Clara Barton’s American Red Cross and Michigan

by Arlene and Ron Kaiser

In 1881 Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. The organization’s first meeting had taken place in Washington D.C. at the home of Sen. Omar D. Conger of Michigan. Their first official disaster relief operation was the response to the Great Fire of 1881 in Michigan’s Thumb. There are conflicting stories as to how the fire started. Some say small fires were burning and a massive wind spread the flames. Others say meteors hit Wisconsin, Illinois, and the thumb area in Michigan.

The summer of 1881 was excessively dry. Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer Counties, located between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, suffered the most. The stated death toll was 282, which didn’t include unknown lumbermen and transient laborers in the region. The fire left a million acres of dead and fallen timber, 3,400 buildings destroyed and almost 15,000 residents homeless. This is when Clara Barton’s American Red Cross came to the aid of thousands in need. Supplies, food and donations were coordinated and shipped to Michigan.

Clara Barton’s story began in Oxford, Mass., when she was born into an abolitionist family in 1821. She become a teacher at the age of 15 and 12 years later founded and was headmaster of a free school in New Jersey. When the school board voted to replace her as headmaster with a man, she left the school and moved to Washington D.C. As a clerk in D.C. in the U.S. Patent Office, she received the same pay as her male counterparts. “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay,” Barton later said.

The Civil War broke out April 12, 1861. A week later, soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry flooded the streets of D.C. Barton spent hours bringing care and medical provisions she had gathered from home, friends and family to these homesick, suffering soldiers. Clara Barton served in makeshift field hospitals near the front lines on 16 battlefields during the Civil War. As a result, she came to be known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

In 1869, while taking a much-needed rest in Europe, she learned about the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, she wore a red cross made of red ribbon and helped deliver supplies to needy war-zone citizens.

After Barton returned to the U.S., she solicited political support for America to enter the Geneva Treaty. President Arthur finally signed the treaty in 1882, and the American Association of the Red Cross (later called the American Red Cross) was officially born, with Barton at the helm, which focused mainly on disaster relief.

She believed in equal rights and helped everyone regardless of race, gender or economic station. She brought attention to the great need of disaster victims and streamlined many first aid, emergency preparedness and emergency response procedures still used today.

Please, read more about Clara Barton and the Great Fire of 1881 in myriad articles on-line and many books at your local library.

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