On March 3, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill in the closing hours of the 45th Congress. Packed with a variety of items, the bill also had a short item establishing the United States Geological Survey, which would have the following mandate: “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” Three weeks later, Hayes appointed Clarence King to be the first director of the USGS and on May 24, he became the director.
Clarence King (From USGS)
King was well known for his role in running the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, as well as his exposure of the Diamond Hoax, when hucksters salted a secret field with diamonds. Investors fell for the ruse, almost ponying up millions of dollars for further exploration until King and his men revealed the nefarious ways of the charlatans. King directed the USGS for just one year, ultimately quitting in part because of his constant need for making money, the one part of his life he was not successful at.
Called by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State John Hay, “the best and brightest of his generation,” King was a complex man, who lived a hidden life for his final 13 years. Unbeknownst to all his friends, King had secretly married Ada Copeland, a former slave. King told her that his name was James Todd and that he worked as a Pullman Porter, which by definition meant that he was a black man. King was deeply in love with her and they eventually had five children.
Little was known of King and Copeland’s life until the recent publication of Martha Sandweiss’s excellent book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the The Color Line. In it she details their years together and shows how King lived his double life. For anyone interested in one of the greatest and best known geologists of the middle 1800s, it is wonderful book. Passing Strange is also a fascinating insight into America during the Gilded Age.