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.” U.S. expansionism in the Pacific. Seeds of the international peace movement. And the changing roles of women in the late 19th century.
Scidmore covered parties at the White House; became a friend of John Muir and his wife; dined with the family of Alexander Graham Bell; received high honors from the emperor and empress of Japan.
Roots in the Midwest
Scidmore was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1856. She spent her early years in Madison, Wisconsin, amid her mother’s large family. Her uncle David Atwood was founding editor of the Wisconsin State Journal (still publishing today) and an important figure in the early Republican Party.
Early in the Civil War, her parents separated. Her father went West; her mother moved with young “Lillie” and her brother George to Washington, D.C. There, Mrs. Scidmore ran a boarding house, did volunteer work at military hospitals and eventually procured a job with the federal government.
Eliza attended Oberlin College for two years. Her brother George got a law degree and joined the U.S. consular service. He spent most of his career 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
A turning point came in the summer of 1883, when Eliza took a sightseeing trip to Alaska. She traveled aboard the Idaho, one of the mail steamers that made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage.
That voyage became historic when the captain veered into uncharted waters. Eliza and her fellow passengers were the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay.
(Watch my video describing that adventure.)
Scidmore repeated the voyage in the summer of 1884 and expanded her newspaper accounts into a book on Alaska. It became popular when an Alaska cruise industry sprang up in the 1890s.
Another important development occurred in 1885. That summer, Eliza and her mother crossed the Pacific to Japan, where George was working as a consular officer. The trip sparked Eliza’s lifelong love of Japan, and she came to be known as an expert on the country. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan is now a classic of travel literature.
Eliza and her mother lived for long periods in Japan. It gave Eliza a base for extensive reporting on the Far East. Neither Eliza nor her brother George ever married. Today, all three Scidmores are interred together at a cemetery in Japan.
Long Ties to National Geographic
Scidmore became a member of the National Geographic Society soon after it was founded in 1888. She was elected its corresponding secretary in 1892, making her the first woman on its board of managers.
During a Society-sponsored expedition to the Mount St. Elias area of Alaska in 1891, Mount Ruhamah was named for her.
Eliza became a contributing writer, editor and photographer for the Society’s magazine as it evolved from a quasi-scientific journal into the picture-heavy monthly we know today.
When Washington celebrated the centennial of the planting of its first Japanese 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. She loved the springtime ritual of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, when people from all walks of life strolled beneath the trees. It gave her the idea that there should be something like it along the banks of the Potomac.
She pitched the idea to federal park supervisors, but they failed to take her suggestion seriously.
Her vision was finally realized more than two decades when Helen Taft responded favorably to Scidmore’s idea. The First Lady agreed to include flowering cherry trees in her landscaping plans for an area of the newly created Potomac Park, near the Washington Monument. Eliza helped mediate discussions that resulted in Japan’s donation of 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington.
Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of Mrs. Taft who attended the private ceremony on March 27, 1912, when the first two Japanese cherry trees were planted alongside the Tidal Basin in Washington.
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? Who was she and what influences shaped her life? And what was it about Japan and its cherry blossoms that made her so fiercely wedded to her idea in the first place?
These questions have driven my effort to learn about her life and tell her story.
I have uncovered a lot of previously unknown information. An important jump start on the research came from interviews with Daniel Sidmore, a distant cousin of Eliza’s, and his M.A. thesis “Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than a Footnote in History” (Benedictine University, 2000).
My book-in-progress, “A Great Blooming,” will be the first biography of this important and all but neglected woman who was well ahead of her time.