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Clarence King

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Clarence King in a Mountain Camp
In a Mountain Camp
From the Library of Congress American Memory Historical Collections

Introduction:  Mount Shasta's Role in American Geology ~ Biography

King's Contributions to Geology ~ References ~ Time Line

Introduction:  Mount Shasta's Role in American Geology

The story of the scientific exploration of Mount Shasta is an integral part of the history of science in America.  Clarence King is part of the story.

Drawing of James Dwight Dana from the Smithsonian Institute The first scientific expedition to come to the Shasta region was the Overland Expedition of 1841, a segment of the worldwide 1838-1842 Wilkes Expedition.  The overland expedition was led by George Foster Emmons.  James Dwight Dana was the geologist on this expedition and as such he is the first geologist to describe Mount Shasta.  It is interesting to note that Dana described the Shasta Valley hills, which have intrigued and puzzled scientists up until our own time.  On October 1, 1841 Dana states, "The volcanic hills, stretch over the prairie towards the Shasty peak, and are probably connected in origin with the former eruptions of this extinct volcano-none of the hills had the form of craters, tho' this may have been the case with some..." (Dana in Miess 1993).  It is now known that these hills are part of a gigantic debris flow from the collapse of ancient Mount Shasta.  The key to understanding these hills was the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens and the landscape it produced.

John C. Frémont led the next governmental expeditions to the Mount Shasta region in 1843-44 and 1845-46 (Miess 1993).  Frémont later ran for president against James Buchanan in 1856 when Clarence King was fourteen years old.

King was in the first graduating class of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, graduating in 1862.  He was especially inspired by two professors there, George Brush and James Dwight Dana, the geologist on the Overland Expedition.  In addition, his German teacher was the brother of Josiah Dwight Whitney and King heard about Whitney's geological exploits in California through the letters Whitney sent to his brother. The year after graduation King and his friend Jim Gardiner set out for California.  On a steamer heading down the Sacramento River towards San Francisco they met Professor William H. Brewer (Farquhar in King 1997; Brewer 1974).  Brewer records this meeting in his journal,

"At Sacramento I took steamer, and meeting an old friend had a pleasant trip.  On the way down two young men came up to me, asked if my name was Brewer, and introduced themselves as two young fellows just graduated last year in the Scientific School at Yale College, who this summer have crossed the plains.  Their names are Gardner and King.  Of course I was glad to see them; King I have taken with me on this trip."
Gardiner later joined them at the end of the trip in 1864.  Gardiner described their meeting with Brewer in a letter home (Powell 1989),
"The steamboat was crowded with people from the mines.  Many rough, sunburned men in flannel shirts, high boots, belts, and revolvers were around me, but among them one man attracted my attention.  There was nothing peculiar about him, yet his face impressed me.  Again and again I walked past him, and at last, seating myself in a chair opposite, pretending to read a paper, I deliberately studied this fascinating individual... I went to Clare and told him the case, and showed him the man.  He looked at him, and, without any previous knowledge to guide him in the identification, said, from instinct, 'That man must be Professor Brewer, the head of Professor Whitney's geological party.'"
A famous photo, which graces the 1974 edition of Brewer's journal, shows Gardiner, Cotter, Brewer, and King in 1864. Although Brewer was a botanist, Josiah Dwight Whitney had selected him to lead the northern California portion of the Geological Survey of California.  For Brewer and most other scientists of his day, "Mount Shasta was an item of Great Expectations" (Brewer 1974).  It was then considered the highest peak in the continental United States.  Prior to climbing Mount Shasta with Professor Whitney in 1862, Brewer mentions several "Shasta Rumors" which would fill "an amusing volume."  His final story is that Mr. Sim Southern "said that he had nearly reached the top, but an impassable glacier had stopped every person from going farther.  Such were the stories, which would fill a volume--a few grains of truth, and an abundance of pure fiction--so, as I write facts, I will pass them."  Not only did Brewer and Whitney fail to see any glaciers (most likely due to the weather as well as the route they took), Brewer stated in an 1862 letter to George Brush, "In this climate, although immense quantities of snow fall in winter, no rain falls during the long cloudless days of summer, so there are no glaciers."  The letter describes how difficult the climb was; Whitney had "his fingers frostbitten" and much of  the day was cloudy. Brewer was at Mount Shasta twice, in 1862 and 1863.

King was with Brewer on the 1863 trip to Shasta.  However, they arrived late in the season and so the party only inspected Mount Shasta from its base.  King noted the milky waters (probably from Whitney Creek as they were camped near Sheep Rock) and stated that there must be glaciers on Mount Shasta.  Brewer insisted that there were not any glaciers as he and Whitney had climbed Shasta the year before.  King vowed to himself that he would again return and explore the mountain he so wanted to climb (Young 1968).

Drawing of Shasta Butte and Shasta Valley by John J. Young, 1858 It is said that King conceived of the idea of a geological survey of the 40th parallel while on the last leg of the Geological Survey of California at Yosemite in 1866 (Bartlett 1962; Rabbitt 1989; Young 1968; Wild 1981).  It should be noted that in the 1850s several railroad surveys were conducted to find appropriate railroad routes in the West.  In particular, the 1855 Williamson Expedition searched for a north-south route to connect California and Oregon (Camp 70A, shown on left, was part of this trip) and another 1854-55 expedition conducted a survey of the 41st parallel.  Twelve volumes were produced as a result of these surveys during the 1850s (Miess 1993).  Artists were typically a part of these surveys, and their works of art were included in the publications.  King's interest in art along with his love of geology, as well as his association with Dana, makes it quite probable that he read some of these works prior to his departure for California.

King did indeed lead a geological survey of the 40th parallel.  Although the proposal was written "to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition, and natural resources of a belt of country extending from the 120th meridian eastward to the 105th meridian, along the 40th parallel of latitude...," the study of volcanoes in the West was included during the summer of 1870 (Faul and Faul 1983).  While King explored Mount Shasta, other members of the party went to Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. King and his party, led by the local guide Mr. Sisson, did not take the route selected by most climbers but instead first climbed Shastina.  From the rim of Shastina King described his experience,

Whitney Glacier in October 1999 "We clambered along the edge toward Shasta, and came to a place where for a thousand feet it was a mere blade of ice, sharpened by the snow into a thin, frail edge, upon which we walked in cautious balance, a misstep likely to hurl us down into the chaos of lava blocks within the crater.  Passing this, we reached the north edge of the rim, and from a rugged mound of shattered rock looked down into a gorge between us and the main Shasta.  There, winding its huge body along, lay a glacier, riven with sharp, deep crevasses yawning fifty or sixty feet wide, the blue hollows of their shadowed depth contrasting with the brilliant surfaces of ice."
King knew that other scientists who had climbed Shasta stated that there were not glaciers there.  However, Sisson was with them and he knew about the glacier, for an 1866 article in the Yreka Journal states, "Mr. Sisson called our attention to what he termed a grand natural road, which is pecularly well-defined..."  The author goes onto state that "This is undoubtedly the track of descending glaciers..."  Apparently Mr. Sisson, like a good guide, let them make the discovery on their own.  King also found three other glaciers in addition to Whitney Glacier, and described the small lake in the crater of Shastina, now called Clarence King Lake.

Top of the Coast Geodetic Survey marker formerly located atop Mount Shasta.  Image courtesy of the Sisson Museum. Later expeditions were also to come to Mount Shasta.  The Coast Geodetic Survey placed the highest reflector used in geodetic surveying at the top of Mount Shasta in 1875 (the top of the reflector is now located at the Sisson Museum in Mount Shasta City, shown at right).  Gilbert Thompson, in charge of the 1883 USGS survey of Mount Shasta, created the first topographic map of the mountain.  Sisson helped guide this group as well.  J. S. Diller spent many years, beginning in 1883, working for the USGS and he conducted several studies of Mount Shasta.  C. Hart Merriam, during his biological survey of Mount Shasta in 1898, named Diller Canyon after J. S. Diller.  Merriam had with him the botany report by Sereno Watson, Volume V of King's 40th Parallel Survey (Miess 1993; Freeman 1997; Dennis Freeman, personal communication, 1999).


Clarence King was born at Newport, Rhode Island in 1842 to a prosperous family.  For generations his family had been involved in the sea as makers of navigational tools, captains, and traders.  His uncles and father, James, were engaged in the China trade. During the Opium Wars when they were forced to return home, James proposed to childhood friend 15-year-old Caroline Florence Little and they were married the next year.  Florence's father was a linguist, which may help explain her skills in languages, which she in turn passed onto King.  Florence was pregnant when James returned to China.  Clarence, called Clare by his mother, was born during his father's absence. Only during of two of King's early years was his father home.  During this time two more children were born but they died as infants.  King's father died in 1848 when Clare was only six years old (Young 1968; Wild 1981; Wilkins 1988).

For Clare's 7th birthday his mother bought him a magnifying glass.  At the time he was enrolled in Christ Church Hall for his early education while Clare and his mother resided in a local boarding house (Wilkins 1988).  His teacher, the Reverand Dr. Roswell Park, was interested in geology and wrote a book entitled Pantology, which included a section of engravings of dinosaurs.  When Clare was seven years old he discovered his first fossil, a fern, which he examined with his magnifying glass.  Due to Clare's eagerness to know all about it, his mother began reading to him from Hitchcock's Geology (Young 1968; Wilkins 1988).

In 1852 Clare's teacher resigned for another position and the Kings moved to New Haven to live with Clare's maternal uncle Robbins Little.  One of the reasons Florence chose to move there was because she felt the influence of Yale would be good for Clare.  She tutored her son herself but attended lectures in order to better be able to do so (Young 1968; Wilkins 1988).  When Clare was 13 they move to Hartford so Clare could attend a good school.  His favorite teacher there was Mary Dodge, an abolitionist like Clare's maternal grandmother.  It was here and then that Clare became friends with Ted Gardiner (also spelled Gardner), one of King's lifelong bosom friends.

During this time the 1857 Depression, as well as a bad trade scene in China due to the Opium Wars, resulted in the King & Talbot trading company going bankrupt and the Kings lost their livelihood.  Shortly afterwards, Florence married the elderly George Howland who Clare didn't like one bit.  It sent him into a depression and he quit school.  At seventeen he moved to New York and he wouldn't move back home unless his stepfather would pay for his education.  Howland agreed, so Clare went to the new Scheffield Scientific School at Yale.  King encouraged his friend Gardiner to come to school at Scheffield, which he did for a time.  King was in the first graduating class the summer of 1862 (Young 1968; Wild 1981; Wilkins 1988).

After graduation King, Gardiner, and two other friends went on a boating trip on Lake Champlain.  They were arrested as draft dodgers but were soon released.  King returned home and spent time with his family.  He loved his new little half-sister Marion.  He visited Professor Brush and heard a letter from William Brewer about Mount Shasta.  At the time, it was thought Mount Shasta was the tallest peak in the United States.  It is said that King made his decision to go to California after hearing the letter from Brewer (Young 1968; Wilkins 1988).

King studied geology by reading Dana's new Manual of Geology, attending lectures at Yale, and going to Harvard to hear Agassiz lecture.  He also did field work along the Hudson River.  It was during this time that King and his friends formed "The Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art."  Ruskin, their hero, stated that the "ultimate job of the realist is not photographic duplication but creation of internal truths through faithfulness to nature" (Wild 1981).  I think that King held this idea firmly throughout his life, as well as his love of art (see Clarence King as Artist and Scientist).  When Gardiner had a nervous breakdown, King decided it was time for them to go to California (Young 1968; Wild 1981; Wilkins 1988).

Once in California, King met Brewer and Whitney and volunteered to work on the California Geological Survey with them.  His work was exemplery, although King did exhibit some odd tendencies, such as dressing up for dinner even in the field.  It is said that King conceived of the 40th parallel survey while at Yosemite, the last stop on the tour of California (Bartlett 1962).  King returned to Washington D.C. to convince congress to finance the expedition, which they did.  King became the leader of the survey.  This in turn was so successful that Clarence King became the first director of the new United States Geological Survey in 1879.  More will be told about King's geological work in the next section.

King resigned his work in 1881 at the USGS after two years.  His resignation from the USGS signaled his withdrawel from the scientific world and his entrance into a life fraught with failure.  He was unsuccessful in several mining adventures including his stint with the Anglo-American Mining Company in 1883 as a consultant.  The United States entered a depression which made things worse for King.

In 1888 King married Ada, a Black woman twenty years his junior.  He never told his family about his marriage, which was performed under the assumed name of James Todd, nor of the birth of his five children.

The rest of King's life was beset by faulty mining ventures, extravagence, and poor mental and physical health.  In 1893 King was arrested for disturbing the peace and was put into a mental institution, the Bloomingdale Asylum.  After his release, he resumed his travels and spent a lot of time helping to solve mining disputes.  Towards the end of his life King was sickly.  He traveled to the tropics to try and recuperate.  When that didn't work he visited his family.  He left Gardiner in charge of his affairs and told his wife his true name.  Clarence King died in Arizona on December 24, 1901.

King's Contributions to Geology

King was one of the greatest scientists in the 19th century.  He has been called "the ideal American"  and "the best and brightest man of his generation" (Wild 1981; Faul and Faul 1983).  King was well-known for his organizational skills, scientific accuracy, and integrity.  King contributed enormously to our understanding of the geology of the American West during his assistance on the California Geological Survey from 1863-1866, his survey of the 40th parallel from 1870-1878, and during his reign as the first director of the United States Geological Survey from 1879-1881.  In addition to endowing the scientific community with his works, he also contributed to the economic well-being of the country.  He introduced the general public to geological concepts in his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, considered a literary masterpiece (see Chapters XI and XII from this book, which deal with Mount Shasta).

In 1863 Whitney assigned King to study the Mariposa gold mine.  At first, King was criticized for his lack of progress, which made him gloomy, but he determined he would do a good job.  One of King's first scientific contributions was in determining the age of the Sierra by finding the fossil belemnite in gold-bearing, partially metamorphosed shale (Young 1968; Shebl 1974).  It was while at Mariposa that King gazed across at the grandeur of the Sierra and questioned whether the peaks he saw might not be taller than Mount Shasta, the peak believed at the time to be the highest in the United States Young 1968; Wilkins 1988).

Glaciers on Mount Shasta were not described in the scientific literature until Clarence King published his observations of an 1870 expedition on Mount Shasta in the American Journal of Science in 1871.  They had, however, been mentioned to Brewer in 1862 and had been publicized in the August 24, 1866 issue of the Yreka Journal  (Brewer 1974).

King and Gardiner went to Yosemite in 1864.  In his journal King noted the "unmistakeable ice striae" extending from Mount Hoffman into Yosemite.  He further concluded, in reference to El Capitan's surface, "in all probability, they were worn when the glacier occupied the valley..."  In addition, he claimed that the four morainal ridges he saw "will require great ingenuity to attribute to any other cause than glaciers."  However, this material was not published.  When Muir proclaimed, later that year, that Yosemite was carved by glaciation, Whitney responded that Muir's theory was "based on entire ignorance of the whole subject."  King disavowed his own findings to publicly support his boss.  However, he later changed his mind and supported Muir (Young 1968; Wild 1981; Shebl 1974; Smith 1987).  Even though King had visited several areas, such as Black Mountain in the Sierra Nevada, prior to Muir, King did not observe the glaciers that Muir reported to the world.  Also during 1864, King climbed and named Mount Tyndall (after the famous mountaineer of the Alps) and named Mount Whitney when he determined that it was the highest peak in the United States (Whitney's survey party was reserving the name Mount Whitney for the highest peak in the Sierra).  He wasn't successful in climbing Mount Whitney that year.  To name a peak, one was supposed to make the first ascent, and it was questioned for awhile whether Mount Whitney's real name might be Fisherman's Peak.

King became famous for his geological work pertaining to mining beginning with the exposure of the diamond fraud in 1872 which prevented a financial catastrophe.  He intentionally first published Mining Industry, Volume III of the 40th Parallel Survey, in order to show the public and Congress that what they were doing was beneficial.  After the Diamond Hoax, King became sought after to serve as an expert witness in mining claims.  King participated in the Tenth Census of mineral resources and production and set the standards for future statistical studies of precious metals; some consider this King's major achievement during his directoship of the USGS (Emmons 1906; Stegner 1982; Faul and Faul 1983; Smithsonian 1906).

In 1877 King publicly put forth arguments against the followers of Lyell and Darwin.  He was not trying to completely return to the catastrophic viewpoint, but he felt the uniformitarians were going to far, as he had personally observed that the rate of change had not remained steady.  This was not well-received by the scientific community (Smithsonian 1906).

In regards to King's Systematic Geology, published in 1878, Emmons stated in 1909, "Probably no more masterly summary of great truths of geology had been made since the publication of Lyell's Principles." This masterpiece laid the foundation for the geological understanding of the American West (Shebl 1974).  In this work, King reconstructed the Archean landscape then proceded to describe the changes which occurred over geologic time.  He further noted that Archean topography greatly influenced the present topography; Archean faults and mountain ranges were lines of weakness where later orographic movements would express themselves (Merrill 1906; Goetzmann 1993).

King's last scientific work to be published, in 1893, was entitled "The Age of the Earth" and was published in the American Journal of Science.  He estimated the Earth to be 24 million years old.

Arnold Hague, the petrologist hired by King for the 40th Parallel Survey, claimed that it was King's detail of topographic maps that set him apart from others (Emmons 1909).  Indeed, King is credited with the use of contour lines in mapping (as opposed to the commonly used hachure marks) as well as developing a new method of triangulation using theodolites on mountain peaks and using telegraphs rather than chronometers to determine longitude (Wild 1981; Goetzmann 1993).

Samuel Franklin Emmons, a member of the 40th Parallel Survey, stated that King's "crowning service" to science in America was the fact that King combined competing scientific projects into one agency, the United States Geological Survey, which resulted in the continuation of scientific studies  (1909).

King himself insisted on waiting until the survey was finished before publishing the work.  Although this resulted in King permitting others to publish similar findings before him (such as Gilbert's work on Lake Bonneville), it resulted in what are considered the first thorough, professional scientific studies of the American West (Smithsonian 1906).

If, sometime, you gaze upon Mount Clarence King in the Sierra or down at Clarence King Lake in the crater of Shastina, you can reflect upon the contributions he made to geology.


Board of Regents.  Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1904.  Government Printing Office, 1906.

Brewer, William H.  Up and Down California in 1860-1864:  The Journal of William H. Brewer, Professor of Agriculture in the Sheffield Scientific School from 1864 to 1903.  [First published in 1930 by Yale University Press. Edited by Francis P. Farquhar 1966].  University of California Press, 1974. (source of  The Field Party of 1864 photo)

Emmons, Samuel Franklin.  "Biographical Memoir of Clarence King, 1842-1901" in National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, Volume 6, 1909.

Faul, Henry and Carol Faul.  It Began with a Stone:  A History of Geology from The Stone Age to the Age of Plate Tectonics.  John Wiley and Sons, 1983.

Freeman, Linda, et al.  Preserving Our Siskiyou County Heritage.  College of the Siskiyous, 1999. (source of King, Dana, Camp 70A, and 1896 postcard of reflector atop Shasta -- images courtesy of Mount Shasta Collection of the College of the Siskiyous Library)

Goetzmann, William H.  Exploration and Empire:  The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West.  Monticello Editions, 1993 (reprint of 1966 edition).

King, Clarence.  Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.  [Originally published 1872. Edited and with a preface by Francis P. Farquhar 1935.]  Bison Books, 1997.

Merrill, George P.  Contributions to the history of American geology. Government Printing Office, 1906.

Miesse, William C.  Mount Shasta:  An Annotated Bibliography.  College of the Siskiyous, 1993.

Powell, Lawrence Clark.  California Classics:  The Creative Literature of the Golden State.  Capra Press, 1989.

Rabbitt, Mary C.  The United States Geological Survey: 1879-1989.  USGS Circular 1050, 1989.

Shebl, James M.  King, of the Mountain.  Pacific Center for Western Historical Studies, University of the Pacific, 1974.

Smith, Michael L.  Pacific Visions:  California, Scientists, and the Environment, 1850-1915.  Yale University Press, 1987.

Stegner, Wallace.  Beyond the Hundredth Meridian:  John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.  University of Nebraska Press, 1982 (reprint of 1953).

Wild, Peter.  Clarence King.  Boise State University 1981.

Wilkins, Therman.  Clarence King : a biography.  University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Young, Bob and Jan Young.  Frontier Scientist:  Clarence King.  Julian Messner, 1968.


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