May 21st, 1881 – The American Red Cross Begins!


In 1869, Clara Barton went to Europe and became involved in the work of the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War. Her experience left her determined to bring the organization home with her to America, and on May 21st, 1881 in Washington, D.C. she managed to establish the American Red Cross to which she became the first president of the organization.


Clara Barton (December 25th, 1821 – April 12th, 1912)

The first meeting of the American Red Cross was actually held just over a week earlier in the home of Sen. Omar D. Conger (R, MI). Fifteen people were present at this first meeting, including Barton, Conger, and Rep. William Lawrence (R, OH) (who became the first vice-president).

Barton led one of the group’s first major relief efforts, a response to the Great Fire of 1881 (Thumb Fire) in the Thumb region of Michigan, which occurred on September 4th–6th, 1881. Over 5,000 people were left homeless. The next major disaster dealt with was the Johnstown Flood which occurred on May 31st, 1889. Over 2,209 people died and thousands more were injured in or near Johnstown, Pennsylvania in one of the worst disasters in United States history.

Today, the American Red Cross is a nationwide network of more than 650 chapters and 36 blood services regions dedicated to saving lives and helping people prepare for and respond to medical emergencies. Approximately 500,000 Red Cross volunteers, including Femacorps and Americorps members, and 30,000 employees annually mobilize relief to people affected by more than 67,000 disasters, train almost 12 million people in necessary medical skills and exchange more than a million emergency messages for U.S. military service personnel and their family members. The Red Cross is the largest supplier of blood and blood products to more than 3,000 hospitals nationally and also assists victims of international disasters and conflicts at locations worldwide.


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