Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

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 is known best — if at all — for initiating the idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C.

Yet she was so much more.

Overlooked for a century, Scidmore has been attracting greater attention in recent years, thanks in part to the centennial of Washington’s first cherry trees in 2012. I had begun looking into her life not long before that, after stumbling onto her story through a book I bought while living in Jakarta. (Read the story of how I discovered her on my Author page.)

I created this website and blog in 2011 to chronicle my research and writing of the first comprehensive biography of Eliza Scidmore. I chose “A Great Blooming” as the working title.

Today I’m recognized as the leading authority on Scidmore. Major media have interviewed me about her, including The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Japanese television. I have lectured on Scidmore and Washington’s cherry trees to groups in Washington and Japan.

A Path-Breaking Woman

Born just before before the Civil War, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1928) rose from modest beginnings to become one  of the most accomplished women of her day. When few woman of her day pursued careers, newspaper society pages routinely reported the comings and goings of “Miss Scidmore.”

Her achievements at that time boggle the mind:

  • prolific writer, who published six books and wrote for many publications
  • intrepid traveler, whose adventures took her to Alaska, Japan, Java, China India, and other places little known to most Americans
  • first female board member of the National Geographic Society, and a contributing writer and photographer for its now-famous magazine (the Smithsonian Institution also has a collection of her photographs)
  • collector of Oriental art, many pieces of which she loaned to U.S. museums
  • international peace advocate late in life

Wide-Ranging Travels

In the summer of 1883, while still in her 20s, Scidmore took a sightseeing trip to Alaska, traveling aboard a mail steamer named the Idaho. That voyage became historic.

Watch my home-made video describing the journey. (Note: Some of the photos are representative only, and a sharp reader in Alaska pointed out that I featured a different ship named the Idaho. I posted a picture of the actual one Scidmore traveled on elsewhere on this website.)

A couple of years later, Scidmore went to Japan for the first time. Thus began her long fascination with the country and its culture. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891) is now a classic of travel literature.

Eliza’s brother George spent most of his U.S. consular career in Japan, giving her a base for travels across the Far East.

Their mother also spent long periods in Japan living with her son. Today, all three Scidmores are interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.

Cherry Trees on the Potomac

Her love of cherry blossoms led Scidmore to suggest to park officials in Washington that they add some cherry trees to landscaping plans for the new Potomac Park taking shape on formerly marshy ground near the Washington Monument.

The men showed no interest, but Scidmore kept the idea alive in her mind for more than two decades.

She finally saw her dream become a reality on March 27, 1912, when she witnessed the historic event at which First Lady Helen Taft planted the first Japanese cherry tree beside the Tidal Basin in Washington.

My book “A Great Blooming” will be, in effect, a dual biography: the story of a woman who persisted, and the story of Washington’s cherry trees, told more completely than ever before.

22 Responses to Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

  1. Kyla

    Hello Diana,

    I’m a student researching the DC cherry trees, & in the process of creating a podcast episode about their history. Would you be willing to talk with me about further about Eliza’s role in getting the first batch of trees in the ground? Thanks!

    • Hi, Kyla. Sorry for delayed response. Would love to talk with you to share some of what I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore. Will send contact details privately so we can arrange a time to connect.

  2. Caiti Campbell

    Diana,
    This is great stuff! I am a ranger at Glacier Bay, where–of course–we love Eliza. I’m working on a program about her. Do you have any additional information to share?

    Many thanks,
    CC

    • Caiti. In my many years on this book project I’ve uncovered an enormous amount of information about Eliza Scidmore, much of it not previously known. I’ll get in touch with you to discuss further. Diana
      P.S. If you watched Alaska video on this site, please note that I used wrong ship image of the “Idaho” steamer on which Eliza traveled in 1883 (it didn’t have a sternwheel). Grateful to an Alaskan reader for pointing out the error!

  3. I think the researching relative you mentioned toward the end of this post is my grandpa, S. Bruce Scidmore. Eliza is my great, great, great aunt and I, too, am an adventurous woman. 🙂

    • Kelley.
      So good to hear from you. I’m grateful for all the research your grandfather did in tracking down important details on Eliza Scidmore, as so little has been known about her. I’m thrilled to be telling her life story for the first time, since she was so amazing. The genes for adventure must run in the family, Best, Diana

  4. Serena Sidmore

    Thank you for this undertaking! I have long admired Eliza’s life and history. I came across her years ago while researching my family history (and hers). I can’t wait to buy your book!

  5. Diana,
    Having discovered and written about another of those strong, adventurous women of the turn of the century era, Harriet E. Freeman, I can’t wait to read your book. I love your website. I’ve now been commissioned to write an article about Hattie Freeman and conservation for Appalachia so I’ve been studying the Appalachian Mountain Club indexes. I came across an entry that you may already know about: Scidmore, Eliza Rhuhamah, gives lecture on Korea, vii, 360. I’m sure Appalachia must be on the shelves at LOC.
    Sara

    • Hi, Sara.
      Thanks so much for the tip on the article in Appalachia. It did not turn up in my research so I definitely want to check it out. Can you please provide the date of the article? I’ll search for it in the journal’s archives through HathiTrust. Your writing on Harriet Freeman and conservation intrigues me because that was a major interest of Eliza Scidmore as well. Among other things, she advocated for conserving forests in Alaska and for making Mount Rainier and Yosemite protected parks. (The latter was a major cause of John Muir and Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson.) Your book on Harriet Freeman is impressive, and I hope my efforts in writing about Eliza Scidmore will be as solid. As you know so well, getting there is a long journey! But I’m diligently plugging away …

      • Diana,
        I thought I had left a reply just now but I don’t see it registered. Go to Google Books and enter “Appalachia Volume 7” and you will find the enthusiastic summary of Eliza’s illustrated lecture on March 12, 1894 on p. 360.
        Sara

        • Oh, and I meant to thank you for your kind comment about my book, Coded Letters, Concealed Love. There does seem to be considerable interest in the work of the early forest conservationists.
          Sara

  6. Paula Whitacre

    We met at the WBG meeting last night–I am working on abolitionist Julia Wilbur. Your website is great, and very motivational! Hope to talk to you more another time.

    • Paula. It was good seeing you again at the Washington Biography Group. Sounds like you’re making good progress on your book. Help in transcribing diaries is a huge help! There’s close time overlap on our respective subjects, so will be nice to compare notes and concerns.

  7. George Scidmore

    Neat Stuff! It was kinda creepy for me to read the caption under the picture of George Scidmore.

    • Hi, George.
      Are you related to Eliza? You must be, given the unique name. Where do you live, and do you have any insight on Eliza Scidmore? My information indicates that her father’s family settled in the Indiana/Illinois area.
      Diana

  8. Christy Northfield

    Hi Diana, Christy Barcus kindly alerted me to your recent success and great press. I’m so pleased for you…and for the rest of us! Your hard work and insight are entertaining, educational, and inspiring (as is Eliza Scidmore’s story). Thank you for sharing the results of your dedicated research, review, and writing, for sharing a life and contributions that might have gone unnoticed for another hundred years. Best wishes as you progress with your project! Christy

  9. Diana,

    Marvelous site… Love your video of her trip to Alaska. Also love your prior posts… Some day I might join you at the Library of Congress First Thursday… It would fit into one of my dream projects… But really a very, very thorough and professional looking site.

    Brian

  10. Daniel Sidmore

    Great!!!!!!

  11. Michael Kirkland

    Diana, I’m impressed with this blog and wish you the best of luck with this project. Regards, Michael

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