Clara Barton in Dansville
1866 and 1876-1886
When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Clara Barton was in her mid-forties. Although she had given three years of active service as a nurse on the front lines of the war, she was again ready to embark on a
mission of mercy. She prevailed upon President Abraham Lincoln to advance her cause of establishing an Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army in Annapolis, Maryland.
For the next three years, from 1866 to 1869, Clara raised funds for the Office of Correspondence by giving some 200 lectures throughout New England, neighboring New York, and seven other northern states as far west as
Wisconsin and Michigan. In response to thousands of letters received from families whose men had not returned home from the war, she published long lists of names as well as other information pertaining to the
One such lecture brought Clara to Dansville, New York for the first time in December of 1866. According to her diary entry for December 11, she described an eight hour journey from Rochester to Dansville by way of
Avon and Wayland; a distance of 45 miles by train and coach. That evening, Clara noted the particulars of the event as follows:
“…Went to lecture at 7 1/2
Hall seated 400, about full
Received 50 dollars.
Came home and retired at 11.”
By August of 1869, Clara had worked tirelessly for six years enduring the war and its aftermath. Upon the advice of her doctors to take a much needed rest, she departed with her sister for a holiday in Europe.
While in Switzerland, Clara learned that, in 1863, a group of Swiss humanitarians under the direction of Henri Dunant had invited representatives of 16 nations to attend a conference in Geneva. Their goal was to
establish an organization which would effect “the relief of the wounded in armies in the field.” This collaboration resulted in the International Red Cross Treaty which would seek to “render neutral and immune from
injury in war, the sick and wounded and all who cared for them.”
Shortly after Clara’s arrival in Europe, France and Germany were at war. At the request of Grand Duchess Louise of Baden, Clara offered her services to the International Red Cross. The Franco-Prussian War
lasted three years. Throughout the war, Clara worked with other volunteers to provide relief in war torn areas, especially the cities of Strasbourg in Germany and later in Paris, France. After the war, Clara was
honored by both the French and Germans for her caring and impartial assistance.
|Our Home on the Hillside, ca. 1880|
In 1873, Clara returned to America once again exhausted and in need of rest. She was encouraged by friends to seek the care of Dr. James Caleb Jackson, founder of Our Home On the Hillside, in Dansville, New York.
Thus, this renowned water cure and health institute became home to America’s “Angel of the Battlefield”.
While recuperating in Dansville, Clara wrote to Dr. Louis Appia at the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva asking him if she might try to set up the International Red Cross in America. Dr. Appia’s motivational words to,
“…spearhead and direct the fight” were accompanied by a three point plan she would need to implement. First would be to “win public support”, second to “gain the President’s active support”, and third to “secure
the adoption of the Geneva Treaty by the United States Senate”.
Clara’s vision was to organize a national headquarters for the American Red Cross with smaller offices in every state and local chapters in every city and town. The organization would prepare for possible war-time
service as well as other types of disasters and emergencies such as: fire, flood, epidemics, tornadoes, and droughts. The American Red Cross would be the channel through which the public’s generosity and support
would be directed toward human needs whenever they arose.
With the Civil War over and the work of reconstruction in progress, the proposal for an American Red Cross was not met with enthusiasm by President Hayes’ administration. In the face of much skepticism and criticism,
Clara persevered until her plans were finally recognized by President Garfield, successor to Hayes and himself a Civil War veteran.
With President Garfield’s support, Clara held the first national meeting to organize the Association of the American Red Cross in her apartment on I Street in Washington, D.C., May 21, 1881.
During this period, Clara often returned to Dansville, a quiet, picturesque village in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. She maintained this “Country Residence” for ten years from 1876 to 1886. And so it
was that even before the United States Congress could ratify the articles of the Red Cross treaty, Clara’s friends and neighbors in Dansville, anxious to honor her in a special way, established the first local society
of the American Red Cross, August 22, 1881. Fifty-seven members signed the Charter.
The first three fledgling Red Cross groups at Dansville, Rochester, and Syracuse were not even one month old when they were called to action. Five thousand people were left homeless by a disastrous forest fire which
destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland in eastern Michigan. The Red Cross flag made its first appearance here in Dansville at this time when the residents of this small community collected $300 for the relief of the
Michigan fire victims.
On March 16, 1882, the Senate of the United States ratified the Treaty of the Geneva Convention. Clara Barton became the first president of the American Red Cross, a position she held for 23 years. At the age of 60
years, when most people are planning their well-earned retirements, Clara was beginning a quarter century of achievements which would surpass the work of all her preceding years.
Among Clara’s Dansville supporters were members of the Jackson family, proprietors of the sanatorium, and A.O. Bunnell, editor of the local newspaper, the Advertiser. Bunnell reported each of Clara’s activities from
the time she undertook the creation of the American Red Cross. He also printed some of her
first booklets and flyers describing the purposes and work of the society.
Another invaluable friend was Julian Hubbell, a young chemistry teacher Clara met while she was residing in Dansville. Hubbell later assumed the position of chief aid in the newly formed National Red Cross
A thoroughly researched account of Clara Barton’s years in the Dansville community has been recorded in William Conklin’s book Clara Barton and Dansville. Published privately in 1966, copies of the book are part of
the local historical collection at the Dansville Public Library and at Clara Barton Chapter #1, the American Red Cross, 57 Elizabeth Street, Dansville, New York.
Copies of Conklin’s book (which does not list his name as author, but credits Chapter #1) were distributed to leading libraries throughout the country. The following paragraph from Conklin’s book describes the
historic events of August 1881.
“Dansville, Livingston County, New York, being the
country residence of Miss Clara Barton, president of
the American Association of the Red Cross, its citizens,
desirous of paying a compliment to her, and at the same
time of doing honor to themselves, conceived the idea of
organizing in their town the first local society of the
Red Cross in the United States. To this end, a general
preliminary meeting was held in the Presbyterian Church,
when the principles of the Treaty of Geneva and the nature
of its societies were defined in a clear and practical
manner by Miss Barton, who had been invited to address the
meeting. Shortly after, on the twenty-second of August 1881,
a second meeting for the purpose of organization, held in
the Lutheran Church and presided over by the paster, Rev.
Dr. Strobel, was attended by the citizens generally,
including nearly all religious denominations of the town
with their respective pastors. The purpose of the meeting
was explained by (its) president, a constitution was
presented and very largely signed, and officers were elected.”
Thus on August 22, 1882, eighteen years from the original Treaty of Geneva Convention, in Switzerland, an announcement could officially be made establishing Dansville, New York as the first local society of the Red
Cross of the United States of America.
Mary Jo Marks