Today she’s known, if at all, as the person who initiated the idea of planting 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.
Eliza 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 of Japan.
Roots in the Midwest
Eliza Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1856, but spent her early years in Madison, Wisconsin. After her parents separated during the Civil War, Eliza and her older brother George grew up in Washington, D.C., raised by their enterprising mother.
Eliza attended Oberlin College from 1873-74. Around the same time, George got a law degree and joined the U.S. consular service.
At the age of 19, Eliza broke into journalism as a newspaper correspondent. For the next decade she wrote a column on society events in Washington. When not tied to those reporting duties, she traveled widely.
Birth of Travel Writer
In the summer of 1883, Eliza Scidmore took a sightseeing trip to Alaska, traveling aboard a steamer named the Idaho. That voyage became historic when the captain veered into uncharted waters. It was the first time a ship carried tourists into Glacier Bay.
(Watch my video describing Eliza’s 1883 adventure.)
Eliza Scidmore repeated the voyage the next summer. She turned her newspaper accounts into the first book-length travelogue on Alaska. It became popular when an Alaska cruise industry sprang up in the 1890s.
Today, Eliza Scidmore has a mountain and a glacier in Alaska named for her.
Another important development occurred in 1885. That summer, Eliza and her mother went to Japan to visit George. The trip sparked Eliza’s long love of Japan. She gained renown as an expert on Japan, which was rapidly modernizing in the Meiji era. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan is now a classic of travel literature.
Eliza made a part-time home in Japan, giving her a base for extensive reporting from across the Far East. She contributed to leading publications such as The Century Magazine, Chicago Daily Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, and Outlook.
Today all three Scidmores are interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.
Long Ties to ‘National Geographic’
Eliza Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society in 1890, two years after it was founded. Soon afterward she was elected the corresponding secretary, making her the first woman on the Society’s board of managers. She became a writer, editor, and photographer for the magazine during its evolution from a dull scientific journal to an innovative monthly featuring lots of photos.
The Society has many dozens of photographs in its archives attributed to Eliza, a lot of them never published. Some of the hand-colored ones are of such high technical quality that they were almost certainly acquired from commercial studios and other photographers. (Labeling was very loose at the time.)
A Springtime Legacy
During her travels in Japan, Eliza Scidmore grew to love cherry blossoms and the springtime celebrations when the trees were in bloom — a ritual known as hanami. She thought Washington should have something similar, ideally along the Potomac riverbank. She pitched the idea to federal park supervisors, but they showed no interest.
Finally, after more than 20 years, Eliza found an ally in First Lady Helen Taft. Conspiring together, they managed to acquire a gift of several thousand cherry trees from Japan. The first shipment of trees had to be destroyed when they turned out to be infested with pests. But Japan sent a replacement batch, and Eliza finally saw her vision become a reality when the first of those trees were planted alongside the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912.
When I first stumbled on Eliza Scidmore a few years ago, it stunned me that such a trailblazing woman would have been so long lost to history. How is it that we glorified in the cherry blossoms in Washington every year but I had never heard of her? A desire to find out who she was and what motivated her led me to write her life story.
I was fortunate to track down a distant cousin in Illinois. Dan Sidmore and a late relative of his did family research that helped jump-start my biography of Eliza Scidmore. Advances in scholarship and electronic databases in the past decade have led me to uncover many new findings about Eliza Scidmore and her amazing career as a journalist and world traveler.
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.