Clarence King was a remarkable man who was, perhaps, sometimes
confused. Either that, or his thought processes differed somewhat from
those of his contemporaries and he was actually a man who was far
ahead of his time. He was a great scientist and explorer and his name
is prominent upon every California map; a man much appreciated and
admired by the scientific community of his time. Yet in his life he
also walked another path much different from the one he let the public
see. For much of his existence he lived a Secret Life, and when he
passed away on Christmas Eve at the dawn of a new century, he did so
with neither an explanation nor an apology for his masquerade.
King was a light skinned man of European descent. He had blond hair
and blue eyes. Yet despite these obvious physical characteristics he
decided to spend a large portion of his life passing as a Negro, and
he did so quite successfully. He made up a fake name and used it to
forge a secret life; with that alter ego he told a former slave that
he, too, was a Negro in order to help convince her to marry him; he
fabricated a marriage ceremony which was not quite totally legal, and
then fabricated an imaginary profession of working for the railroad.
Then he disappeared from his wife and children for long absences under
the guise of following that non-existent profession.
In California, and particularly in the Sierra Nevada, Clarence King is
now remembered as an eminent geologist whose name is attached to one
of the state’s highest mountains in Kings Canyon National Park. Born
in the year 1842, Clarence King lived through an unsteady childhood
after his father passed away when he was just six years old. In 1860
he entered Yale and began his study of chemistry, physics, and
geology. By 1862 he’d settled on geology as his primary area of
interest and soon obtained his degree. In 1863 he made his first trip
to California and joined Josiah Whitney and William Brewer as an
unpaid yet enthusiastic member of the California Geological Survey.
The following year, as a part of that expedition, he was the first
known person to ascend all the way to the very top of a high Eastern
Sierra peak which he christened Mount Tyndall, in honor of one of his
personal heroes - John Tyndall, an early explorer of the Alps. From
its peak King glimpsed an even higher mountain which was known as
Mount Whitney, and he resolved to eventually climb it as well. In 1867
he became a member of the prestigious Fortieth Parallel Survey, and a
few years later wrote his famous book, ‘Mountaineering In the Sierra
In 1871 King finally decided to keep that promise he had made to
himself about climbing Mount Whitney, and in June he set out from
Owens Valley to do so. He chronicled every step of his ascent in vivid
detail and wrote eloquently about finally standing on the top of Mount
Whitney and looking across at Mount Tyndall. And for the next two
years King basked in the self-imposed glory of considering himself to
be the first white man to climb Mount Whitney.
But he had gotten it all wrong; the professional geologist who was so
rapidly becoming famous had made a mistake. He’d been confused. Two
years later it was proven that King had climbed the wrong mountain. It
turned out that he had actually climbed Mount Tyndall – the very
mountain he had named – and was looking across at Mount Whitney. So he
returned, chagrined, to climb the correct mountain. He had been
confused in his initial attempt, just as he’d also been somewhat
errant in naming himself as the first ‘white man’ on Mount Whitney.
He became famous all over the country when he exposed the great
Colorado Diamond Hoax of 1872, and saved millions of dollars for
investors who were about to be fleeced through rumors of diamond
deposits in Colorado. His career, as they say, was back on track. This
led to his being appointed as the first director of the newly created
United States Geological Survey in 1879. But less than two years later
he resigned from that prestigious position and largely resigned from
public life as well. He tried being a businessman but found it
difficult to make money in the private sector as a geologist or as a
consultant to mining companies and soon spiraled into heavy debt.
It was at this point that the life of a famous, prestigious man took a
strange turn; a confused turn; a turn into The Weird.
In the mid-1880’s King met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, a
former slave from Georgia who was now working as a nursemaid in New
York, and despite an age difference of almost twenty years, they were
married in 1888. King had assiduously avoided the wealthy yet largely
vacuous young ladies who made up New York’s annual crop of
bubble-headed debutantes – even though he was both a regular and a
popular figure at the city’s social events - so it was not really
surprising nor in itself strange that he would seek someone with whom
he could connect on a deeper level. The Weird Part commenced as soon
as King first met Ada, for he introduced himself not as Clarence King
the geologist but instead made up the alter ego of a former slave
named James Todd; a counterfeit persona which he would keep for the
rest of his life and use interchangeably with his real name and
persona. Ada did not suspect that any subterfuge was being perpetrated
on her. After all, although it was common for Blacks of mixed heritage
to try to pass themselves as Whites if their skin tone was
sufficiently light, it was unheard of – even unbelievable – for a
White person to deliberately attempt to pass himself as Black. So it
wouldn’t even have occurred to Ada or to her family to question James
Todd’s word on the matter. But Clarence King had always displayed a
natural talent for storytelling and basked in his reputation as a
witty raconteur at the scientific gatherings where he was often asked
to speak. So for him to use that ability to expand his personal life
in an unexpected direction was perhaps just a natural extension of the
creative personality which had always been within him.
Todd told Ada that he worked as a Pullman porter for the railroad and
that he was often away from New York because of that work; away for
weeks or months at a time. This arrangement allowed King to leave home
and pursue his work as a geologist without having to worry about how
much time he spent away or about preparing excuses when he returned.
Still, despite his obvious non-Negro appearance and his sack-full of
ready excuses Ada apparently believed him, and even with those long
absences King fathered five children with Ada, four of whom lived to
For the next thirteen years King lived a double life and, if success
can be defined as not getting caught, then he did so successfully. Yet
the stress of living a double life took its toll. Perhaps it was the
confusion of keeping the details of each of his lives separate and
presenting the right stories to the right people, and one of King’s
prolonged absences from home actually disguised a long session of
therapy in a psychiatric institution, trying to work out those
problems; trying to resolve that confusion.
King tried working as a geological consultant for mining companies but
had little luck at generating sufficient income from those efforts.
His income was coming primarily from his writing, and his books
continued to do well because of his fame and respected professional
status both in the United States and abroad. Still, his debts
continued to mount. But despite that King decided that his family
needed a better home than the one he’d heretofore provided for them in
Brooklyn, so he set about purchasing a larger home in the better
neighborhood of Flushing and moved his wife and four children there in
1897. There is no record of the explanation he may have given to his
wife as to how a Pullman porter could afford this; and Ada apparently
did not question their good fortune as a Black couple being able to
move into an upper middle class neighborhood. But they lived there for
only a short time. Race riots in New York at the turn of the century
were making the city a dangerous place for Blacks, and James Todd
wrote to his wife while he was off working that she should sell their
house and move to Toronto, which she did.
By 1901 James Todd’s, or Clarence King’s, health was in rapid decline.
He was suffering from tuberculosis and was also struck with a heart
attack. Still away from home on one of his long trips he apparently
glimpsed the inevitability of his approaching death, so he wrote a
letter to Ada from his sickbed in Arizona in which he confessed that
his real name was not James Todd but in reality Clarence King. Yet
Clarence King moved in completely different circles than Black
families in New York so Ada, even though she now knew his real name,
still had no comprehension of who Clarence King was or of what he
meant to the world of geology. Clarence King passed away on December
24th, 1901, the day before Christmas and the day after Ada’s
forty-first birthday; a birthday which he did not celebrate with his
wife because he’d been too ill with tuberculosis to travel from his
sickroom two thousand miles away. When Ada received the news of her
husband’s death on Christmas Eve, she still had no idea whatsoever of
who Clarence King was. That knowledge came when she read the
obituaries. King had a wide circle of friends; he was an esteemed
member of several professional organizations; and in his professional
status he had moved easily in New York society. It’s impossible to
imagine the shock Ada must have felt when she read of this stranger
who had secretly been James Todd the Pullman porter; her husband.
There were more surprises in store for Ada as the succeeding months
progressed. It turned out that their marriage ceremony – the ceremony
arranged by King - had actually been a sham. No license had been
applied for, so the marriage had no legal standing other than that of
Common Law status. That meant that Ada had no easy or immediate claim
to her husband’s estate. She had to file suit, and the court
proceedings dragged on for thirty-two years. During those years Ada
was largely in an impoverished state and a friend of King’s, John Hay,
purchased a house for her to live in. Ada stayed there in that home
until she passed away - sixty-three years after her husband had died.
Finally, in 1933, the court ruled that there was nothing left in
King’s estate to inherit so the court proceedings came to an end with
Ada receiving nothing. It had been a bureaucratic nightmare in which
only the lawyers had profited.
Somewhat eerily that intentional confusion of identity within the
King/Todd family continued on for many years after King’s death, only
now with other members of the family. King’s two daughters both
decided to try to pass themselves as being of White ancestry, for the
obvious reason of being able to expand their lives into areas not
easily accessible to Blacks and therefore to live their lives more
freely. This could prove difficult – even dangerous – as most states
had Race Laws on the books which were guided by the “Single Drop of
Blood” principle; a rule which stated that even if a person had white
parents and looked white themselves, if they had one grandparent or
even one great-grandparent who was partly Negro, then they themselves
were also officially categorized as being Negro and could not legally
intermarry with Whites. These race laws being in place at the time,
when each of King’s two daughters became engaged to white men they had
to provide proof that they were indeed of white lineage. This they
successfully managed to do by each signing an affidavit to that effect
for each other. Ada’s and Clarence’s two sons, on the other hand, both
chose to identify with their Black heritage and served in Negro
battalions during World War One. The fact that King’s two sons each
chose a different path from his two daughters meant that the four of
them could only socialize in private from that point on, lest the
daughters’ true heritage be revealed to their husbands and friends.
Yet even with that limited contact within the family, from that time
on it was a hard subterfuge to maintain.
Ada Todd died in 1964 at the age of 104. Not only was she one of the
oldest persons in the United States at that time, she was also one of
only a handful of people who, in the 1960’s, could lay claim to having
once been a legal slave in the United States of America.
James and Ada may have been at their happiest during their brief
tenure in Flushing. In 1900 Ada decided to give a party at her new
home and all of their friends were invited - all of the friends they
had, as a couple, were Black. It was a momentous social event in Black
society for such a large Negro gathering to be held in such an upscale
White neighborhood, so the party was covered by reporters from the
local Negro press. One might think that Clarence King would have been
afraid that such widespread publicity might serve to shatter his
secret life and expose his masquerade to the world. But no –Ada had
somewhat eerily decided that this was to be a masquerade party, and
Clarence King survived it quite nicely as James Todd, his mask – both
literally as well as figuratively - still in place.
Clarence King was, perhaps, a very confused man. Either that, or he
was a man who was far ahead of his time. Yet his wife and children
loved him; his scientific compatriots admired him and showered him
with honors. In California, Mount Clarence King was named after him.
At 12, 905 feet in height it is one of the tallest peaks in North
America and is one of the most beautiful features of Kings Canyon
National Park. California also honored him with a Clarence King Lake.
There is a King’s Peak in Utah named in his memory as well, and also a
King Peak in Antarctica. But besides these monuments in stone,
Clarence King is also remembered over a century later as a man who
sought the truth, yet lived a lie. Was he confused as to his place in
society, just as he was confused in climbing the wrong mountain? Or
was he living his life on a slightly different plane of existence than
that of his compatriots and perhaps having trouble finding the shadowy
path between the two? Or, maybe both.
It is said that walking the road less traveled is what makes life
worth living. Perhaps Clarence King found life worth living because he
climbed a different mountain, and the view from that perspective made
his life something special.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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