Todd Shallat’s Terra Idaho history column: In 1868, a U.S. geography team encountered the magic of the Snake River Basin

Geographical science thrives on imaginative language, and nowhere has the imagery been more grandiose than on the western steppe of the Rockies, its barrens split by the Snake.

“You ride upon a waste,” wrote United States geographer Clarence King, approaching the Snake River near Shoshone Falls in late September 1868. “Suddenly, you stand upon a brink. Black walls flank the abyss. A great river fights its way through the labyrinth of blackened ruins and plunges in foaming whiteness.”

That river — flowing 1,056 miles, the second largest in the American West and twice the volume of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado — took its name from Shoshone Indians who painted snakes on sticks, marking territory. Its thundering torrent was “mad,” said American trappers. Its waters were “sick,” said the French. Hells Canyon, Hell’s Half Acre, Seven Devils, Deadman Falls, Massacre Rocks: The place names on emigrant maps seemed sinister, even satanic. “How Old Man Vulcan has played havoc here,” said mapmaker Charles Preuss.

A prodigy with a black manservant and bright-yellow gloves was among the first to order the chaos in the context of theoretical science. Clarence R. King of Yale, age 24, had orders from the War Department to survey from Lake Tahoe to Colorado in advance of the railroad. From 1867 to 1872, King’s U.S. Geological Survey of the 40th Parallel searched for mineral wealth while piecing together the fossil record of ancient eruptions and floods. In Utah, the King expedition found high-grade subbituminous coal ideal for steam locomotives. In Wyoming, where swindlers had salted a mesa with chips from South African diamonds, King won international fame for exposing a mining hoax.

King’s report on his 1868 side trip to the Snake River Basin featured the cataclysmic bizarre. Basalt flows in impossible canyons with toothed and twisted formations were offered as proof of the crumbling and crushing that had sculpted and resurfaced the globe. Idaho was “strange and savage” — as if a billion years had been sliced into vertical segments. Vertical chasms with fractured canyons were “like a specimen of chaos which has defied the finishing hand of Time.” King presented the Snake as a challenge to the linear thinking of Charles Darwin. Where Darwin had emphasized slow and orderly progress, King postulated that “moments of great catastrophe” had accelerated the life-altering process of natural selection. Volcanism drove evolution. Fractures, faults, fissures and floods had forced the biota to cope or die.

King’s expedition also pioneered the use of wet-plate cameras and a horse-drawn darkroom for photo documentation. The photographer was Timothy O’Sullivan, Irish-born, who had campaigned with generals McClellan and Grant in the Union’s Army of the Potomac. O’Sullivan’s silver prints of the Confederate dead, their corpses shoeless and posed, remain unsurpassed as testimony to the horror of war. Letters from the War Department brought the photographer to the attention of King in the wake of Lee’s surrender. In July 1867, via steamer and Isthmus railroad from New York to Panama, San Francisco and Sacramento, O’Sullivan followed King and his party of 10 surveyors into Nevada across Donner Pass.

King and O’Sullivan did more than produce a stunning visual record. Shunning romantic convention, they extended the vision of science. Precise and meticulous but hardly objective, the photo-documentation supplemented the charts, graphs, fossil sketches, stratigraphic diagrams, contour topographical maps and cross-sectional schematics that gave geology its visual power. Skewed low-angle shots showed rocks precariously stacked in weird off-balanced formations. Panoramas, selectively overexposed, darkened the gloom of chasms. Underexposures whitened the vastness of sky.

Idaho emerged from O’Sullivan’s prints as grand but enigmatic. The same could be said of King. A golden hero for a gilded age of science and national conquest, the explorer became, said a member of the President’s cabinet, “the best and brightest man of his generation; the richest and most many-sided genius of his day.” With polished shoes and a suit freshly pressed by his servant, King resembled, said a companion, “a bird of paradise rising in the sage-brush.” Said another acquaintance: “The trouble with King is that his description of a sunset spoils the original.”

Only recently have historians uncovered the astounding fact that the many-sided poetic genius led a secretive double life. Geologist Clarence King of Newport — blond and blue-eyed, a descent of signers of the Magna Carta — spent his last 13 years pretending to be African American. In 1887, while living large in Lower Manhattan, the scientist had met and fallen in love with a former slave from Georgia named Ada Copeland. Interracial fornication being a felony crime, King donned the cap of a Pullman porter and, passing as a light-skinned black man, married Copeland under the alias James Todd. Together the couple had five children. King hid the truth from Copeland and friends until the eve of his death in 1901.

Idahoan printmakers, by then, had tamed the savage terrain for farming and railroad promotions. Hell-in-harness scenes of smelters and trestles, of shovels devouring hillsides, of dams, and the laying of track became images of frontier prowess, a chronicle of popular thought. Photographer Clarence E. Bisbee of Twin Falls sold postcards that pictured the rapids as dam sites for hydropower. Robert “Two-Gun” Limbert of Boise — a photographer, taxidermist and trick-shot circus performer — used photography to retrace the bootsteps of King and lobby President Calvin Coolidge for an Idaho national park.

Geography, then, is also perception. Geography is imagined, processed and framed. A desert and elsewhere a garden, a tourist attraction, an ecosystem, a basin of liquid wonders — the Snake River landscape evolves with our cultural expectations. In 2014, Shoshone Falls lured more than 70,000 fee-paying tourists.

The enigma still beguiles.

Todd Shallat, Ph.D., directs the Center for Idaho History at Boise State University.