Born in Newport on January 6, 1842, Clarence King, commonly referred to as “Clare”, was a fifth-generation Newporter. His father, James Rivers King, was involved in the family commerce of King & Talbot, during the period in history referred to as the “Opium Wars”. James was out to sea when his son was born, so Clare did not see much of his father in those early years. However, Clare did take a strong liken to Newport.
The separation between father and family was long and tiresome, but James returned to Newport and spent about 18 months with his family. During that time, James and his wife, Florence, became parents of a daughter Florence, named in honor of the mother.
Upon the death of his brother, James returned to China to assist with company affairs in the spring of 1847. During his absence, another baby girl was born named Grace Vernon. However, tragedy struck and this child died at 14 months of age. Clare’s mother received the news of James’ death in the Orient on that very same day of September 14, 1848. Although the death of James had happened on June 2, 1848, it had taken three months for Clare’s mom to receive the news. News traveled very slowly.
By this time, Clare was six and half years of age and was ready for his formal education to begin. His grief stricken mother, in the best interest of the family, was to uproot and move. She may have felt, that she didn’t want to lose her only son – to a life at sea and wanted to withdraw Clare from the influence of the family business and the lure of potential adventures, that a seaport town like Newport could provide. Thus ended Clarence’s early days in Newport, although the family did maintain the long time residence here.
The family went to live in Pomfret, Connecticut, Boston, New Haven, and by the time he was thirteen, they moved to Hartford, Connecticut. His schooling ended ,when he graduated with honors in 1862 from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale.
Eventually, he journeyed west with a friend, ending up at the mines of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. These mines were located northeast of Lake Tahoe, California and the present state capitol of Carson City. The Comstock Lode was one of the richest gold and silver deposits ever discovered, resulting in a spectacular rush, where immense fortunes were made. This was at the height of the Civil War era and the Lode funded the war effort.
He remained there studying and working in the mines, until he left by foot over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range into California. He spent the next three years working for the California Geological Survey before returning east. By this time, the Civil War ended and there was increased activity in the surveying of our country’s western lands. King was able to persuade our government into the most ambitious federal geological exploration survey ever done, the geological exploration of the 40th parallel (The King Survey) from 1867-1872. By the act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat at L., 457) Congress provided for a geological and topographical exploration. This territory encompassed the Rocky Mountains, and Denver on the east, westward through the Great Salt Lake region to the Sierra Nevada. This is the present day Nevada and California state boundaries.
Before embarking as the head of this exploration, he headed to Newport for rest and to await further instructions. His work on the 40th parallel would make him famous, as he and his men lifted this whole region of our country out of the shroud of myth. Up until this time, people had no idea of what was out there. During the survey, King managed to write a book, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, based on his past personal and geological work, while he was with the California Geological Survey. In his book, he told of what a fascinating and dangerous place it was. And King would uncover the “Great Diamond Hoax”, an elaborate plan to defraud investors, by placing fake gems in the soil in the vicinity of the present day state lines of Colorado and Utah. His discovery was made public, when an article ran in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin on November 26, 1872. All this activity took place, while he was working on the 40th parallel survey, which was approximately ten years in the making – before its formal completion.
By this time, Congress had authorized other men to do various surveys. Toward the latter stages of the 1870’s, tensions, rivalries and jealousy had grown among the various scientific surveys that were being conducted in the field. To obtain the best results, at the least possible cost and to avoid duplication in work, Congress unified all of the government surveys into one. Thus, the United States Geological Survey was created as a bureau in the Department of Interior on March 3, 1879 (20 stat L. 394). The principle functions of the survey, included the study of geological structures of the national domain and to classify the public lands.
Clarence King was chosen as the first Director, but stated, that he would only serve in this capacity to get the bureau structured, staffed and implemented. Confirmed on April 3, 1879, he assumed his duties in May and received an annual salary of $6,000.00. After his first full year, he felt that his goals had been accomplished and he tried to resign from office, but his resignation was refused. He went on to compose the first annual report of the geological survey before his resignation was finally accepted on March 6, 1881. During his two years in office, King had shown great administrative skill. Thereafter, he entered private practice and for the rest of his life he became involved in business, scientific work, traveling and serving as a consulting expert in important cases of mining litigation.
In 1887, King met a woman by the name of Ada in New York. There was a problem with his relationship with this woman, who was twenty years younger than he. She was negro (the term African American had not been invented as of yet). In this era, it was legally permissible for inter-racial marriage in New York, however, King with a concern for social correctness, felt that his fame, friends and ailing mother would not approve of this relationship. Fearing this potentially embarrassing situation would create scandal, he never revealed his true identity to Ada, assuming the name of James Todd. He finally followed his heart and married her in a secret ceremony in September of 1888, thus marking the beginning of a secret double life which would include separate residences and eventually, five children.
King continued his business activities except that problems arose in 1893, the year of the financial panic, which led to a four year depression in this country. This resulted in monumental debt, and to compound matters, his grandmother and his first son, named Clarence, died. The mounting stress of his secret life may have contributed to him being involved in a senseless street brawl in Central Park, where he was arrested. At the urging of his close friends, he was committed to an asylum. Psychiatric care was not what he needed. Rest and relaxation was his cure. A few months later he was released and began work again.
Sensing the end of his life was near, he finally told Ada who he really was and instructed her to go and live with their children in Canada, where there was less prejudice in comparison to the United States. As sad a farewell as that was, he said goodbye to all of his friends and removed to sunny Arizona where, six months later, he died on Christmas Eve, 1901.
The long time King residence, in which King was born and spent much of his time over the course of his life no longer exists. It stood on the northeast corner of High and Church Streets. It is now the present day site of the parking lot for the Hotel Viking.
Clarence King lies in Island Cemetery here in Newport. His headstone was knocked over years ago and lies imbedded with grass. His name is barely legible and the inscription, “I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord”, has long since gone.
Stinson, Brian. Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame. (The History Press. Charleston, SC), 2018. 126-128.