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Out There – History in Focus

James Neton
History in Focus
Gates of Lodore as photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan during the 40th Parallel Survey, 1872. Note the tent and men of the survey in the foreground.
Photo Credit: O'Sullivan, Timothy H, photographer. The gate of Lodore / T. H. O'Sullivan, phot. , 1872. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002698573/ via Museum of Northwest Colorado.

In many ways the history of the American West is the story of figuring out what was “out there.” While early explorers such as Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike are well known, the more precise mapping and defining of the land came with four major surveys conducted after the Civil War. The survey of the Fortieth Parallel from 1867-1872 was the most influential, and included the lands of northwest Colorado.

The story of the survey starts with its leader, geologist Clarence King. Born into a modest family, his father died in China when he was six. Afforded an education by his stepfather, King graduated from Yale with a degree in geology. Strong, robust, bright, and a gifted conversationalist, he became friends with Henry Adams (great grandson of President John and grandson of John Quincy) and soon found himself circulating in the elite social circles of American society.

During the Civil War, King worked for the California Geological Survey. After the War, and just 25, King was looking for a challenge and a solid wage to support his mother. He envisioned a great survey of a vast cross section of the 40th parallel from northeast California through parts of Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado that followed the route of the transcontinental railroad.



To complete the tough multi-year project, King recruited the era’s best, brightest, and toughest geologists, map makers, biologists, botanists, and even fledgling photographers. Over the course of three years, from 1867-1870, the survey methodically worked eastward across the Great Basin, mapped the Great Salt Lake and crawled all over the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains while withstanding sickness, disease, bad water, and hostile natives. In the winter, the crew would recuperate and write their reports, finalize maps, classify animal and geologic specimens and slowly develop detailed knowledge of the West.

In 1871 King’s survey finally reached our neck of the high desert. King divided the survey into two groups to more efficiently work through Northern Colorado. King himself explored the canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers, hiked Long’s Peak, and delved into our remote ElkHead Mountains. Throughout the summer, large forest fires started by nearby miners obscured mountain top views and hampered their mapping efforts.



Determined to finish the survey, King pushed his crews to work late into the fall. In late October, near Douglas Mountain, they were trapped in a fierce blizzard for five days while temperatures dropped to zero degrees. For relief, King led the crew down into the canyons around the Yampa River in today’s Dinosaur National Monument. Several days later a second storm forced them to survive on dry flour and whatever wild game they could scrounge up. The men were forced to retreat to Fort Bridger, but not before King noticed a grizzly bear’s den, brazenly crawled in, and in the darkness shot and killed the massive beast!

The survey proved to be the high water mark of King’s career. The maps, reports, and findings set a new standard for science in the United States. From here, his career trended downward, business investments failed, and he fell heavily into debt trying to sustain his expensive lifestyle and image.

Even more astounding was the double life King developed in the mid 1880’s. Long attracted to dark complexioned women, the blue-eyed and fair skinned King met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, a beautiful black woman living in New York City.

To Ada, King was a man named James Todd, a light-skinned black man who worked as a Pullman Porter. They married and had five children. Amazingly, King kept his identity as James Todd completely separate and undiscovered from his life as a famed geologist and socialite for the rest of his life. On his deathbed, in 1901, King finally penned a confession to his wife and children revealing his true identity.

King’s survey of the 40th Parallel helped bring order and scientific knowledge to a vast swath of the Wild West, which played a vital role in exposing the Great Diamond Hoax of 1873 centered in today’s Moffat County (see Diamonds and Geologists in Craig Daily Press, 7/11/2020). His interracial marriage and secret identity demonstrate the complicated nature of race and love in the late 19th century


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