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Book of the Week — Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

A vivid belt of blue lightning flashed down through the blackness, and for a moment every outline of cliff and forest forms, and the rushing clouds of snow and sleet, were lighted up with a cold, pallid gleam. …In the moment of lightning I saw that the Yosemite Fall, which had been dry for a month, had suddenly sprung into life again. Vast volumes of water and ice were pouring over and beating like sea-waves upon the granite below.

Clarence King (1842-1901)
London: S. Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1872
F868 S5 K52

This collection of naturalist sketches charmed nearly everyone who read it. One of the few critics was the author’s friend, Henry Adams. Adams expressed fatherly worry that Clarence King’s literary dabbling would cost him influence with the congressmen who held the purse strings of the survey of the Fortieth Parallel, a much more important venture, both for the American public and for King’s career. Despite Adams’ trepidation, King went on to survey the Fortieth Parallel, produce an excellent report on his work, and become celebrated for the adventure.

Yale-educated King first went West in 1863, where he was offered a job with California’s State Geological Survey. Under these auspices, he explored much of the Sierra and the Mt. Shasta region.

King entered into federal service in 1867, organizing and operating his geographical and geological survey under army sponsorship. King wrote his own orders and chose his own men, all of whom were civilian scientists. He mapped the basin and range country of Nevada and Utah and the mountains of Utah and Wyoming with a new degree of accuracy, all the while conducting geological, botanical and zoological examinations of the country he explored. He also looked for possibilities for development of railroad lines, promoting settlement along these routes.

In 1870, Brett Harte’s Overland Monthly accepted one of his stories. A year later, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly heard King lecture and invited him to submit articles for publication in that magazine. These articles became chapters in Mountaineering. King was able to write about his scientific investigations in a way that gave lay readers a sense of adventure. In typical marketing strategy of the time, Mountaineering was first published in Boston and London simultaneously. The book received positive reviews in several magazines, with comparisons to Washington Irving and Francis Parkman. A century after the publication of this book, Wallace Stegner would sing its praises.

King became the first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, joining other bureaus of the Interior Department which came to have great sway over what happened in the West. His U.S. Geological Survey focused on mineral deposits rather than water sources for irrigation, emphasizing the benefits for mining corporations rather than farmers.

King’s racist remarks against the Mexicans and the Chinese he encountered in California, described in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, were characteristic of Anglo loathing in the literature of the time. If current readers can look beyond this, the book is an intimate view of the first extended exploration of the Sierra.

Ironically, blue-eyed King would later marry a Black woman, convincing her that he was a Black railroad porter, a ruse he presumably got away with for the rest of their lives together.

For more on the European encounter with the American West, see our digital exhibition, The Roar of Distant Breakers.

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