The King of Diamonds: Clarence King and the Survey of the 40th Parallel, Part I

Clarence King (1842-1901), although he was a geologist and not a surveyor, was responsible for the survey along the 40th Parallel from eastern Colorado to the California boundary.

 

King was described as being of medium size, perpetual cheerful disposition, and a great conversationalist filled with the exuberance of success. He was born in Newport, Rhode Island of an aristocratic but almost penniless family, the son of James and Florence (Little) King, grandson of the artist Samuel King, who was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and great-grandson of Benjamin King, the eighteenth-century maker of mathematical instruments in Newport.

Following family tradition, his father was a merchant in the family China trade and had sailed for China as a merchant of the East India firm. He died while in Amboy in 1842. His fortune having been invested in the family China trade which went bankrupt in 1857, left his wife with a young son, almost penniless. Young King clerked for a commercial house for a time, then his mother married a Brooklyn factory owner.

A Natural Leader
From early boyhood King had demonstrated an interest in the sciences, and when he was fifteen, his mother took him to New Haven, where in 1859 he was enrolled in the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University. There he proved to be a natural leader among the students and graduated three years later in 1862 with a bachelor of science degree with honors. Thereafter he read intensively on geology in New York City and took time to attend lectures by Louis Agassiz at Harvard on glaciology.

Meanwhile, California had become a subject of scientific interest, and in May 1863, a year after his graduation, and in the hope of gaining practical training in geology, he volunteered to work without pay as an assistant field geologist for the Geological Survey of California. He accompanied the geologist James T. Gardner in crossing the American continent on horseback, continuing as far as the Comstock Lode in Nevada. There they spent some time for the purpose of studying the mine, but were forced to remain longer because a fire destroyed all of their equipment. They had no recourse but to seek employment at the mine until they had accumulated sufficient capital to continue on their journey.

Crossing the Sierra Nevada on foot, they traveled down the Sacramento River to San Francisco by boat. It was during this trip that King met W. H. Brewer, an assistant of the geologist and chemist, Josiah D. Whitney, who were engaged in the state-sponsored geological survey of California. King volunteered his services and remained with Whitney's survey for nearly three years. During that period he was concerned chiefly with exploratory duties, and during the winter of 1865-1866 he was employed as a scientific assistant to General McDowell exploring southern California's desert region.

It was during his exploration of the California wilderness with Whitney that King conceived of the idea that would was to make him famous, to undertake a scientific survey entirely across the cordilleran ranges from eastern Colorado to the California boundary. This involved a swath of about a hundred miles in width centering along the 40th parallel and extending from the Colorado Rockies to the Sierra Nevada. The object of the expedition, King explained, was "… to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition and natural resources of a belt of country … along the 40th parallel … with sufficient expansion north and south to include the line of the ‘Central' and ‘Union Pacific' railroads … [and] collect material for a topographical map of the regions traversed."

By 1867 King was back in Washington trying to convince Edward Stanton, the Secretary of War, that "the deserts are not all desert; the vast plains will produce something better than buffalo, namely, beef; there is water for irrigation, and land fit to receive it. All that is needed is to explore and declare the nature of the national domain."

Stanton was charmed by the young geologist and Congress was so favorably impressed with the plan that it made the necessary appropriations without delay. Stanton promptly appointed young King chief in charge of the Geological and Geographical Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, subject only to administrative control by General A. A. Humphreys, chief of engineers. The expedition was staffed entirely by scientific specialists including mineralogists, botanists and geologists. It was the first major expedition under the command of a civilian, although he was required to report to the Secretary of War. Stanton warned King to get started on the work as soon as possible, however, because "you are too young a man to be seen about town with this appointment in your pocket—there are four major generals that want your place." King was twenty-five years of age at the time.

It was King's mission to map the topography and to survey the geology and natural resources of the region flanking the transcontinental railroad between the Sierra Nevada and the Great Plains. He sailed to California with his capable corps via Panama in the summer of 1867, crossed the Sierra Nevada and then began their fieldwork. In June a base camp was established near Sacramento, California, and the hand-picked crew began a process of hardening up before venturing out to engage in the rigorous enterprise ahead. One of the botanists who made a practice of taking a short ride on mule back every day, later wrote, "I am at present afflicted with a most grievous tail!"

Hardening Up for the Work Ahead
The first excursion into desert country was made in July, and it would be ten long years before the survey ended. Studies in depth were made of mineral deposits, flora and fauna, rainfall and topography. In the first summer malaria struck down so many of the party in the Nevada country around Humboldt Sink and Truckee Canyon that they were forced to retreat into the mountains to recuperate. It was reported that on one occasion King himself was struck by lightning, causing parts of his body to turn brown temporarily.

Although it had been generally believed at that time that no glaciers remained in the United States, when the party crossed Utah's Wasatch Range in 1869, King scaled Mount Shasta and discovered three active glaciers.

Drifters and Diamonds
Two years later, early in 1872, King was informed of a great find of gems somewhere in the region that he was exploring. One day two dirty, bearded and disheveled prospectors, John Slack and Philip Arnold, appeared at a bank in San Francisco early in the morning and attempted to deposit a small leather pouch full of uncut diamonds. After they had managed to do so, they disappeared. The diamonds were shown to officers of the bank, who in turn showed them to William Ralston, a director of the Bank of California and then to other capitalists in the city. All were intrigued concerning their origin and after a search was made for the two drifters, they were found and questioned. They claimed they had found the gems at a site the location of which they refused to disclose. They agreed, however, to take General David Colton, a representative of the capitalists, to the place but insisted that he must first be blindfolded. They set off together on the Union Pacific Railroad to a location, after which they made a four-day journey through mountains and canyons to where they had made their discovery. There Colton also found a number of precious stones, including diamonds and rubies. Colton was extremely cautious, however, and brought Arnold and his diamonds to New York City to the firm of Charles Tiffany.

He confirmed the authenticity of the gems and declared them to be "a rajah's ransom." One of the newspapers wrote that they had discovered "the American Golconda—a vast field of gems untouched by the hand of man, just waiting to be exploited by sound business enterprise. If they succeeded Amsterdam itself might well move West."

A nationwide syndicate was immediately organized, called the New York and San Francisco Mining Company, which purchased the rights to the mining fields from Slack and Arnold for about $600,000. They then went on to make preparations to float a public stock issue of $12,000,000. To ensure that everything would be absolutely safe and certain, the firm hired Henry Janin, considered to be the most cautious mining engineer in the West. He was taken out to the diamond field and was dazzled by it and reported in the public press that he had personally invested in it, and that he considered that "any investment at the rate of forty dollars per share or at the rate of four million dollars for the entire property be a safe and attractive one."

Meanwhile, the syndicate had managed to keep the location of the site strictly secret, but the news of the find leaked out and many went wild in their efforts to locate the Golconda; some claiming they had found it in Arizona, others in Nevada, and almost every day some prospector wandered into Denver claiming he had found gems. Western newspapers published every rumor as soon as they heard it, and from May until November 1872 the diamond frenzy mounted. Spies watched the trains all along the transcontinental railroad looking for suspicious prospecting parties that might be on their way to the site.

(Continued in the October issue)


About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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