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A Forgotten American Hero

July 12, 1987|PETER HEINEGG | Heinegg, who teaches at Union College, is a frequent contributor to The Book Review

Scarcely anyone remembers Clarence Rivers King (1842-1901) anymore, but a century ago, he was one of the leading lights of America. Born to an old, distinguished WASP family in Newport, R.I., King missed a chance at inheriting a fortune from the China trade through a series of disasters (his father James died of fever at Amoy in 1848, his uncle Frederick drowned in a South China Sea typhoon, and King & Co. was finally destroyed when the steamer it sent to Shanghai in 1857 to cover its illegal opium debts never reached port): Was all this a portent of King's unsuccessful scramble for the millions needed to guarantee a life in the grand style?

Sent to the new Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1860, King got a solid grounding in chemistry and geology, which he soon put to work exploring and mapping the Sierra with the California Geological Survey team under Prof. Josiah Whitney. In the rugged mountains of the West, as on the playing fields of New Haven, the short (5 foot 7) but strongly built King proved an instant success: He was witty, debonair, cool under pressure, a vigorous climber, first-rate naturalist, and a boon companion. The collected tales of King's high-altitude exploits, some real, some fanciful, appeared in the one popular book he wrote, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" (1870), which is rightly considered a minor classic of American literature, in the same league with Francis Parkman's "The Oregon Trail" (1849) and Mark Twain's "Roughing It" (1872). But thereafter King wrote nothing more for mass consumption except a few reviews and magazine articles. He kept promising to turn out a novel, but he dissipated his narrative forces in the endless gripping stories he told around the campfire or at the Century Club in New York and other fashionable watering holes. Years after his death King's audiences could recall the time he had tracked a grizzly to its pitch-black den, met it eyeball to eyeball and shot it dead; the time King was nearly crushed to death beneath his own ill-fated pony and the furious, wounded buffalo that had landed on top of them.

But King was just not a lively raconteur--the best of his generation, many thought--he was also an important pioneering explorer. He took part in the epochal study of the Fortieth Parallel and issued a number of major reports, of which "Systematic Geology" (1878) was the most notable. He was the first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, and he won national celebrity in 1872 by exposing a salted diamond mine in Wyoming, single-handedly nipping a gigantic fraud in the bud. He was the toast of Washington, the intimate of writers like Henry Adams, politicians like John Hay and Bohemians like Bret Harte. He was a talented scientist, a brilliant stylist, an irresistible person. But in the end he lived up to no one's expectations of him, least of all his own. Why?

Given his acumen as a mining engineer and the boom conditions of the Gilded Age, there seemed to be no reason why King could not recoup his battered family fortunes and live like the cultivated nabob he was apparently cut out to be. For 20 years he tried his luck and failed. From 1881, when he resigned from the U.S. Geological Survey until his premature death from pneumonia in 1901, he relentlessly pursued the big killing that always just eluded him, in the Mexican mines of Yedras (Sinaloa), Sombrerete (Zacatecas) and Las Prietas (Sonora). He had done well for himself as a cattle baron on the High Plains in the 1870s and early 1880s, but the mining bonanzas all faded and he ended his life deeply indebted to his friends.

Worst of all, King never settled down for any length of time with his wife Ada Todd and their five children--for the simple reason that she was black, and their marriage (never registered) would have been greeted with alarm and disgust by his patrician friends. He necessarily led a double life on many levels, and so it comes as no surprise that this phenomenally energetic man also had many ill-explained bouts with invalidism, culminating in a much publicized nervous breakdown in 1893, when he was committed to Bloomingdale Asylum.

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