Every age has strong, independent women who defy the gender conventions of their era to follow their hearts and minds. Eliza Scidmore (1856-1928) was one such maverick. Today, people know about her mostly as the visionary of Washington’s now-famous cherry trees.
Yet she was so much more. Remarkably “modern” for her time, Scidmore became an intrepid world traveler; a prolific journalist and the author of seven books; an expert on Alaska and Japan; the first female board member of National Geographic and an early contributor to its iconic magazine.
Today, I’m widely regarded as the foremost expert on Eliza Scidmore, thanks to my in-depth research to write her biography. My earlier website and blog (“A Great Blooming”; now absorbed into this website) brought many inquiries about Scidmore from people in several countries — journalists, historians, bloggers, teachers, and others.
I’ve been interviewed about Scidmore by major media including The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Japanese and British television, and I’ve lectured on the subject to diverse audiences in the U.S. and Japan. In the summer of 2018, I spoke on Scidmore and her historic travels to Alaska to park rangers and the public at Glacier Bay National Park.
See more details about my media appearances and speaking engagements on this website.
Scidmore began her career as a newspaper correspondent. A milestone event occurred in the summer of 1883, when she went to Alaska for the first time. Traveling aboard a steamer named the Idaho, she and her fellow passengers made history as the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. (See my video about Eliza Scidmore’s 1883 journey to Alaska.)
Scidmore turned her newspaper dispatches from that and a follow-up trip into the first guidebook on Alaska: Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago (1885). She continued reporting on Alaska and published two books that became popular in the final years of the 19th century. Today she has a mountain and a glacier and bay named for her.
Also in the 1880s, Scidmore went to Japan for the first time to visit her brother in Japan. George Scidmore spent most of his U.S. consular career in Japan, giving Eliza a base for travels across the region. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891) is now a classic of travel literature. She also published books on Java, China, and India, and a novel based on the Russo-Japanese War.
Seeds of a Legacy
Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society soon after the organization’s founding in 1888. She served as the first woman on its board (starting in 1892), published a dozen articles in National Geographic, and helped the editor shape the magazine’s signature format by procuring many photos from the Far East as well as providing some of her own. (The Smithsonian Institution also has a collection of Scidmore’s photographs.)
While living on and off in Japan, Scidmore grew captivated by the beauty of cherry blossoms. Hoping to have some of the trees planted in downtown Washington, she took her idea to the city’s park officials.
The men ignored her suggestion — repeatedly. But Scidmore finally got what she wanted by enlisting the support of First Lady Helen Taft. On March 27, 1912, Eliza Scidmore was one of only three guests of Mrs. Taft who witnessed the planting of the first Japanese cherry tree in the new Potomac Park.
Scidmore spent her final years in Geneva, Switzerland, where she died in 1928. Her ashes were deposited at a gravesite in Yokohama next to the remains of her mother and brother.
“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”