Clarence King 18421901

Silas Selleck (active c. 18511876)
Albumen silver print, 1864

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Clarence King—standing at right alongside three members of Josiah Whitney’s Geological Survey of California—was a key figure in the scientific exploration of the West. A Yale-trained geologist, King crossed the continent on horseback in 1863, ending up in San Francisco, where he volunteered for the Whitney Survey.

After three years mapping California’s topography, King returned east and convinced Congress to sponsor an ambitious survey of the lands between the Sierra Nevada range and the Great Plains, through which the transcontinental railroad was meant to pass. The resulting six-year project elicited vital information that encouraged the expansion of mining and industrial development in the West.

King also made national headlines during this period for exposing the “Great Diamond Hoax,” a fraudulent diamond-salting scheme perpetrated by two Wyoming land speculators. King later championed the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey and in 1879 became its first director.