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’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 — journalist and travel writer; author and lecturer; writer, photographer, and first female board member at National Geographic. Her story is fascinating in part because it dovetails with many interesting episodes of U.S. history.

Eliza Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1856, but spent her early years in Madison, Wisconsin. After attending Oberlin College briefly, she became a journalist. While working as a correspondent for newspapers and magazines, she traveled widely.

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. Eliza published her first book on Alaska, in 1885.

(Watch my video describing Eliza’s 1883 adventure.)

Around the same time she went to Japan to visit her brother George, a U.S. consular officer. That began her longtime interest in Japan. She returned many times, writing about the country during the Meiji period. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan is now a classic of travel literature.

Eliza Scidmore shares a gravesite in Yokohama with her mother and brother.  (Photo: D. Parsell)

Today all three Scidmores are interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.

Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society soon after it was founded in 1888. She was later elected the first woman on its board. She contributed articles and photographs to National Geographic magazine in its early years.

The Smithsonian has a collection of her photographs at its National Anthropological Archives.

Eliza’s love of cherry blossoms led her to suggest to park officials in Washington that they should plant some of the trees along the Potomac. It took more than two decades to see her idea carried out, in March 1912, with the help of First Lady Helen Taft.

My book in progress, “A Great Blooming,” is a biography of this historically important but long-overlooked figure who was a woman well ahead of her time.

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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