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 is known best —if at all — for initiating the idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C. Yet she was so much more.
Overlooked for a century, Scidmore has been attracting greater attention in recent years, thanks in part to the centennial celebration of the planting of Washington’s first cherry trees in 2012. I had begun looking into her life before that, after stumbling onto her story through a paperback book I bought while living in Jakarta. (Read the story of how I discovered her on my Author page.)
I established this website and blog in 2011 to chronicle my research and writing of the first comprehensive biography of Eliza Scidmore. I chose “A Great Blooming” as the working title.
Since the centennial of D.C.’s cherry trees, I have gained authority as the leading expert on Eliza Scidmore, and have been interviewed on the subject by The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Japanese television. I have lectured on Scidmore and Washington’s cherry trees to a dozen groups in Washington and Japan, including the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society, which visits her grave site every spring.
A Path-Breaking Woman
Born just before before the Civil War, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore rose from modest beginnings to become one of the most accomplished women of her day, and one of the best-traveled Americans. At a time when few woman pursued careers, “Miss Scidmore” roamed the world writing about little-known places for readers back home.
Her achievements include being elected the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, soon after its founding. She served as a contributing writer, editor and photographer for the Society’s now-famous magazine in its formative years. The Smithsonian also has a collection of her photographs at its National Anthropological Archives.
Scidmore’s story is fascinating in part because it dovetails with many interesting events in one of the most dynamic periods of U.S. history, from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era. Her friends and associates ranged from presidential families to celebrities such as inventor Alexander Graham Bell and environmentalist John Muir.
Eliza Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1856, spent a few years of early childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, and was raised in Washington, D.C. Her mother was an enterprising woman in her own right, operating boarding houses in Washington. Eliza attended Oberlin College for a short time, then began her career in journalism by covering Gilded Age society in Washington as a newspaper columnist.
When not tied to her reporting obligations in the capital, she traveled — every chance she got.
In the summer of 1883, 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 repeated the voyage the following summer, then expanded her newspaper dispatches into the first book-length travelogue on Alaska, published in 1885.
Watch my video describing Eliza’s 1883 Alaska voyage. (Note: Some of the historical photos are representative only, and a sharp reader in Alaska pointed out that I used an incorrect photo for the ship Scidmore traveled on. It turns out there was another ship also named the Idaho. The one Eliza traveled on did not have a paddle wheel, as shown here. I’ve posted a picture of her ship elsewhere on this website.)
Soon after her Alaska voyages, Scidmore went to Japan for the first time, traveling out to visit her brother George. That trip began her longtime interest in Japan.
George Scidmore was a U.S. consular officer who spent much of his career in Japan. Eliza returned many times, writing about the country during the Meiji period when Japan was undergoing a great wave of modernization after centuries as a feudal society. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891) is now a classic of travel literature.
Today all three Scidmores are interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.
Scidmore was in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War and obtained permission to report on Japan’s treatment of Russian POWs at several prison camps. She turned her reporting into a novel, As the Hague Ordains (1907). It presents in diary form the account of a Russian officer’s wife who goes to care for her wounded husband in a Japanese prison camp at Matsuyama.
Soon after As the Hague Ordain was published, the emperor of Japan awarded Eliza Scidmore the prestigious Order of the Sacred Crown.
Cherry Trees on the Potomac
During her extensive travels in Japan, Scidmore grew to love the beauty of flowering cherry trees. As a longtime resident of Washington she had watched the creation of Potomac Park, which was built on reclaimed swampy land near the Washington Monument.
Scidmore got the notion that the new Potomac Park should have a grove of Japanese cherry trees, which were a novelty in America. She suggested the idea several times to various park superintendents — officers from the Army Corps of Engineers — but none of them showed an interest.
She kept the idea alive in her mind for more than two decades. Finally, an opportunity came to get her way when William Howard Taft entered the White House. Eliza knew that First Lady Helen Taft, who had traveled in Japan and lived there briefly, shared her interest in cherry trees and Japanese culture.
With the help of a U.S. botanist named David Fairchild, who also developed a keen interest in cherry trees, Scidmore was able to persuade Mrs. Taft to add some of the trees to beautification plans for Potomac Park. Eliza tapped her Japanese contacts to mediate the offer of several thousand from a famous Japanese-born chemist named Jokichi Takamine, who was living in New York.
Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of Mrs. Taft who witnessed the historic event on March 27, 1912, when Mrs. Taft planted the first Japanese cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin in Washington.
In telling Eliza Scidmore’s life story for the first time, my book will provide the most complete account to date of how she managed to make her dream a reality, in the face of resistance from powerful men.