Every age has strong, independent women who are driven to follow their hearts and minds at whatever the cost. One such maverick was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1928). Today she’s known mostly as the first person to propose the planting of Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac in Washington.
Yet she was so much more — journalist, travel writer, author and lecturer, first woman photographer for National Geographic magazine, Oriental art collector, 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.” Oriental exclusion laws in America. U.S. expansionism in the Pacific. Seeds of the international peace movement. And the changing roles of women in the late 19th century.
She corresponded with John Muir; dined with Alexander Graham Bell; socialized with President and Mrs. Taft; received high honors from the emperor and empress of Japan.
Roots in the Midwest
Eliza was born in Clinton, Iowa, but spent her early childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, among her mother’s family. During the Civil War her father went West and joined a military unit, while her mother moved with young Eliza and her brother George to Washington, D.C. There, Mrs. Scidmore ran a boarding house and did volunteer work at military hospitals.
George graduated from law school and joined the U.S. consular service; Eliza attended Oberlin College for two years. At 19 she broke into journalism. Over the next decade she was one of the “lady writers“ in Washington who reported on society news for out-of-town newspapers.
Birth of Travel Writer
In July 1883 Eliza took a sightseeing trip to Alaska—a turning point in her life. She traveled aboard the Idaho, one of the mail steamers that made monthly excursions along the Inside Passage. When the captain veered off the known route, the ship made history as the first to carry passengers into Glacier Bay. (See my video of that adventure.)
Eliza repeated the voyage in the summer of 1884. She expanded newspaper accounts of her Alaskan travels into her first book. It won wide acclaim and laid the foundation of her long and prolific career as a travel writer.
Around the same time Eliza crossed the Pacific to visit her brother George in his latest consular post. The trip sparked her lifelong love of Japan, and she came to be known as an expert on the country and its people. Jinrikisha Days in Japan became her best-known work.
Eliza and her mother lived part of the time in Japan. Neither Eliza nor her brother George ever married. Today they and their mother are interred together at a cemetery in Japan.
Long Ties to National Geographic
Eliza became a member of the National Geographic Society soon after it was founded in 1888. A few years later its all-male leadership unanimously elected her to the board of managers, the first woman to hold that position. During Society-sponsored expeditions to an unexplored area of Alaska in 1890-91, Mount Ruhamah was named for Eliza.
When the Society transformed its quasi-scientific journal into a magazine-style format heavy on pictures and maps, Eliza became a contributing writer, editor and photographer. In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the planting of Washington’s cherry trees in March 2012, the National Geographic Society organized an exhibit of two dozen of Eliza’s photos, mostly from the early 1900s.
A Springtime Legacy
During her travels in Japan Eliza became enchanted with cherry blossoms and the springtime ritual of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. It gave her the notion that Washington should have a similar park of flowering cherry trees along the banks of the Potomac. But when she suggested the idea to federal park supervisors they failed to take her seriously.
Her vision was finally realized after 24 years when, through Eliza’s intervention, First Lady Helen Taft incorporated the idea into a beautification scheme for an area of Washington that encompassed the newly created Potomac Park. To support the project, Japan sent 3,000 flowering cherry trees as a gift to the city of Washington.
When I learned about Eliza’s vision in the early stages of my research, I couldn’t help but wonder:
What would give a young woman of that era the audacity and confidence to propose such an unconventional idea? What does it say about her that she persisted in pushing the idea for more than two decades, until it finally came to pass in 1912? And what was it about Japan and its cherry blossoms that made her so fiercely wedded to the idea in the first place?
I’ve been tracking down clues at the Library of Congress and many other repositories of historical records. I’m also grateful to a distant cousin of Eliza’s, Daniel Sidmore, for sharing the findings of his own research, compiled as an M.A. thesis in 2000 (“Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History,” Benedictine University).
The fundamental question that keeps driving me: Who was Eliza Scidmore?