Colorful biography of a geologist who surveyed much of the American West in the mid-19th century.
Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, begins by showing King (1842–1901) in the 1880s, when Henry Adams's circle admired him not only as a man of action but as a brilliant mind and a ready wit. The orphaned son of a New England trading family, King attended Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, where he excelled in geology, the most prestigious science of the era. After the outbreak of the Civil War, King headed west and soon found a job with the California Geological Survey, headed by Josiah Whitney, a friend of his Sheffield professors. There the King legend began, as he scaled unclimbed mountains, gathered mineral specimens and accumulated an impressive list of adventures—a fair number of which Wilson shows to be tall tales. But King's experience led to a job as director of the Fortieth Parallel Survey, charting the territory between California and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. This section of the country was important both as a route for the first continental rail lines, and as a possible repository of valuable mineral deposits. Here for the first time, King was leader of an exploration, dependent on the efforts of his team to secure results; while the survey was two years late in finishing, the geological work was some of the most significant of its time. At the end of the survey, King exposed a pair of hoaxers who had conned several wealthy men into investing in a fraudulent diamond mine. At this point the story ends—with King clearly depicted against the background of his time, and his place in 19th-century science firmly established.
Lively and well told.