Clarence King Papers, 1873-1894


Date: 1873-1894 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet


An 1862 graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, Clarence King served as a volunteer member of the California Geological Survey from 1863-1867 before receiving an appointment to head the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. With a rising reputation in the discipline, King helped organize the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879, becoming its first director, however he resigned in 1881 to enter into private work as a mining engineer and economic geologist.

The King Papers consists of a dozen letters written by King to his colleague and friend Samuel Franklin Emmons, 1873-1894, that are revealing of their personal friendship as well as of the politics of the early organization and management of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Background note

Graduating with a degree in chemistry from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1862, Clarence King spent another full year preparing himself to become a geologist by studying privately and attending courses at Harvard. Recognizing that practical experience was essential, however, King signed on as a volunteer aboard Josiah Whitney's fledgling California Geological Survey from 1863, setting off across the plains and mountains on horseback for a three year stint in the far west.

While traversing the continent, King conceived of organizing a cross-country geological survey that would cut a transect across the nation parallel to the transcontinental railraod. With Whitney's assistance, the idea germinated in 1867 into the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, one of four great western geological surveys during the mid-century. For five years, King led a company of Army Topographical Engineers from the Sierra Nevadas to the Rockies, work that culminated in an influential series of publications crowned by King's own Systematic Geology.

With the success of the Fortieth Parallel survey on his side, King returned east and soon took up lobbying for the National Academy of Sciences to urge Congress to approve formation of a U.S. Geological Survey, an agency intended to supplant the existing surveys and guide future geological and topographical exploration of the country. After a brief controversy over whether he or F.V. Hayden should be appointed head, King became the first Director of the U.S.G.S. in March 1879.

King's tenure with the Survey was to be very brief. Arguing that he had accomplished his goal of placing the Survey on a firm and permanent footing, he resigned as the Hayes administration left office in April 1881, leaving the directorship in the hands of his hand-picked successor, John Wesley Powell. King retired into private practice as a mining engineer and economic geologist in 1881. His efforts to earn his fortune in mines, however, largely failed, and although he remained active behind the scenes in geological politics until almost the turn of the turn of the century, King spent much of his time as a jovial clubman, socializing at the Union League Club and Century Club in New York. His common law marriage to a Black woman, Ada Copeland, in 1888 was kept largely secret. He died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 24, 1901, leaving his wife and four children.

Scope and content

Although it consists of a slender cull of only a dozen letters, the King Papers offer interesting glimpses into the life of the first Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Clarence King. Consisting of letters written by King between January 1873 and 1894, all addressed to his colleague, Samuel Franklin Emmons, the collection includes particularly valuable commentary on the politics of the U.S. Geological Survey. King's efforts to marshall support for his own appointment to head the Survey in 1878 reveal a politically astute side to the man that is matched in interesting fashion by his letter of April 23, 1881, informing Emmons that he should not be offended by his resignation. King's later letters suggest the extent to which he remained involved in the politics of the Survey, providing candid comments on the character of Chamberlain [T. C. Chamberlin?] and Charles D. Walcott.

A second theme running through the letters is the depth of friendship between King and Emmons, which expression, he admitted, "all sounds like an emotional uncle." On a different note entirely, one of the more interesting and unusual letters was written from Cheyenne, Wyoming, on August 26, 1877, providing a long, light hearted and detailed description of life in that town.

Collection Information


Acquired from Carnegie Bookshop in 1978 (1978-1318ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Clarence King Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Related material

Apart from the Records of the Fortieth Parallel Survey and the U.S.G.S. in the National Archives, the main body of Clarence King's Papers are located in the James D. Hague Collection at the Huntington Library.

Two letters by King and one to him are located in the Papers of J. Peter Lesley (B L56) at the APS.


King, Clarence, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, reprint edition (Lincoln, Neb., 1997) Call no.: 917.94 K58m.r

King, Clarence, Systematic Geology (Washington, 1878) Call no.: 620 Un3pr v.1

King, Clarence, Clarence King memoirs; the helmet of Mambrino (N.Y., 1904) Call no.: B K579c

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • United States Geological Survey
  • United States. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel

Geographic Name(s)

  • Cheyenne (Wyo.) -- Description and travel

Personal Name(s)

  • Adams, Henry, 1813-1877
  • Agassiz, Alexander, 1835-1910
  • Chamberlin, Thomas C. (Thomas
  • Emmons, Samuel Franklin, 1841-1911
  • King, Clarence, 1842-1901
  • Powell, John Wesley, 1834-1902
  • Walcott, Charles D. (Charles Doolittle), 1850-1927


  • Geology -- 19th century

Detailed Inventory

Clarence King Papers
1873-18940.25 lin. feetbox 1
King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, San Francisco, Calif.
1873 January 307p.

Arrangements for more pay, office space. Will give Emmons editorship of vol. II. Works as an expert for the Richmond Co. for $5000 fee, but can do no more. Family anxieties.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, San Francisco, Calif.
1873 April 14p.

Family misfortune interferes with work. On Arnold's suggestion, plans to meet with Emmons in the Wasatch.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, Cheyenne, Wyo.
1877 August 2613p.

Usual August illness. Hears Richmond has lost the case. Life in Cheyenne; women's response to the place.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]
1878 December 304p.

Does not "think it necessary to have any letters written against the present incumbent and that is of course a relief for it is not pleasant to make war." Confident he will get the appointment [to head the USGS]. Asks for a letter on his behalf: "They should harp somewhat on executive faculty on a critical familiarity and knowledge as to economical geology and the fact that first class man has sufficient confidence to serve within an organization over which I should preside." Henry Adams' lukewarm contribution.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]

Wishes he could get in the saddle and go off with Emmons again. Always trusted Emmons so much in matters of "geology and campaigning" that he "nearly always felt anxious about someone else and went with the weaker brethren, so it happened that I saw less of you than anyone in the old Corps." Urges Emmons to keep up in geology.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]
1881 April 233p.

Will be examining a mine in Virginia for some Englishmen. "I must say your position on the subject of my resignation is ill judged and sordid. I have more interest than any man in the permanence and success of the Geological Survey and I firmly & honestly believe Powell is the best living Director for it."

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]
[1881] July 254p.

Re: Chamberlin, his opinions, and the Directorship of the Survey. Intends to resume his old appointment, but believes they should get together and discuss the directorship soon.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, Brunswick
[1889] (Saturday)4p.

Joy over Emmons's engagement. Re: sale of a Rembrandt.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, Brunswick

Appreciates "the feelings & high sense of duty which led you to face the hopeless ordeal which I see has gone against you.".

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]
[1894] 18th4p.

"Walcott has gone over to Powell and has concluded to go in for the succession himself... Keep an eye on Walcott and see if Marklie's fears are well grounded. It seems to em that Walcott was perhaps a little elated at finding himself in the centre of Survey influences and might take himself a little too seriously."

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]
[1894] (Tuesday)4p.

Powell's resignation seems sure. Agassiz as a key figure.

King, Clarence, 1842-1901.
ALS to Samuel Franklin Emmons, [New York, N.Y.]

Postscript: hopes he made an appointment with Sen. Walcott.