Origins of the American Red Cross

Walk through the main door of the three-story white house at the corner of Elizabeth and Ossian Streets in Dansville, and you are met by a bust of Clara Barton – founder of the American Red Cross – and a framed quote by her.

“It must never be forgotten,” the quote reads, “that Dansville was the first child of the American Red Cross.”

The first child.

That big white house with the red trim and the flags in front, on a quiet residential street next to the parking lot of a bank, is the home of Chapter No. 1 of the American Red Cross, the first local chapter ever founded. It was founded in this Livingston County village in 1881 by Clara Barton herself.

Chapters 2 and 3, which Barton was also involved in founding, are located in Rochester and in Syracuse respectively.

Today the chapter – a small one – is thriving with some 110 volunteers and yearly expenditures of about $68,000. In the 2003-2004 year, the chapter dealt with six local disasters and helped 15 people with food, shelter and clothing, held 30 blood drives that collected 989 pints of bloods, and trained some 2,500 local people in life guarding, first aid, and CPR. It also trained 23 young people in safe babysitting techniques.

A normal load of activity for a small chapter, but it’s not its activities that sets the Dansville chapter aside. It’s the chapter’s history.

Following her work during the Civil War and locating the dead and aiding returning prisoners after it, Clara Barton launched herself on a lecture tour throughout the east. It was that tour that first introduced her to Dansville in 1866. It was inauspicious introduction. After an eight-hour, 45-mile journey by train and stagecoach from Rochester, the stage she was on experienced a broken wheel coming into the village. The delay allowed her to get to the lecture hall only one-half hour before she was scheduled to go on. But she did go on speaking about “Work and Incidents of Army Life” to an audience of about 400 people who had paid 50 cents each to hear her.

Then in 1876, exhausted from her work and her lecturing and facing a nervous collapse, the then 55-year-old Barton sought the care of Dr. James Caleb Jackson at his sanitarium in Dansville, a facility that specialized in just such problems. “I am not hysterical,” she said in her letter requesting admission, “not epileptic, nor cataleptic – nor ‘given to drink,’ nor bed-ridden at present.” Her complaints, she said, were more of a nervous nature. “I cannot endure much strain upon the nervous system in any way,” she wrote.

She was admitted, and spent two years under a sanitarium regime of health food and rest. Among other things, said Mary Jo Marks, Red Cross Chapter #1 historian, she was told not to read any newspapers. Barton stayed a short while on the sanitarium grounds and then took the first of her two residences in the village.

For the next 10 years, with the exception of frequent trips away from the area, she was a Dansville resident, becoming a member of the local literary society and entertaining students and faculty from the Dansville Seminary at her Health Street home.

The Inspiration of Henry Dumont
In the years between her first introduction to Dansville and her eventual move there, however, Barton had visited Europe – again ostensibly for a rest – and lived for a while in Geneva, Switzerland, where the International Red Cross had been founded in 1864 by Henry Dumont, a man who had been traumatized by his experiences at the Battle of Solferino in Italy, to provide nonpartisan care to the wounded in times of war. She was invited to attend a Red Cross conference while in Geneva, where discussion revolved around an international treaty mandating the treatment of the wounded and of prisoners of war. It was a treaty the United States would not agree to sign mainly because of fears in Washington of entangling alliances.

Also while she was in Europe, Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden, asked Barton to help provide relief for civilians during the Franco-Prussian War. Unsatisfied with that small involvement, she worked her way to the front lines and tended to the wounded as well. During this time, she was impressed with the effects that could result from the cooperation of several nations in a humanitarian effort. After the war both the French and German governments honored her for her service.

Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1873, she returned to her home in Massachusetts and then went on the Dansville where she settled into an apparently quiet life in Livingston County with her cats.

But, Marks said, “It was only a facade.”

Among the many things Barton did to keep busy was writing to Switzerland asking for permission to attempt setting up an American Red Cross and receiving approval. Her vision, however, was for a greater Red Cross than the one in Geneva – a Red Cross with small offices, or chapters, in every town and city, and one that would respond to civilian emergencies such as hurricanes, floods, and fires as well as to purely military emergencies. She also began lobbying Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes for U.S. approval of the Red Cross treaty, first through letters and then visits to Washington. She ran into stiff opposition from the administration. It was only in 1880, when Hayes was replaced by President James Garfield, that Barton found some sympathy in Washington for her cause. In 1881, Garfield and his Cabinet approved the signing of the Geneva treaty. With Garfield’s blessing, Barton held a meeting at her Washington apartment, and on May 21, 1882 formed the Association of the American Red Cross.

Less than two months later Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker. Garfield lingered until September 19 when he died and was replaced by Chester A. Arthur.

Meanwhile Barton, discouraged by the loss of her ally Garfield, had returned to her Dansville home, Marks said. There she was approached by a group of influential local people interested in honoring her with the formation of a local Red Cross chapter. A preliminary meeting was held at the Presbyterian church in Dansville and then a second meeting at the village’s Lutheran church. At that second meeting the local chapter was formed on August 22, 1881. There were 57 charter members, and membership cost 25 cents.

“It’s now a dollar,” Marks said.

A Rochester chapter was formed October 3 and a Syracuse chapter October 11.

The American Red Cross in Action
In September of that same year, 5,000 people were left homeless due to extensive forest fires in eastern Michigan, and the American Red Cross responded to its first emergency. In Dansville, $100 was collected and sent to help with Michigan relief.

After seeing the Red Cross in action, in December 1881, Arthur called for the treaty’s ratification. Congress ratified the Treaty of the Geneva Convention on March 16, 1882. In 1893, the organization officially changed its name to the American National Red Cross.

Barton became the American Red Cross’s first president. It was Clara Barton who broadened the mission of that organization by authoring the “American Amendment,” that extended Red Cross relief efforts to civilian disasters.

In 1886, due to her work with the National Red Cross, Barton gave up her home in Dansville and moved to Washington where she remained president of the American Red Cross for 23 years. Before leaving Dansville, however, a farewell reception was held for her in February at the Presbyterian Church. Speaking at that reception, she gave credit to Dr. Jackson and his sanitarium for her return to health and said she would never forget Dansville.

“I came to search for strength among you, and I found it,” she said.
On March 16 Barton boarded a Lackawanna train and left Dansville. Despite several attempts to return for a visit, she never saw the community again.

During the following years she continued her humanitarian efforts personally directing relief efforts in 22 United States disasters and working in Turkey after the massacre of the Armenians and in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In 1902 she headed the American delegation to the Red Cross conference in Russia. By 1905, when she retired from the Red Cross at age 82, there were 18 Red Cross chapters in the US. (By the year 2000 there were 1,168). Barton went on to found the National First Aid Association, the programs of which are now part of the Red Cross, and died at her Gen Echo, Md. home in 1912.

As with all such groups, the Dansville Red Cross did not have a continuous existence, activating itself only when there was a need either locally or nationally, such as the Johnstown flood in 1889 or the Spanish-American War. Originally known as the Southern Livingston County Chapter, the National Red Cross officially named the Dansville Chapter Clara Barton Chapter No. 1 of the American Red Cross in 1921.

There is still a Northern Livingston County Chapter based in Geneseo.

The current home of the chapter, the big white house at 57 Elizabeth St., was originally built in 1840 and was remodeled around 1900 by Rochester architect Claude Bragdon. The house was donated to the chapter in 1948 by the children of Emma Hartman Noyes, a charter member of the Chapter. The Noyes family continues to provide support for the maintenance of the house.  The building contains some of the furniture and books the Noyes family had used – as well as a chair used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he visited the chapter for its 50th anniversary in 1931.

There are also several exhibits on Clara Barton’s Civil War work as well as other Red Cross and Barton memorabilia and document and clipping collections. Among those documents is a framed piece of paper with the Bible verse “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” The quotation, neatly written in Barton’s handwriting, was found already framed among her papers.

“I think that was her motto,” said Marks.

Anyone wishing to visit the house and its exhibits can call the Chapter’s Executive Director Sandy Shaw at 585-335-3500 to make arrangements


by Chuck Lyons
Lyons is a lifelong resident of the Finger Lakes region and a former editor of two area newpapers as well as a freelance writer who has written numerous articles on the region and its attractions.