congressman, and for all their aloofness they were familiar with the inside of the other White House. As Ernest Samuels puts it, "President Hayes was the first of a long line of Presidents with whom Adams was to endure an intimacy of sorts." King would go regularly to Mrs. Hayes's Saturday receptions at the White House, where the Marine Band played, and at the insistence of the First Lady, known as "Lemonade Lucy," no alcohol, not even wine, was offered. But the guests would include a slew of legislators King needed to see, or such potentates as Treasury Secretary John Sherman or Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, who had helped King get his job and was now his boss as well as his friend. It would all make entertaining chatter for the others at 1607 H Street, the little White House across the square.

For much of the summer and fall of 1880, King had been out west, mixing public and private business while trying to recover from a wicked combination of illnesses of the body and the spirit - fatigue and depression on top of a recurring malaria mixed with dysentery that caused him to drop thirty pounds, at least temporarily. When he returned to Washington in early 1881, he had given up the bachelor's castle, and there were no rooms available at Wormley's. Rather than share a room at the hotel, he moved in with the Adamses at 1607, where there were six bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, and where six servants looked after the three of them.

Downstairs, the house was a model of Victorian elegance. Carpenters had built bookshelves for Henry's library, and plumbers, painters, paperhangers, and other workmen had spent two months in the fall preparing the house for the Adamses' fifteen wagonloads of furniture, objets d'art, paintings, and Oriental rugs. (The preparations included one highly unsettling event. One of the painters, a German whom Adams scolded for not doing a better job, "lost his temper with Henry," Clover wrote, "saying he 'couldn't please him.'" Both of the Adamses tried to calm him down and thought they'd succeeded. But later that day he went home and cut his wife's throat with a putty knife.) But the rest of the workmen proved sane enough to finish the job, and the walls were hung with drawings by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others. In the library, beneath the thirteen-foot ceilings, were an oil painting by Constable, a Turner watercolor of the Rhone River Valley, two Joshua Reynolds portraits, and forty-four other watercolors. Two Turners were among the oils in the dining room, and thirty-two prints graced Henry's study. There were Japanese vases on display, as well as Oriental bronzes and porcelains, and rugs from Shiraz, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Bokhara, and elsewhere. Potted palms added another touch of Victorian exoticism.

King held court in the drawing room, where dark red leather armchairs, small enough to be comfortable for the diminutive Henry and Clover, were arrayed. At five feet six, King was the tallest of the five. He was a handsome man who had been a beautiful boy, and in spite of his recent illnesses his hazel eyes held the liveliness and confidence of one who had always been adored by those around him. His short-cropped blond hair was receding and he had a beard trimmed low off his sun-darkened cheeks. Although he retained much of the physical strength that had made him a famous mountaineer in his youth, he had lost his athletic build. Now he was gaunt from his recent illnesses, but generally he carried extra weight that even good tailoring could not hide, a girth which in that age gave King the look of a prosperity he could not always claim. Too many nights of sleeping on the ground out west had begun to make his joints creaky with arthritis. When he spoke, his voice was soft, but his talk could make a room go silent around him.

Like any other form of performance in those days, conversation was an art that died at birth, and unlike a concert or a play it left no score or script to hint at what the experience of hearing it must have been like. The few snatches of his talk that friends wrote down consisted mainly of puns, for which King had a propensity. None of these witticisms travels the years very successfully, but then not many puns succeed on the page as well as they can in conversation. One of the better surviving examples of King's spontaneous wit comes from the summer of 1883, when he was in England visiting one of his literary heroes, the art critic John Ruskin, who happened to be selling off his famous collection of Turner paintings. Because King had charmed Ruskin so thoroughly, the older man took "King to his heart and poured lyric toffy all over him," according to John Hay. Ruskin offered King the chance to buy either of the two best Turners remaining in his collection. King bought them both, saying, "One good Turner deserves another."

Perhaps the closest thing to hearing the rhythm and tenor of King's speech comes in Henry Adams's novel Esther, in which the character George Strong is closely patterned on King. In it, Esther has decided to marry a clergyman, although she suffers from the religious doubt of that post-Darwinian time. Strong is a scientist, a professor of paleontology who, like King, has spent years in the field as a "practical geologist." He represents the new religion of science. Esther begins a crucial exchange between them:

"Will you answer me a question? Say yes or no!"

"That depends on the question, Mistress Esther! Old birds are not to be caught in old traps. State your question, as we say in the lecture-room."

"Is religion true?"

"I thought so! Cousin Esther, I love you as much as I love any one in this cold world, but I can't answer your question. I can tell you all about the mound-builders or cave-men, so far as is known, but I could not tell you the difference between the bones of a saint and those of a heathen. Ask me something easier! Ask me whether science is true!"

"Is science true?"


"Then why do you believe in it?"

"I don't believe in it."

"Then why do you belong to it?"

"Because I want to help in making it truer. Now, Esther, just take this matter coolly! You are bothered, I suppose, by the idea that you can't possibly believe in miracles and mysteries, and therefore can't make a good wife for Hazard. You might just as well make yourself unhappy by doubting whether you would make a good wife to me because you can't believe the first axiom in Euclid. There is no science that does not begin by requiring you to believe the incredible."

"Are you telling me the truth?"

"I tell you the solemn truth that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so difficult to accept for a working proposition as any of the axioms of physics."

Esther is a novel of ideas, and those ideas, like its dialogue, belong of course to its author. But it is also a roman a clef, and many of the characters in it are closely drawn from people Adams knew, including Esther herself, who in her religious doubt resembles his wife, Clover. When Adams describes Strong as "an intelligent man, with a figure made for action, an eye that hated rest, and a manner naturally sympathetic," we can take it as a description of King. If a novel of ideas is to succeed, as Esther does, its characters can't just be cartoons of the ideas themselves. In this sense, King was a good model for Strong, a man whose science fills him with doubts rather than with certainties. King himself was fervently religious as a boy and young man, but after his education at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and his entry into the country's intellectual elite in the years after Darwin's On the Origin of Species had seeded religious doubt in the minds of thinking people, King's religious beliefs became less dogmatic. In the novel, Esther asks Strong if he believes in God. "Not in a personal one" was Strong's reply. "Or in future rewards or punishments?" Esther continues. "Old women's nursery tales!" he says. King himself continued to make references to God throughout his life, as in an important speech he gave at the Sheffield School in 1877, when he speaks of "He who brought to bear that mysterious energy we call life upon primeval matter." As King's principal biographer, Thurman Wilkins, puts it, "King's final theology, whatever it was ... enabled him to face death calmly and without fear."

Given his promise, his courage, his intelligence, his energy, and his optimism, King was for many of the people who knew him an exemplar of the best aspects of America after the Civil War. John Hay would call him "the best and brightest man of his generation," and Adams said of King that "men worshipped not so much their friend, as the ideal American they all wanted to be." King crossed the continent for the first time at the age of twenty-one, in 1863, and after the war the nation itself followed him, pouring into the West, especially after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. When he arrived in California, King went to work for a major geological survey of the state then under way. In his several years with the survey he was, as far as history knew, the first man to climb some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada, and he named several of them. On these climbs, King and a companion would scale sheer cliffs of rock or ice, leap across precipices, lower one another down level by level with ropes, sleep through freezing nights without so much as a blanket - holed up under outcroppings or in small caves or clinging to bare rock that held a bit of the sun's heat. They would often go for several days, expending tremendous amounts of energy to climb, with only a few biscuits in their pockets for nourishment. King also crossed deserts, survived a killer snowstorm, swam a raging, rain-swollen river, and viewed stupendous sites of natural beauty, from Yosemite, which he was the first person to survey, to the Shoshone Falls of the Snake River, to the Pacific as seen from mountaintops a hundred miles inland. He was a close and at times bemused observer of the people who were establishing California in the decades after the Gold Rush, and of the rough, often deadly communities in which they lived.


Excerpted from The Explorer King by Robert Wilson Copyright © 2006 by Robert Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Little White House     1
Going West     17
Alone Together     21
A Scientific Education     41
Crossing the Continent     61
Into the Field     77
The Highest Peaks     95
Man of Action     97
The Top of California     113
Tall Tales     135
Geologist in Charge     159
Making the Leap     163
Strong Men     177
The Fortieth Parallel     195
Between Missouri and Hell     197
Rising in the Sagebrush     219
Pretty Crystals     235
Epilogue: Change or Die     255
Bibliography     265
Notes     269
Photo Credits     287
Acknowledgments     289
Index     291
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