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.
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
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.
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.
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).