Our Story - The Early Years Of The Minnesota Red Cross
View on Battlefield, Antietam, Maryland, September 1862, by Alexander Gardner; Library of Congress
SEPTEMBER 1862: During the American Civil War Battle of Antietam, Clara Barton comes upon the bloody battlefield hours after the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment passes over it. She cares for the wounded and assists surgeons. Barton goes on to found the American Red Cross in 1881.
APRIL 1898: A group calling itself the “German-American Red Cross Society of Minnesota” organizes in St. Paul. The group’s goal is to gather support, such as hospital supplies, entertainment, and other relief items, that the government does not provide for sick and wounded soldiers in the Spanish-American War, which the United States declares against Spain on April 25.
MAY 1898: The “Minnesota Red Cross Society” is established in Minneapolis. The group seeks approval from the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army to send nurses to care for soldiers in the Spanish-American War. The offer is declined multiple times as the Surgeon General does not see military field hospitals appropriate places for women nurses.
NOVEMBER 1898: Following pleas from Dr. Bessie Haines, who traveled from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to make the case for nursing assistance to Surgeon General George Sternberg, and later President William McKinley, the first Minnesota Red Cross nurse is sent to the Philippines before the Spanish-American War ends in December.
Comfort kit shop, St. Paul, ca. 1915-18; Minnesota Historical Society
WORLD WAR I, 1914-18: National Red Cross issues most Minnesota Red Cross chapter charters during the Great War. Volunteers with these auxiliary chapters turn to relieving human suffering in war-torn Europe. Red Cross hospital aides serve overseas, near the frontlines. Locally, volunteers produce surgical dressings, socks, and other garments. Motor corps drivers mobilize. Junior Red Cross kids make comfort kits for servicemen. War fund drives raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $475,000 during the St. Paul chapter’s first pledge drive. In Minnesota, ultimately 150 auxiliary Red Cross chapters establish and 15,000 women volunteers join to serve.
Minnesota Home Guard hands out relief items to fire survivors, Duluth, 1918; Minnesota Historical Society
1918: An influenza epidemic sweeps around the world, killing millions. In Minnesota, schools and public places close to prevent spread of the deadly disease. The Red Cross supports families through its Home Service program. Volunteers deliver cots and masks, and cook for families and furnish transportation.
OCTOBER 1918: A fire, driven by fuel and tornadic winds, becomes a firestorm, with flames four and half miles in the sky. People as far away as Iowa think the fire was close by. The flames engulf Cloquet and Moose Lake. Nearly 20,000 people lose their homes and more than 450 people die. This remains among the largest natural disasters in U.S. history. The majority of the displaced residents relocate in Superior, WI, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. The Red Cross plays a vital role in the response and recovery. The St. Paul chapter sends 16 cars worth of furniture, clothes, and other relief supplies.
Junior Red Cross kids make care packages for veterans, Endion School, Duluth, ca. 1920s; American Red Cross
1920s: Red Cross women transcribed books into Braille for learning by men who lost eyesight during WWI. The translated texts were sent for use at Evergreen, the American Red Cross Institute for the Blind in Maryland. Other peace-time activities included responding to deadly tornadoes across the state, giving scholarships to public health nursing students, and providing milk and hot meals to undernourished children. Junior Red Cross youth made garments for war refugees from Europe.
Mississippi River camp for flood survivors, Vicksburg, 1927; Wikimedia Commons
APRIL, MAY, JUNE 1927: The Great Mississippi River flood of 1927 kills 250 people and displaces 300,000, who stay in camps. Affecting states mostly along the lower Mississippi, the Red Cross gathers relief items and raises funds to support people in the camps.
Red Cross swim lessons, Lake Phalen, 1935; Minnesota Historical Society
1930s: Drought and economic depression ravage the nation. Thousands of families in Minnesota seek Red Cross help. Volunteers raise money for drought relief, distribute flour made from government wheat, sew clothes from fabric from the national Red Cross, and provide ready-made clothing. They supply milk and hot food to needy children. They assist veterans of the Great War with getting benefits for their service. Swimming instruction and home hygiene classes are offered. In 1936, the Gray Lady hospital and recreation volunteer service begins work at Fort Snelling Hospital.