Every age has strong, independent women who are driven to follow their hearts and minds whatever the cost. One such maverick was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1928). Today she’s known, if at all, as the person who initiated the idea of planting of Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac in Washington.
Yet she was so much more —pioneering journalist and travel writer; author and lecturer; writer, photographer and first female board member at National Geographic; Japan expert, Oriental art collector and activist for international peace.
Her story is fascinating in part because it dovetails with many interesting episodes of U.S. history: Frontier life in territorial Alaska. The opening of Japan to Westerners. The birth of National Geographic. The rise of mass tourism and “globetrotting.” U.S. expansionism in the Pacific. Seeds of the international peace movement. And the changing roles of women in the late 19th century.
Scidmore covered parties at the White House; befriended John Muir and his wife; dined with the family of Alexander Graham Bell; received high honors from the emperor and empress of Japan.
Roots in the Midwest
Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1856. She spent her early years in Madison, Wisconsin, among her mother’s large family. Her uncle David Atwood was founding editor of the Wisconsin State Journal (still publishing today) and witnessed the birth of the Republican Party.
Early in the Civil War her parents separated. Her father went West, leading to a permanent estrangement from the family. Her mother moved with 5-year-old “Lillie” and her brother George to Washington, D.C. There, Mrs. Scidmore supported the family by taking in boarders, volunteered at military hospitals and eventually procured a job at the U.S. Treasury, one of the first federal agencies to hire women.
Eliza attended Oberlin College for two years. Her brother George got a law degree and joined the U.S. consular service, then spent most of his career in Japan.
At the age of 19 Eliza broke into journalism by covering the 1876 Centennial Exposition, America’s first “world’s fair.” Over the next decade she was one of the early female newspaper correspondents—“lady writers“—who reported on Gilded Age society in Washington.
Birth of Travel Writer
A turning point came in the summer of 1883, when Eliza took a sightseeing trip to Alaska. She traveled aboard the Idaho, one of the mail steamers that made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage.
That voyage became historic when the captain veered into uncharted waters. Eliza and her fellow passengers were the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay.
(Watch my video describing that adventure.)
Scidmore repeated the voyage in the summer of 1884. She expanded her newspaper accounts into a book on Alaska that became popular as an Alaska cruise industry arose in the 1890s.
Another important development occurred in 1885. That summer Eliza and her mother crossed the Pacific to visit George, working there as a consular officer. The trip sparked Eliza’s lifelong love of Japan. She gained renown as an expert on the country. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan is now a classic of travel literature. Living on and off in Japan gave her a base for reporting across the Far East. She wrote for many leading magazines and published seven books.
Neither Eliza nor her brother George ever married. Today all three Scidmores are interred together at a cemetery in Yokohama.
Long Ties to National Geographic
Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society soon after it was founded. During a Society-sponsored expedition to the Mount St. Elias area of Alaska in 1891 Mount Ruhamah was named for her. (Alaska’s Scidmore Glacier and Bay also bear her name.)
In 1982 she was elected corresponding secretary, making her the first woman on National Geographic’s board of managers.
Eliza became a contributing writer, editor and photographer for the Society’s magazine as it evolved from a quasi-scientific journal into the picture-rich monthly we know today.
When Washington celebrated the centennial of the planting of its first Japanese cherry trees in March 2012, the National Geographic Society organized an exhibit of two dozen of Eliza’s photos. Most were from the early 1900s and never published before.
A Springtime Legacy
During her travels in Japan Eliza became enchanted with cherry blossoms. She loved the springtime ritual of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, when people from all walks of life strolled beneath the trees. She thought Washington should have something similar along the banks of the Potomac.
She pitched the idea to federal park supervisors, but they failed to take her suggestion seriously.
Her vision was finally realized more than two decades later when Helen Taft responded enthusiastically to Scidmore’s idea. The First Lady agreed to include flowering cherry trees in her landscaping plans for an area of the newly created Potomac Park, near the Washington Monument. Eliza used her Japanese connections to mediate discussions that resulted in Japan’s donation of 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington.
Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of Mrs. Taft who witnessed the planting of the first two Japanese cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912.
When I first learned about Eliza Scidmore a few years ago her accomplishments astounded me. Why had we never heard of her? As I began looking into her life I couldn’t help but wonder:
What gave a young woman of that era the audacity and confidence to propose so radical an idea as planting Japanese cherry trees in the symbolic heart of the nation’s capital? Who was she and what influences shaped her life? And what was it about Japan and its cherry blossoms that made her so wedded to her idea in the first place?
These questions have driven my effort to learn about her life and tell her story.
I have uncovered a lot of previously unknown information. An important jump start on the research came from interviews with Daniel Sidmore, a distant cousin of Eliza’s, and his M.A. thesis “Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History” (Benedictine University, 2000).
My book-in-progress, “A Great Blooming,” will be the first biography of this historically important but long-overlooked woman who was well ahead of her time.