On September 5, 1881, a forest fire broke out near Bad Axe, Michigan, a town in the “Thumb” region between Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay. Propelled by hurricane-force winds after a decade of unusually dry summers, the fire burned less than three days, but consumed more than a million acres—nearly all of four counties—and, thanks to an influx of settlers in the years before the fire, took 282 lives. The damage caused by the fire is estimated as the equivalent of more than $56.5 million in today’s dollars.
In the wake of this devastation was the first disaster relief operation of the new American Red Cross. As ash turned the sky yellow, nurse Clara Barton’s newly formed humanitarian relief organization provided money, clothes, and household goods to more than 14,000 people who had lost things in the disaster, including over 5,000 who were rendered entirely homeless. Less than four months after the founding meeting of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., and a mere two weeks after the first local chapter was created in Dansville, NY, this was the beginning of the organization’s history of providing disaster aid.
In the years following, the organization started to do more humanitarian work. While disaster relief remained an important part of its mission—today the Red Cross is involved in 70,000 disaster relief efforts per year—it served other, similar, functions as well. After the United States ratified the First Geneva Convention, requiring humane treatment of soldiers injured in war and respectful treatment of the dead, in 1882, the American Red Cross, like its counterparts in Europe, was charged with ensuring that it’s provisions were carried out with respect to American armed services.
Later, a Congressional charter established the official relationship between the organization and the Federal government. In addition to these direct humanitarian actions the Red Cross has engaged in educational activities for more than 100 years. The American Red Cross Nursing Service was established in 1910 as a reserve corps of the Army Nurse Service. After World War Two, the Red Cross established its blood collection service, providing an infrastructure for the new technology of blood transfusion.