Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

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, writer and 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 above all, the changing roles of women in the late 19th century.

Eliza Scidmore 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.

Koto player, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Roots in the Midwest

Eliza Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, but spent her early childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, where her mother’s family had settled around the time Wisconsin became a state. An influential family member was her uncle David Atwood, founding editor and publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal (still publishing today).

During the Civil War her parents went their separate ways, in a split that became lasting. Eliza’s father went West 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.

Eliza attended Oberlin College for two years. He brother George, after completing law school, joined the U.S. consular service and later spent more than 30 years working in Japan.

At the age of 19 Eliza broke into journalism by covering the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Over the next decade she was one of the lady writers in Washington who reported on society news for out-of-town newspapers.

Birth of Travel Writer

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

In July 1883 Eliza took a sightseeing trip to Alaska — a turning point in her life. She traveled aboard the Idaho, one of the mail steamers that made monthly excursions up and down the Inside Passage.

That voyage was the first time that tourists ever visited Glacier Bay.

(Watch my video describing that adventure.)

Eliza repeated the voyage in the summer of 1884. She expanded newspaper accounts of her Alaskan travels into her first book, which became popular as a thriving Alaska cruise industry arose in the 1890s.

Another important development occurred in 1885 when Eliza crossed the Pacific to visit her brother George, who was working as a consular officer in Japan.  The trip sparked her lifelong love of  Japan, and she came to be known as an expert on the country.  Jinrikisha Days in Japan was her best-known work.

Eliza and her mother lived part of the time in Japan, which gave Eliza a base for extensive reporting on Japan and other countries of the Far East.

Neither Eliza nor her brother George ever married, and today all three Scidmores 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.  A few years later its all-male leadership unanimously elected her to the board of managers, the first woman to hold that position.

During Society-sponsored expeditions to an unexplored area of Alaska in 1890-91, Mount Ruhamah was named for Eliza.

Early members of the National Geographic Society gather at the home of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who established the society with his son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Early members of the National Geographic Society gather at the home of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who established the society with his son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell. (Photo: Library of Congress)

When the Society transformed its 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

During her travels in Japan Eliza became enchanted with cherry blossoms and the springtime ritual of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. It gave her the notion that Washington should have a similar park of flowering cherry trees along the banks of the Potomac. When she suggested the idea to federal park supervisors they failed to take her seriously.

Her vision was finally realized nearly 30 years later. Through Eliza’s initiative, First Lady Helen Taft incorporated flowering cherry trees into landscaping plans for an area of the newly created Potomac Park, near the Washington Monument. To support the project, Japan sent 3,000 trees as a gift to the city of Washington.

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 learned about Eliza Scidmore a few years ago her accomplishments astounded me. As I began looking into her life I couldn’t help but wonder:

What gave a young woman of that era the audacity and confidence to propose so radical an idea as planting Japanese cherry trees in the symbolic heart of Washington? What does it say about her that she persisted in pushing the idea for more than two decades, until it became a reality? And what was it about Japan and its cherry blossoms that made her so fiercely wedded to the idea in the first place?

These essential questions have driven my effort to learn about her life and tell her story. My research has uncovered a great deal of previously unknown information.  Daniel Sidmore, a distant cousin of Eliza’s, provided a great jump-start on my own investigations thanks to his M.A. thesis, “Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History” (Benedictine University, 2000).

14 Responses to Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.


  7. Daniel Sidmore


  8. 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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