The American Red Cross currently has more than 500 chapters across the United States and thousands of volunteers. But what is now one of the most visible nonprofit organizations in the country began with just one woman and one office.
Clara Barton began her humanitarian journey by providing care and supplies to the wounded during the American Civil War. After the war, Barton traveled to Europe, where she learned about the International Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.
She returned home in 1873, determined to persuade the United States government to ratify the Geneva Convention for protecting the war-injured, and found a Red Cross Society. She settled in Dansville, N.Y., where she began her campaign to convince the government to ratify the 1864 Geneva Convention and found an American Red Cross Society.
Despite failed attempts to persuade the American government to sign the Geneva Convention and extended visits to Washington, Barton and her associates founded the American Association of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C., on May 21, 1881.
Barton, urgently wanting to strengthen the support and increase the size of the newly formed Red Cross, returned to her home in Dansville and began promoting the organization. On August 22, 1881, Barton, supported by friends and town leaders, started the first local auxiliary in Dansville, N.Y., now known as the Clara Barton Chapter No. 1. There were 57 initial members and ultimately 92 names listed as charter members of this first chapter. The auxiliary was loosely structured, with annual dues of 25 cents.
The Dansville Chapter’s first opportunity for disaster response occurred approximately two weeks after its founding, when the “thumb” section of Michigan was engulfed by fire. What became known as the Michigan "Thumb Fire" killed nearly 300 people (sources vary on this number) and caused $2.5 million in damages. The fire left thousands homeless and without crops, livestock or jobs.
As soon as news of the Michigan fire reached Barton in New York, she seized the opportunity to provide relief through the Red Cross. She distributed broadsides requesting donations of clothing, food, household items and cash.
Barton designated the Dansville auxiliary as the Red Cross coordinator for relief donations to the survivors. The first shipment to Michigan was sent from Dansville in eight large crates. Barton did not travel to the disaster site, but instead sent Mark Bunnell, son of the Dansville newspaper editor, to Michigan to oversee the relief operation along with Dansville resident Julian Hubbell.
Barton remained in New York and continued soliciting donations and conducting meetings to promote the Red Cross, using the Michigan disaster to underscore the need for a centralized organization capable of processing and distributing the nation’s outpouring of humanitarian relief.
By 1882, she was successful in persuading the U.S. government to sign the Geneva Convention. Clara Barton maintained a residence in Dansville from 1876 to 1886, and her legacy lives on in the Clara Barton Chapter No. 1 of Dansville, N.Y., which still exists today.