Ever wonder where those beautiful cherry trees in Washington, D.C. came from? They were the brainchild of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who asked the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Parks Services in 1885 to plant them along the Potomac waterfront.
Scidmore had just returned from Japan and was overwhelmed by their beauty and the Japanese culture. She was fortunate to be able to visit her brother who was stationed in Japan for much of his career with the U.S. consulate.
Despite Scidmore’s requests, they fell on deaf ears until April of 1909 when she wrote to First Lady Helen Taft suggesting they would make a lovely addition to the capital. Lady Taft quickly agreed. Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist and ambassador in New York, heard about Lady Taft’s intention to plant cherry trees and asked if he could help.
With great excitement, 2,000 trees were shipped as a gift from the Japanese Ambassador but when they arrived, they were infested with bugs and had to be destroyed. Horrified by the news, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki sent 3,000 new cherry trees from 12 different varietals that arrived on March 26th, 1912. Finally, they were planted in the capital after 23 years.
Many tourists travel each year to attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival but most have no idea of their storied history and connection to Scidmore. Scidmore’s career, however, was bigger than these magnificent pink blossoms. She started working as a journalist in the early 1880s before joining the National Geographic Society in 1890, just two years after it was created.
Her work there was revolutionary at a time when women were not intrepid travelers that explored places unfamiliar to Americans. Diana Parsal, a journalist and former National Geographic Editor, has written extensively about Scidmore and her groundbreaking career saying:
“Scidmore’s place in history has been largely forgotten… Scidmore lived in an era when women’s lives were written as footnotes in their husbands’ stories. The pioneering journalist slipped into obscurity, in part, because she never married.”
It’s amazing when you consider how a woman’s social stature was dependent on her husband. On her website, Parsell highlights some of the trailblazing firsts by Scidmore.
As a journalist, Scidmore followed the travels of John Muir in Alaska. Muir is generally considered the father of the National Park Service whose scientific studies and travels through Glacier Bay made it a popular attraction.
Scidmore followed Muir’s adventures and decided she would see Alaska for herself, the way all of the women in history like Dickie Chapelle and Doris Allen do. They are trailblazers because they feel compelled to report from the front lines.
So Scidmore boarded a steamship and headed north in 1883 and 1884 at a time when travel was not without considerable risk. The journeys were long and lasted for a month at a time, with few modern conveniences. Over the course of these trips, Scidmore visited Glacier Bay in Alaska and wrote the first extensive guidebooks about Alaska according to Parsell.
Photo credit: Alaska State Library and Archives (1880)
In 1885, a collection of her entries were published as Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago, helping to dispel the myth that Alaska was a barren land without biodiversity and seasonal climate changes. Remember Americans didn’t know much about the state as it had recently been purchased from Russia less than twenty years earlier in 1867 (for $7.2 million).
Scidmore’s writings helped to attract more tourists to Alaska and eventually helped increase the number of settlers. It’s fitting that Scidmore became the first woman to write for National Geographic in the 1890s and was invited to join the board just two years later.
Scidmore’s continued travels led to more publications, seven in all. They detailed some of her adventures beyond Alaska including journeys to India, Japan, and China. In 1891, she published Jinrikisha Days in Japan – followed by a short guidebook, Westward to the Far East (1892).
Over the 25 years spent writing and taking photographs for National Geographic, Scidmore shared more than a dozen articles including one about a deadly tidal wave in Japan called a tsunami. This was a new word for Americans who knew nothing of the phenomenon in June 1896 when it ripped through Sanriku. The 8.5 magnitude earthquake caused two tsunami’s whose waves reached 125 feet and remained the highest on record until 2011. It killed 22,000 people.
Later in 1900, Scidmore wrote China, the Long-Lived Empire, and in 1903, Winter India. Scidmore continued to travel for the remainder of her life, shattering images about women’s capabilities. She was fearless about exploring and learning and drawing attention to the need to protect the environment.
Scidmore loved the beauty of the trees and championed the waterways. There was a new conservation movement happening in the United States that Scidmore fueled. She wrote to the editor of Century Magazine in Sept. 1893 saying Americans needed to support the new National Forest Reserves established for the public good.
Throughout Scidmore’s adventures, she connected with people from other cultures. As the first American writer, photographer and cultural geographer, Eliza enlightened the world with her curiosity and fearless explorations.
Scidmore’s cherry trees in Washington draw more than 1.5 million tourists annually. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in Reader’s Digest, “that we are indebted for this magnificent spectacle to the energy and vision of one American, Miss Eliza Scidmore.” She embodied the fearless spirit of adventure that opened new frontiers for an emerging America and a world hungry to know more about our natural world.
Tomorrow, WomanScape shares two of Scidmore’s inspiring travel photos and an inspiring quote by Mahatma Gandi.