Eliza Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore (1856-1928)

Every age has strong, independent women who defy the gender norms of their day to follow their hearts and minds. Eliza Scidmore was one such maverick.

Today, people know of her mostly for her role in giving Washington its now-famous cherry blossom trees. Yet she was so much more.

Remarkably “modern” for her time, Scidmore (1856-1928) was a prolific journalist; the author of seven books based on her travels from Alaska to the Far East; an activist in the early U.S. conservation movement; and the most important woman in the formative years of National Geographic.

My biography of Scidmore, published in 2023 by Oxford University Press, offers groundbreaking findings that illuminate her legacy beyond the cherry trees.

I’ve been interviewed about Scidmore and the origin of Washington’s cherry blossoms by major media outlets including The Washington Post, National Geographic, NBC, BBC2 and Japanese TV.

In a decade of researching, writing and promoting the book, I’ve spoken on aspects of the story to a wide range of audiences. Venues have extended as far as Alaska and Japan. See more details on my page of speaking engagements.

A sample of my presentations:

Wide-Ranging Travels

Steamer "Idaho" in Juneau, 1887

Steamship “Idaho,” at dock in Juneau in 1887 (Source: Alaska State Library and Archives)

Scidmore began her career as a newspaper correspondent reporting on Gilded Age society in Washington after the Civil War. A milestone event occurred in 1883 when she took a sightseeing-cum-reporting trip to Alaska, traveling aboard a mail steamer named the Idaho. The journey became historic when a detour off the known route made Scidmore and her fellow passengers the first tourists in  Glacier Bay.

She repeated the trip a year later, then turned her newspaper dispatches into the first travel guide to Alaska. That and her later later book on the region helped spur Alaska tourism during the birth of its cruise industry in the 1890s. A glacier and a mountain peak in Alaska are named for Scidmore.

In the 1880s, Scidmore also began traveling regularly to Japan, where her brother worked as a U.S. consular officer. His longtime service in Japan gave her a base for travels across the region. Besides her best-known work, Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891), she published popular 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 in 1890, two years after its founding. She made a major mark as the first woman to serve on its governing board and to publish articles and photographs in its now-iconic magazine. She helped shape the magazine’s picture-heavy format by providing many photos from the Far East as well as some of her own. (The Smithsonian Institution also has a collection of Scidmore’s photographs.)

Scidmore Collection, Photo Lot 139, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

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, several times. Eventually, she found a way to get what she wanted by enlisting the support of First Lady Helen Taft. On March 27, 1912, Scidmore was one of the few select guests who joined Mrs. Taft to witness the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park.

Scidmore spent her final years in Geneva, Switzerland, where she died in 1928. She is now interred in Yokohama next to her mother and brother. I visited her gravesite in March 2013 during a research trip to Japan.

Gravesite of Eliza Scidmore and her brother and mother, Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama (Photo by Diana Parsell)

(for Oxford University Press, use code AAFLYG6 for 30% discount)