San Juan County volunteer service in World War I spurs authorization of a local chapter of the American Red Cross on January 11, 1918.

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 6/16/2017
  • Essay 20388
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On January 11, 1918, the manager of the Northwestern Division of the American Red Cross authorizes the establishment of a San Juan County chapter headquartered in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. County residents have long been contributing to Red Cross support of U.S. troops engaged in World War I. Throughout the war, every Red Cross funding drive, every request for hospital linens, garments, and surgical dressings, for knitting of clothing and other items, indeed, for doing whatever is needed, receives an immediate community response. Local villages on islands throughout the county organize auxiliaries to take on specific tasks. At the end of the war the chapter is lauded for the quality and quantity of its assistance and urged to continue its service to the community and nation. Through the following decades, the chapter will have a quiet presence punctuated by activity as needs arise. In the twenty-first century, it will remain a vibrant organization with expertise and equipment to aid county victims of natural disasters and fires, and well-trained islanders ready to deploy to disasters throughout the country. An all-volunteer agency, the local Red Cross is a well-respected San Juan County resource of comfort and aid.

Birth of the Red Cross

The concept of an organization of volunteers devoted to caring for war's wounded regardless of national or political affiliation grew out of the experiences and vision of a Swiss entrepreneur, Henri Dunant (1828-1910). His efforts in the mid-nineteenth century to establish an agreement for the humane treatment of wounded (and eventually war prisoners as well) led to the passage of the Treaty of Geneva in 1864, the creation of the first Geneva Convention, and the establishment of societies for the welfare of the wounded, their caregivers, and others affected by wars, all protected under the universally acknowledged symbols of a red cross or red crescent on a white background. The United States took little note of these events, however, and did not sign the treaty, as the nation's almost complete focus at the time was on the Civil War (then in its third year), in which many of the ideas articulated in the convention were already in practice on the battlefield. The U.S. government, moreover, had little reason just then to make new commitments to European countries, many of which had been giving "tacit if not overt aid to the secessionist movement" (Hurd, 14).

During the Civil War, Clara Barton (1821-1912), well-known and much admired, had earned the sobriquet "the angel of the battlefield" for her compassionate care of wounded soldiers, her efforts to bring supplies to the front for the Union army, and her work after the war in locating missing prisoners of war and reuniting servicemen with their families. Suffering from exhaustion and ill health after her years of war relief activities, Barton went to Europe in 1869 for a period of rest and recuperation. On her arrival, she found that her reputation had preceded her, and that those involved with the development of the Geneva Convention and establishment of the Red Cross were eager to meet with her. Dismayed that this was the first she had heard of these important undertakings, Barton was determined, immediately upon her return home, to work toward U.S. ratification of the Geneva Convention and, especially, to head up the creation of a Red Cross movement in America.

In 1878 Barton published a pamphlet in which she articulated the value of America's participation in the Geneva Convention and the potential role of the Red Cross not just in wartime but as an agent of relief work including "being ready to offer succor and assistance in times of such national calamity as plagues, cholera, yellow fever, devastating fires or floods, railway disasters and mining accidents" (Dulles, 13-14). Years passed, and still the U.S. had not accepted and ratified the Geneva treaty, which it would not do until 1882. By 1881, however, Barton had decided not to wait for treaty approval but to move forward with development of the Red Cross, and on May 21 of that year the American Association of the Red Cross was founded with the goal of "hold[ing] itself in readiness in the event of war or any calamity great enough to be considered national, to inaugurate such practical measures in mitigation of the suffering and for the protection and relief of sick and wounded as may be consistent with the objectives of the Association" (Dulles, 15). Barton would continue to lead the Red Cross for more than 20 years, finally resigning at the age of 83 in 1904.

Islanders Learn About the Red Cross

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, San Juan County residents on their isolated islands, located in Northwest Washington between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., had been able to read numerous articles in their local newspapers about Clara Barton, along with reports of Red Cross activities in the United States and in such distant lands as China, Japan, Greece, and Turkey. Congress had officially chartered the American Red Cross in 1900, but internal dissension and lack of focus were ongoing challenges only eased by a new charter in 1905 and a change in management structure which finally established the Red Cross as "a quasi-official organization, with its rights and privileges conferred by law, its unique international status reaffirmed, its affairs set in order, and at the same time a public organization wholly supported by private contributions" (Hurd, 111).

Experience in assisting victims of the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, as well as those of more than 50 catastrophic tornadoes, fires, explosions, shipwrecks, and railway accidents, strengthened the knowledge and effectiveness of Red Cross workers through the first decade of the twentieth century, and local newspapers kept San Juan County informed of each disaster and the relief efforts. Nurses were recruited, and in some cities training courses were begun in first aid and water safety, but all of these Red Cross activities, while interesting to read about, seemed remote and of little real relevance to islanders' daily lives. It wasn't until March 1917 that the Red Cross became, to San Juan County residents, not a distant supplier of relief or training but an agency in need of direct support and the hands-on involvement of island families.

County Red Cross Activities in World War I

Since the beginning of the war in Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had sought to maintain U.S. neutrality in the conflict, but as 1917 began it was clear that increasing attacks on American shipping, citizens, and interests were making direct United States involvement in the war inevitable. Recognizing that the country was ill-prepared for fighting a full-scale war, plans were begun in anticipation of the most imminent needs. Among the first projects was the provision of a naval base hospital -- not a building, but a fully-equipped and supplied 250-bed field hospital -- and the Red Cross asked that women across the country help in preparing the hospital for service by sewing hospital garments and other items. Although most war-related news was still relegated to page 2 of each week's Friday Harbor Journal (FHJ), this call for assistance was given a prominent space on the front page of the March 29 issue, and the editor encouraged all patriotic Islanders to respond with action. As the Seattle recruiter noted, about anyone who undertook this work, "she may never know whose suffering is relieved by the work of her hands, but she will know that it is some other mother's son; some other woman's brother or friend who receives the benefit, and she can feel a gratifying pride that she is doing her bit'" ("A Patriotic ..."). In the same issue of the paper was a brief notice urging that islanders interested in sewing for the Seattle Red Cross chapter should contact "Mrs. P. H. Harrison (phone 100)" (FHJ, March 29, 1917, p. 5).

The Red Cross was also desperately in need of funds for the first push of preparations even before Congress declared war. Requests were made around the country, proportionally, for assistance, and San Juan County was asked to provide $125 in cash or certain goods. A public meeting of local citizens was immediately called to determine how best to raise the funds needed, and it was decided that a dance would be a popular event and a good means to let all county residents feel that they were contributing to the cause. The dance, which took place in Friday Harbor just days before war was declared on April 6, 1917, was an enormous success. A volunteer 10-piece orchestra played to the largest crowd ever assembled at this kind of event on San Juan Island, and receipts from tickets (available throughout the county at $1 each) and donations ultimately totaled more than $250, twice the sum requested. A message of thanks from the Seattle Red Cross acknowledging the gift called it "one of the handsomest donations we have received" (FHJ, May 24, 1917, p. 1) and noted that it would be of immense help in meeting the funding goal.

Meanwhile, the women sewing the requested items to fill a box for the naval hospital project were hard at work. Now officially recognized as an auxiliary group of the Seattle Red Cross chapter, the women produced many dozens of handkerchiefs, handkerchief substitutes, table napkins, and tray covers just for the first box, which was ready within weeks and included many extra items over and above what had been requested. The editor of the Journal reported with satisfaction that "The Auxiliary now awaits further instructions from headquarters to perform whatever work that may be required of it" ("Its First Task ..."). Throughout the war a growing number of islanders took on the production of hospital garments, supplies, and even surgical dressings, for which special training and a designated, clean work space was required. In Friday Harbor the president of the San Juan County Bank set aside three rooms that were equipped with sewing machines so that even those who could not or chose not to work at home could come in and work whenever they could carve out time from family schedules. The Journal faithfully published every notice of projects begun and completed and of the meetings taking place throughout the county (individual communities took on specific tasks), and actively encouraged islanders' participation. By the end of the war San Juan County Red Cross volunteer workers had produced more than 33,000 garments and surgical dressings.

By June 1917, two months after war had been declared, the Red Cross was being deluged by demands for materials and assistance. A national campaign to raise $1 million in funds was underway. San Juan County's portion of the funding that the Washington state Red Cross had set out to gather was $1,500. Notice of this need did not even appear in the local paper until June 14, and all funds were to be raised by June 25. With swiftly organized solicitations undertaken by volunteers in designated communities all over the islands, residents stepped up to the challenge and contributed considerably more than the target amount -- as they were to do with every funding request throughout the war.

The next month, knitting became a vital task for islanders of all ages as the national Red Cross headquarters issued an urgent call to meet the immediate need "for one and a half million each of knitted wristlets, mufflers, sweaters, and pairs of socks" ("Knitting for ..."). Local school children knitted small yarn squares for Red Cross workers to make into warm shawls for refugees. (They also cut outworn cotton underwear into small rectangles that were compactly strung on thread as gun wipers.) Women knitted in groups or at home, and knitting became a socially acceptable activity at meetings and even in church. Everyone wanted to help, and over the following months hundreds of sweaters, pairs of socks, and other items were sent from the islands to the Seattle office for shipment to camps and overseas.

Some organizational changes were begun in November 1917, when a meeting was held to consider how best to monitor all the requests for assistance and the many activities being undertaken across the county. Auxiliary officers were elected, and well-known Friday Harbor businessman O. H. Culver (1862-1941) was selected as chairman. Forty additional members had joined, and the decision was made to become a branch of the Bellingham Red Cross chapter rather than continuing to work independently with the Seattle chapter. John L. Murray (1859-1949), the San Juan County auditor, would continue to act as treasurer of the local auxiliary and the citizens' committee that had been raising funds; he noted that contributions had recently come in from the high-school graduating class, the Ladies Guild, the South End Needle Club, and the Stitch and Chatter Club. However, plans to join with Bellingham were short-lived. Within months, in recognition of the volume and variety of work being done in the islands, authorization was received for the establishment of a separate San Juan County Red Cross chapter, and an organizing meeting was called for just after the new year.

By the end of 1917, Red Cross membership, just in and near Friday Harbor, totaled more than 400 at a time when the town population was less than 500, but the Journal editor continued to urge more countywide participation. In a long, front-center, page 1 commentary, just days before Christmas, he asked:

"[A]t such an anomalous season -- when there is not peace on earth, when goodwill toward men is marked by death-dealing cannon and bloodstained steel -- what could be more blessed then to comfort and cheer the suffering of thousands of Liberty's defenders in the hospitals behind the battle lines? ... What better Christmas present can we of San Juan County make than to join the Red Cross? ... It is also earnestly desired that a Red Cross service flag be displayed in every home and business place in Friday Harbor and, so far as possible, throughout the county" ("The First Red Cross ...").

San Juan County Red Cross Chapter

Early in the new year, members attended the first organizational meeting for the proposed new San Juan County chapter and on January 11, 1918, the manager of the northwestern division of the American Red Cross officially granted authority for a San Juan County chapter to be headquartered in Friday Harbor. Culver, chosen as chairman of the temporary committee in charge of setting up the new chapter, declared, "it is important that this committee be composed of patriotic and efficient men and women who are deeply interested in the Red Cross and are prepared to devote a considerable amount of their time to the work of this greatest of all the world's humanitarian agencies" ("Meeting to Form ..."). Within weeks of the chapter's formation, space for a main workroom was being sought -- a large ground-floor room on Spring Street, the main artery through Friday Harbor. Auxiliaries around the county were organized with each community urged to raise funds for its own materials; dances, and socials and "other creditable forms of entertainment" (FHJ, January 17, 1918, p. 1) would be sanctioned, and it was hoped that they would be frequently and liberally attended. Junior Red Cross groups for school-age volunteers were formed.

Throughout the remainder of the war, San Juan County residents provided endless hours of service to the Red Cross and in support of its work. Some, like the Lopez Island men who, in a blustery cold February, willingly cut the large quantities of wood needed to heat the chilly Methodist Church so that a surgical-dressing class could take place as scheduled, provided their aid quietly and with little recognition, but every bit of assistance was important. Benefit social events took place almost weekly, and funding drives were always oversubscribed.

The armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918, did not signal the end of the need for Red Cross work, although knitting and other projects began to be phased out. Fundraising and activities including clothing drives focused on the enormous demands of relief work. Membership campaigns continued. But the San Juan County Chapter of the American Red Cross was entering a new phase of its service, and the islands settled once more into a quiet routine and focus on local affairs. For decades, there was little need for extensive Red Cross activity, but more urgent calls for Red Cross assistance, during World War II for example, once again were met with a strong local response, and throughout the second half of the twentieth century the Red Cross continued to be a presence in the islands, offering some first-aid training and other services.

San Juan County Red Cross in the Twenty-first Century

In recent decades, community growth and increased recognition of the importance of preparedness for natural disasters, fires, and other local catastrophes sparked a renewed interest in the Red Cross and the engagement of more county residents as Red Cross volunteers. In August 2005, the devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast by hurricanes Katrina and Rita catalyzed the largest American Red Cross response in history. The urgent need for volunteers was broadcast nationwide, and San Juan County residents answered the call. For many this was their first experience in disaster relief, and when they returned to the islands they brought with them a new understanding of the need for local disaster preparedness and service at home. Realization of the importance of such preparation intensified as it was recognized that, if a major earthquake, tsunami, or other disaster occurred, the San Juan Islands, cut off from the mainland, would have to be ready to be completely self-sufficient for a minimum of three days, perhaps more. That kind of preparedness requires planning, training, and a commitment to service.

Numerous Red Cross structural reorganizations at the national level have taken place over the years, and San Juan County is now a unit of the American Red Cross Serving Northwest Washington (which also includes Whatcom County, Skagit County, and Whidbey Island units). Local Red Cross volunteers meet monthly and have undertaken a variety of preparedness activities from identifying and securing contracts with locations that can be used as emergency shelters on the major islands to gathering equipment and supplies for those shelters and developing the expertise to manage large groups in shelter situations. They have offered assistance to victims of fires and other local disasters. They have trained for special disaster services including feeding, client case work, logistics, and temporary housing. San Juan County Red Cross volunteers annually deploy to assist victims of natural disasters around the country.

The Red Cross works cooperatively with the county Department of Emergency Management and participates in disaster drills, shelter drills, and other activities. It has a presence each year at the San Juan County Fair, educating the public about the services it provides, soliciting memberships, and encouraging volunteer participation. And it is a well-received entry in the annual Fourth of July parade through Friday Harbor; as one of the participants remarked, "it [was] quite a sight from the driver's seat as we [came] over the hill to downtown and [saw] the large crowd standing ten deep. The MC gave the crowd a summary of our accomplishments ... and the crowd gave a great round of applause" ("The Biggest ..."). For more than 100 years the Red Cross organization and the highly motivated and committed local Red Cross volunteers have been recognized as providing vital and valued service and aid throughout San Juan County. It is the stated mission of the Red Cross to assist the community to prepare for, respond to, and recover from fires and other disasters and emergencies. That commitment endures as the Red Cross in San Juan County continues its second century of service.


"The Biggest Little Town Parade," September 2016, American Red Cross Volunteer Connection website accessed May 6, 2017 (; Erastus Brainerd, "An Appeal for You to Aid the Red Cross," Seattle Star, February 19, 1917, p. 4; "A Brief History of the American Red Cross," American Red Cross website accessed April 10, 2017 (; Foster Rhea Dulles, The American Red Cross: A History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950); "American Red Cross," website accessed April 20, 2017 (; "A Patriotic Movement by the 'Red Cross,'" Friday Harbor Journal, March 29, 1917, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., March 29, 1917, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., April 19, 1917, p. 5; "Needs of the Red Cross," Ibid., April 19, 1917, p. 1; "San Juan County Red Cross Dance," Ibid., April 19, 1917, p. 1; "Its First Task Well Done," Ibid., May 10, 1917, p. 4; "Red Cross Society Appreciate[s] Gift," Ibid., May 24, 1917, p. 1; "Red Cross Notice," Ibid., May 31, 1917, p. 1; "$1,500 Asked From San Juan County," Ibid., June 14, 1917, p. 1; Untitled editorial, Ibid., June 21, 1917, p. 4; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., November 22, 1917, p. 5; "Auxiliary of Red Cross Elects Officers," Ibid., November 29, 1917, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 6, 1917, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 13, 1917, p. 5; "The First Red Cross Christmas," Ibid., December 20, 1917, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nutshell," Ibid., December 27, 1917, p. 5; "Meeting to Form Local Red Cross Chapter," Ibid., January 3, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., January 17, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., February 14, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., February 21, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., February 28, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., March 21, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., March 28, 1918, p. 1; O. H. Culver, "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., April 4, 1918, p. 1; "Red Cross Urged to Continue Work," Ibid., November 21, 1918, p. 1; Untitled editorial, Ibid., November 21, 1918, p. 4; "Red Cross Activities," Ibid., December 5, 1918, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 12, 1918, p. 5; "Red Cross Chapter Elects New Officers," Ibid., January 9, 1919, p. 1; Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., January 23, 1919, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., February 13, 1919, p. 5; "Red Cross Trophy is on Exhibition," Ibid., February 13, 1919, p. 1; "Another Appeal for Used Clothing," Ibid., March 20, 1919, p. 1; "Clothing the Great Need," Ibid., March 27, 1919, p. 1; "Red Cross Roll Call," Ibid., October 23, 1919, p. 1; "San Juan County Red Cross Roll Call, 1920," Ibid., November 27, 1919, p. 1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Knitting for Victory -- World War I" (by Paula Becker) (accessed April 10, 2017); Charles Hurd, The Compact History of the American Red Cross (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1959), 7-8, 16, 35, 111, 119, 129-30, 149, 153-4, 194-5; Caroline Reed, Underpinning (Seattle: Frontier Publishing, 1989), 122-4, 158-159; Jennifer Rosenberg, "American Red Cross," ThoughtCo. website accessed April 15, 2017 (; "7 Red Cross Facts," October 29, 2013, History in the Headlines website accessed April 10, 2017 (

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