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 — 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: The discovery of Glacier Bay in 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. 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

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

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 many leading publications of the day, such as The Century Magazine and Harper’s Weekly.

A cherry tree descended from one sent by Japan to Washington in 1912 overlooks the Scidmores’ gravesite in Yokohama. (Photo: D. Parsell)

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 an extensive collection of photographs in its archives attributed to Eliza Scidmore, a lot of them never published. (Labeling was very loose at the time, and some of the photos — especially the hand-colored ones — are of such high technical quality that they were almost certainly acquired from commercial studios and other photographers.)

The Smithsonian also has a collection of her photographs at its National Anthropological Archives, many of which can be viewed online.

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.

Eliza Scidmore finally saw her vision become a reality when she witnessed the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912.

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 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 search for more about her life and to write her 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 me jump-start my biography of Eliza Scidmore. Since then I’ve uncovered many new findings about her life 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.

20 Responses to Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

  1. 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!

  2. 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. Daniel Sidmore

    Great!!!!!!

  10. 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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