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.
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.