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, Wisc., 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. Around the age of 20 she began a journalism career as one of the “lady writers“ in Washington who reported for out-of-town newspapers. She got a helping hand from her uncle David Atwood, founder and editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
Birth of Travel Writer
In July of 1883 Eliza went to Alaska for the first time—a turning point in her life. She traveled aboard a steamer, the Idaho, which made monthly excursions along the Inside Passage delivering mail and supplies. When the captain veered off the known route, the ship was the first ever to carry passengers into the upper reaches of Glacier Bay. (See my video of that adventure.)
Eliza published an account of her Alaskan travels as her first book. It brought wide attention to her work and laid the foundation of her long and prolific career as a travel writer.
In the mid-1880′s Eliza visited her brother George, a U.S. consular officer in Japan. That trip sparked her lifelong love of Japan, and she came to be known as an expert on the country and its people. She wrote a popular book on Japan, Jinrikisha Days in Japan, followed by several other books on her Far East travels.
Eliza and her mother lived part of the time in Japan. Neither Eliza nor her brother George ever married, and 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. It’s all-male leadership unanimously elected her to the board of managers. During the Society-sponsored Russell expedition to an unexplored area of Alaska in 1891, 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
Eliza’s travels in Japan gave her the notion that Washington should have a park of flowering cherry trees along the banks of the Potomac. She proposed the idea to various park supervisors in Washington for two decades but they showed no interest.
The idea finally took root under a beautification scheme of First Lady Helen Taft. To support the project, Japan sent 3,000 flowering cherry trees as a gift to 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 a thing? 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 other places, and drawing on resources such as a family history by a distant cousin, Daniel Sidmore (“Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History,” Benedictine University, 2000). It’s helping me answer the fundamental question: Who was Eliza Scidmore?