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Indefatigable Clara Barton founded the first Red Cross chapter

Indefatigable Clara Barton founded the first Red Cross chapter

A 1904 portrait of Clara Barton by J. E. Purdy. (Library of Congress Collection)
A 1904 portrait of Clara Barton by J. E. Purdy. (Library of Congress Collection)

When you think of famous Western New York suffragists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton come quickly to mind. Clara Barton, suffragist, abolitionist and founder of the American Red Cross, made her mark in our region, too. It was in Dansville, Livingston County — where Barton summered for many years — where the first Red Cross chapter was founded in August 1881.

Barton, one of the most highly decorated women in U.S. history, had already caught the public’s attention during the Civil War, risking her life tending to wounded Union soldiers and earning the name, “Angel of the Battlefield.” At a time when most women did not work outside the home, Barton built three careers during her life —teacher, federal employee and director of the Red Cross.

Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York, Inc. is adding to Barton’s accolades by naming her a 2020 inductee to its Business Hall of Fame. This year’s Rochester Business Hall of Fame inductees will be honored from 4 to 4:45 p.m. Oct. 26 during a “Celebration of Entrepreneurship” virtual awards ceremony. For more information or to register, go the website for the Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York.

Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children of Sarah and Stephen Barton, a wealthy farmer. Barton began teaching at age 17. By 24, she had founded a school for mill workers’ children. In 1852, Barton established the first public school in Bordentown, New Jersey, but eventually left after discovering a male colleague was being paid significantly more than her, according to the National Women’s History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

Barton reinvented herself. In 1854, at age 39, she moved to Washington, D.C., and found employment as a recording clerk with the U.S. Patent Office, becoming one of the first women to work for the federal government.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Barton left that job to join the Union cause. She was among the volunteers to receive official permission to enter military lines to deliver care and food to wounded soldiers on the battlefields of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Later, Barton wrote, “I always tried to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up. I could run the risk. It made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.”

It was during the Civil War that Barton began a lifelong pattern of working days without rest, until collapsing from exhaustion. After recuperating, she would return to her labors. According to biographers, Barton suffered periods of severe depression throughout her life.

After the war, Barton spent four years operating the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. She had presidential support in this effort: One month before his assassination, Lincoln wrote, “To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for missing prisoners of war. Please address her, giving her the name and regiment and company of any missing prisoner.” She and her assistants responded to 63,000 letters from families and identified over 22,000 missing men, some of whom were still alive.

In 1868, Barton traveled to Europe for a supposed rest, but soon was meeting with representatives from the International Red Cross, a newly formed war relief organization. She became determined to found an American Red Cross, a dream that took nearly a decade to reach fruition. When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Barton made herself useful, providing nursing and humanitarian assistance to women, children and the elderly living in urban areas destroyed by the war. She received awards from Kaiser Wilhelm I and the Empress Augusta for her war relief efforts.

Back in the States, Barton got busy building support for the creation of an American Red Cross; writing and distributing pamphlets, lecturing and lobbying then-President Rutherford B. Hayes. She envisioned a Red Cross that would have a national headquarters, with smaller offices in every state and local chapters in every city and town to offer assistance to victims of war, fire and natural disaster.

In 1876 Barton — again suffering from extreme fatigue — sought care at Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, a retreat and healing center run by physician James Caleb Jackson. Barton became so fond of the area that she maintained a summer home in Dansville for 10 years. On May 21, 1881, the American Association of the Red Cross was formed and Barton, then 59, was elected president. Dansville established the first local chapter of the American Red Cross three months later; soon after, Rochester and Syracuse also founded Red Cross chapters.

During the 23 years Barton led the relief agency, the Red Cross responded to 18 disasters, including the infamous 1889 Johnstown Flood, wherein which a broken dam killed approximately 2,000 people and left thousands homeless. According to the Clara Barton National Historic Site, Barton and 50 Red Cross workers traveled to Johnstown, where they distributed supplies, provided shelters, built houses and organized work teams to ensure recovery efforts would continue after relief workers departed. Under Barton’s leadership, the Red Cross also responded to the Galveston Hurricane, crises in Armenia and Cuba, and cared for wounded soldiers in the Spanish-American War.

Barton retired from the Red Cross in 1904 at age 82. In 1912, the 90-year-old Barton died in her Glen Echo, Maryland, home near Washington.

Today, 139 years after its founding, the American Red Cross continues to provide disaster relief the world over, as well as offering first-aid training, organizing blood drives, emergency preparedness and assistance to military families.

Donna Jackel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
To learn more

History buffs can visit the Clara Barton House in Dansville, which functions as a meeting space, and a museum of Red Cross history and the life of Clara Barton.

Clara Barton Chapter #1
57 Elizabeth Street
Dansville, NY 14437
For information on museum hours, call (585) 335-3500.