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CLARENCE KING (1842 – 1901) White Geologist, Black Husband

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Civil War, Geology on June 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Clarence King

Clarence King’s ancestry went back to Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There was no doubt about King’s Anglo roots.  But people believe what they want to, and pale, blue-eyed King lived a double life as a white man and a black man, which spanned the breadth of New York society.

King’s mom was only 15 years old when she got married, and her 21 year old husband was already an established businessman.  King was born while his father was in China on business, and he was raised with the help of a colored nanny.  When King was only six his dad died in China.  The family also lost two baby girls leaving only mother and son.

A pattern of financial troubles and sickness that would follow King for the rest of his life started in 1856 in Canton, China when the family business was destroyed by mobs who hated foreign-owned businesses, and King’s mom was left almost destitute.  Three years later, 17-year-old King dropped out of high school before graduating, giving the vague reason as “illness.”  He moved to Brooklyn to work for a flour merchant.  He and his mother always remained close, but she remarried a widow and had a second family.

King might have been considered bi-polar.  He was prone to depression, a source of future illness, and yet very sociable.  His friends characterized him as smart, compassionate, well read, an excellent conversationalist and story teller, and a good writer.  Politically he was a staunch abolitionist.

THE CALL OF THE WILD             With the financial help of his step father, King went to Sheffield Scientific School which offered the best scientific training in the country.  He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1862.  After graduation, he and some buddies immediately set off for Lake Champlain to row from New York into Canada.  Not realizing that a draft had been instituted to fulfill the Union quota for soldiers, they were surprised to be stopped at the border as suspected draft dodgers.  They managed to convince the inspector that they were not avoiding the draft and finished their trip.  King was adamantly against slavery, but he was also a pacifist.  When the adventurers returned home, King headed to California to do some mountain climbing and feed his curiosity about geology, conveniently escaping his need to enroll in military service.

King, along with two friends, may have avoided the dangers of war, but he had some harrowing experiences that were equally as life threatening.  Near Fort Kearney, Nebraska King hired a guide to take him on a buffalo hunt.  After chasing a bull for almost two miles, King shot the animal, and it turned and charged King’s horse which fell on top of him.  A buffalo herd a mile and a half long rushed by him, parting just enough to avoid the horse which had King pinned to the ground, keeping him from being trampled.

King and his best friend James Gardiner found ways to earn just enough money to make their way to San Francisco, and King joined the California State Geological Survey as an unpaid assistant geologist.  King and the others on their expeditions worked in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and named Mount Tyndall, Mount Whitney, Mount Gardiner and Mount Clarence King after themselves.

NOT FOR LOVE OR MONEY             After a trip to Nicaragua in 1865, where King got malaria, he stayed at mom’s house to recover before going west again.  He returned to New York a year later when his stepfather died, leaving his mom with three children to raise, several servants to support and no money.  King borrowed money from Gardiner to help with the immediate needs.

In 1867, King was appointed U. S. Geologist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and he successfully lobbied for federal funds to conduct his survey.  His salary was $250 a month, and he hired Gardiner as a member of his crew.  Despite the rugged environment, King preferred to dress the part of boss by wearing linen with silk stockings and low shoes.  During their first season, King and his team surveyed 12,000 square miles and collected over 3,000 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils.

In Virginia City, Nevada, both King and Gardiner fell in love, and in April 1868 King announced his engagement to Ellen Dean, a teacher.  But in September when Gardiner married Josie Rogers, something was wrong, and King didn’t even show up to his best friend’s wedding.  A few months later when they all convened back in Washington D.C. King was acting despondent.  He wrote in a journal that loyalty to mother and God trumps passion.

After a third season surveying along the Fortieth Parallel, King earned his reputation as a captivating storyteller.  He had essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in 1872 he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, tales of his adventure peppered with social commentary.  It was so popular that it went through nine printings in two years.

The book may have made King popular, but apparently it did not make him rich.  He needed money to help his family, so he testified as an expert witness for a California mining company for $5,000.  Then in late 1873, he ended up back in New York to set up the survey laboratory.  He was resigned to being city bound and would express his restless in a different way, the beginning of his double life.

AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY             By day King worked hard at the tasks at hand, but at night, either alone or with a friend, he went “slumming” around the neighborhoods of the poor and ethnically diverse.  He was not looking for sexual experiences or to gawk or assert his superiority.  King saw especially the African American neighborhoods as a frontier to explore, and in the cover of darkness he could experience cultures forbidden to him in his mainstream life.

King was recognized for his contributions in geology when the United States Senate confirmed his nomination as the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in April 1879, a position he held for almost two years.  In 1881 King resigned in order to oversee several mining interests.  When most of them became losing propositions, he went to Europe to find investors.  He was nominally successful, but he did amass an impressive art collection which he either lent to friends or placed in storage in New York.

When he returned to New York in 1884, he rented rooms in various elegant residential hotels and belonged to several social clubs.  This arrangement allowed him the maximum freedom to come and go for long periods of time, often without telling his friends when he was leaving.  Although he had embedded himself in New York society, he was not at all attracted to the women of that class.  He preferred more “natural” women who were not obsessed with fashion, as he put it, with whom he could have a deeper conversation.  On one trip to California he had a relationship with a Native American named Luciana who came very close to his ideal.  Back in New York, King was haunted by her memory, and his friends gave up trying to find dates for him.

TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH             Sometime in late 1887, King met a woman named Ada Copeland, probably while he was slumming around New York at night.  There is no record of their meeting or courtship.  She was an African American who had migrated from Georgia to New York as a single woman and lived with a widowed aunt doing laundry in their home until she got a job as a nanny.  She was probably in her mid to late 20s when she met King, but she didn’t have a birth certificate to confirm her age.

The couple fell in love, but since interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the country, King introduced himself as James Todd, a Pullman car porter from Baltimore.  This was the only identity she ever knew.  King’s proficiency at storytelling served him well, and Copeland never doubted his veracity.  Despite his light complexion and eyes, by choosing that profession, it was assumed that he had black blood in him, and the presence of any amount of black blood, despite appearances, was enough to be considered Negro.

Ada Copeland became Mrs. James Todd in September 1888 in a small religious ceremony at Copeland’s aunt’s home.  Since they did not get a civil marriage license, they only had a common law marriage which had legal ramifications later in life.  There were only a few guests at the ceremony, and none of the groom’s family or friends attended or even knew about it.

Being married allowed Todd to move up in status and it allowed King to have a real home somewhere.  He set her up in an apartment in Brooklyn giving her an unusual amount of independence and privacy for a black woman.  But for King, supporting his mother’s household and a wife became very expensive, and the demands on his wallet were exacerbated when he and Todd had children.  There was a boy, Leroy, who was born only a year after they married and then died when he was about two.  By 1897 the family had grown to two girls and two more boys.  All of the children were called “colored” on their birth certificates.

Children made for a happy family, but it added to his burden of debt.  King borrowed money from John Hay, one of his dearest friends he met when he worked in Washington, D.C.  When they met, Hay was the assistant secretary of state, and then became President Lincoln’s private secretary.  King appealed to Hay for a loan, something he would do many times, and within the first year and a half of his marriage, King was $43,000 in debt.

FOR RICHER OR POORER, IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH             Both King’s private and professional lives were very full.  He received an honorary doctorate from Brown University, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in Europe dealing with mining projects.  He had perfect alibis for whenever he wasn’t around.  His wife believed he was traveling across the country on a train working as a porter.  While he was gone, he wrote passionate love letters to her, and there were joyful reunions upon his return.  His friends and business colleagues thought he was with his mother or had disappeared for a while because of his depression.  When he did visit his mother, he kept the truth about his indebtedness from her.  When he confided his fears and feelings about life to his friends, particularly Hay, he talked about everything except his family.  He kept that a well guarded secret.

King’s financial situation continued to worsen.  In 1886 he had organized the national Bank of El Paso and, as the main stockholder, he appointed a friend as the bank president.  In 1893, the friend’s bad management caused the bank to fail, and King lost everything.  The burden of living a double life and increased debt started taking its toll.  That fall, a disheveled, bearded King was arrested at the Central Park zoo for disorderly conduct.  He had gone into a wild rage, but he was released on bail posted by a former classmate who worked at the facility.  King was then examined by two doctors who diagnosed him as exhibiting acute symptoms resulting from a non-specific mental disturbance.  The doctors and three friends sought help in dealing with King, and a judge committed him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.  The cost of his treatment was paid for by two friends who visited him almost every day.

In January 1894, after two months in Bloomingdale, King was declared “recovered” from “Acute Melancholia.”  He had had no contact with his wife while he was institutionalized, and then almost immediately left for a business trip to the Caribbean.  He didn’t arrive back in New York until May before heading out to California again.  To help alleviate some of his financial burden, King started selling off some of f his art collection.

Life for the “Todd” family got easier while it got worse for King.  Todd spent the money she received on the family, moving up the ladder into more middle class neighborhoods and adding a nanny, music teacher, cook, maid and laundress to the payroll.  King had a mild heart attack in 1897 while in Colorado.  Perhaps he suspected that something would happen because in his correspondence to his wife he admonished her to keep their relationship a secret and to burn his letters.

King went to Arizona next where he contracted whooping cough, and the doctor found a spot of tuberculosis on his lung.  He kept traveling, exacerbating the condition, and when he went back to New York to visit his family and his mother, there was a feeling that it might be the last visit.  King told Todd to move the family to Toronto and to buy a house with the money he had gotten from friends, which she did.

Again King went to Arizona for the climate.  He had another heart attack and ventured to Pasadena, California to find a doctor who could help him.  He had lost 40 pounds and was plagued by headaches caused by fever.  Hay continued to send money to support his friend.  King, sensing the beginning of the end, started to evaluate his life, wondering why someone as intelligent as himself was such a financial failure, a question his friends had been asking themselves for a long time.

TIL DEATH DO US PART             King went once more to Arizona in a desperate attempt to recover.  He admittedly knew that was impossible, so he finally unburdened himself and wrote a letter to Todd revealing his true identity and the deception he had kept from her for 13 years.  He suggested she write his real name in her Bible in case she forgot it.

On December 23, 1901, Todd celebrated her 41st birthday in Toronto.  On December 24, King died in Arizona, one month before his 60th birthday.  He had told his wife that he had provided for the family after his death, but the only will he had was written before he got married, making his mother the beneficiary.  Because King and Todd only had a common law marriage, she was not entitled to anything.

For all of King’s accomplishments and failures, his life choices were a living illustration of what he believed: “People are looked at in only two ways, with the brain and with the heart.  If you take the former method you initially classify and judge people by their differences with other people usually yourself.  If you see them with the heart you have your conceptions on the similarities between them and some other people usually yourself.”1

QUESTION:  What do you believe in so strongly that you would have it influence your life choices?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

1Sandweiss, p. 173.

Sources:

Sandweiss, Martha A., Passing Strange, A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.

http://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/cking06.pdf

http://www.summitpost.org/mount-clarence-king/150502  (A description of Mount Clarence King)

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SARAH ROSETTA WAKEMAN (1843 – 1864) Female Soldier in the Civil War

In American History, Biography, Civil War, Female Soldiers, Feminists, History, People, Trivia, U.S. Army, Uncategorized, women on June 28, 2010 at 9:24 PM

Female Soldier in the Civil War

The lyrics to the Four Seasons’ song “Walk like a man. Talk like a man,” would have been good advice for Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.  Since she was a girl, she didn’t come by that naturally.  But learning how to do just that gave her a purpose and an adventure way beyond the family farm in Chenango County, New York.

By the time Wakeman was 17 years old, she had had some schooling, but  it was necessary for her to work as a domestic to help support her eight younger siblings and help her father pay off his debts.  Her future wasn’t looking too bright, so she decided that dressing like a man would increase her options.

When she was 19 she donned her disguise and worked as a coal handler on a barge on the Chenango Canal.  For four trips, she made $20.  At the end of her first trip she met some soldiers who tried to recruit her to sign up with the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers.  She had three more river trips to think about it and decided that the $152 signing bonus for enlisting was too tempting. 

 PRIVATE LIVES                                                                                                            Wakeman changed her first name to Lyons and lied about her age, instantly maturing to 21 years old.  The rest of the information on her regimental descriptive roll was true: five feet tall with a fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes and the occupation of “boatman.”  Wakeman’s gender was probably accepted at face value because of the cursory physical examination soldiers were given at the time of enlistment, often nothing more than a firm handshake.  Since there were a lot of pre-adolescent boys that edged their way into both the Confederate and Federal forces, it wasn’t unusual to have beardless recruits with higher pitched voices.

In corresponding with her family, Wakeman initially signed her letters “Rosetta,” confident her secret would not be detected.  She described army life and inquired about life back home.  She promised her father she would send money from her $13 a month salary for him to buy food and clothes for the family.  Unfortunately, she had to explain later that she had naively lent it to the first lieutenant and sergeant and received a promissory note in return for the whole amount including interest.  She sheepishly admitted that she had been taken advantage of by these officers and that she had learned her lesson. 

About three months into her military career, Wakeman got the measles and was hospitalized for seven days.  There didn’t seem to be any lasting effects of the disease, and she often expressed how much she enjoyed being a soldier, in contrast to her life on the farm. She had good clothes, enough food and no responsibilities except to handle a gun.

 AN EASY JOB                                                                                                                          In July 1863, the 153rd Regiment moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Washington, D.C.  to help protect the capital against potential riots in connection with the newly instituted draft.  Wakeman appreciated the spacious barracks, the well water for drinking and the salty river water for bathing.  She complained that Colonel Edwin Davis was so strict that the soldiers were hoping to be sent to the front lines, away from his command.

A month later, Wakeman was assigned to guard the prison that housed Rebel prisoners and officers.  With easy duty and a comfortable environment, she felt invincible.  She didn’t believe it was possible for her to die in battle, but if that was God’s will, she would submit to it.  She reminded her parents that she was “as independent as a hog on ice.”

In October, Wakeman reported that her days were filled with drilling exercises: company drill in the morning and battalion drill in the afternoon.  She enjoyed doing them and was proud that she could drill as well as any man in her regiment, and definitely better than the soldier in Company C who fell down, got a bayonet in his leg and “bled like a stuck hog.”

Home was feeling increasingly distant, and Wakeman stopped believing she would ever see her family again.  This spurred a confession that she had sinfully given in to lots of temptations in the army.  She admitted to getting into one fight, and after Stephen Wiley hit her, she gave him three or four good punches in return, putting him in his place.  God’s spirit had since worked in her, she believed, and she prayed that she wouldn’t go astray again.

FIGHTING THE ENEMY                                                                                              With the new year came new orders, and finally the 153rd was going to see some action.  They left Washington on February 18, 1864 and marched to Alexandria, Virginia.  From Alexandria they continued on to New Orleans, finally settling at Camp Franklin in Algiers, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River. 

Wakeman’s regiment fell under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.  His mission was to establish a strong Union presence in Texas, and he planned to follow the Red River north to Shreveport, near the Texas border.  An order went out saying that no women (nurses, laundresses, officers’ wives, etc.) would be allowed to accompany the command except by written authority from Headquarters. The commanding officers still had no idea that at least one member of the rank and file was in direct defiance of that order.

Wakeman’s group marched 16 days, over 300 miles, making stops to unload supplies.  When they encountered Confederate forces lying in wait, the two-day Battle of Pleasant Hill ensued.  On the second day, Wakeman was in the front lines under fire for four hours, until the fighting was halted by darkness. She spent the entire night lying on the battle field listening to the cries of the wounded and dying. 

Wakeman’s life was spared, but the Federal troops were still in danger.  On April 21, 1864, General Banks ordered a forced march totaling over 100 miles back to Alexandria with the enemy on their tails.  Two days into the march, Wakeman’s brigade was ordered to lie along the river and wait for the opportunity to attack Confederate forces.  As the enemy came closer and surrounded them, the only way out was to fight. Wakeman’s group charged the enemy and defeated them.  The next morning, the regiment continued back to Alexandria only to get lost in the woods.  Exhausted, they finally arrived there on April 25. 

Wakeman had proven herself a worthy soldier, but her prediction about not coming home came true.  She was admitted to the hospital on May 3 with chronic diarrhea, the most deadly disease of the Civil War.  She was sent to the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans on May 7 but didn’t arrive until May 22.  Thanks to a Rebel attack which destroyed river transportation downstream of Alexandria, access on the Mississippi River was shut off for over a week.  Wakeman was 21 years old when she died one month later on June 19.  There is no record of any hospital staff discovering her real identity, and she was given a soldier’s burial in New Orleans.

QUESTION:  In today’s society, is it easier to be a man or a woman?  Why?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta (Lauren Cook Burgess, ed.).  An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864.  Pasadena, Maryland: The Minerva Center, 1994.