Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

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.

Koto player, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

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

The steamer “Idaho” at wharf in Juneau, 1887 (Source: Alaska State Library)

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.

Watch my video describing 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.

Early members of National Geographic Society at the home of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who founded the society with son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell (Photo: Library of Congress)

When the Society transformed its 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 more than 20 years when, through Eliza’s intervention, First Lady Helen Taft incorporated the idea into landscaping plans for an area of the newly created Potomac Park. To support the project, Japan sent 3,000 flowering cherry trees as a gift to the city of Washington.

The “Mukojima” avenue of cherry trees in Tokyo inspired Eliza’s vision for a similar park in Washington. (Source: Frank Brinkley’s “Japan,” 1897-8)

When I first learned about Eliza Scidmore a decade ago her list of accomplishments astounded me. As I began looking into her life, I couldn’t help but wonder:

What influences gave a young woman of that era the audacity and confidence to propose such an unconventional idea as planting Japanese cherry trees in downtown Washington? 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 exactly about Japan and its cherry blossoms that made her so fiercely wedded to the idea?

These essential questions have driven my research to piece together the overlooked story of her life. I have uncovered a great deal of previously unknown information through research at the Library of Congress and other repositories. An important source for my research has been a distant cousin of Eliza’s, Daniel Sidmore, and his M.A. thesis, “Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History” (Benedictine University, 2000).

After several years of research I am at last beginning to answer the question: Who was Eliza Scidmore?

7 Responses to Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. Daniel Sidmore

    Great!!!!!!

  6. 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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