Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Born in North Oxford Massachusetts on Christmas Day 1821 Clara Barton arrived into a large family of teachers and educators. The youngest of five children Clara learned early the importance of education, caring and self reliance. She was 10 years younger then her youngest sibling, 3 out of 4 of her brother and sisters were teachers. When her brother David was injured from a fall from the barn roof, it was Clara that nursed him at age 13 and brought him back to health. Skills she would employ later in life.

At the age of 18 in 1839 she began teaching at District School Number 9 in rural Massachusetts. By 1850 she was attending the “Liberal Institute” in Clinton New York pursuing her career as an educator. It was here that she made several new friends from all over including Mary Norton of Hightstown New Jersey.

A visit to Mary Norton in New Jersey changed the history of public education in New Jersey. A social visit to Bordentown made an impression on Clara; looking around the streets she saw “idle boys. But the boys! I found them on all sides of me. Every street corner had little knots of them, idle, listless, as if to say what shall one do when they have nothing to do?”

Clara immediately sought out the chairman of the school committee and asked for an interview. Laws existed in New Jersey for free public education but were never implemented. There were plenty of private schools and pauper schools but neither alternative offered an opportunity for most of the children of the community.

Clara was given a ramshackle one room school house, on the first day six children showed up for school. They spent the first few days cleaning up the school house and getting it ready for children. She started the program in 1852 with six children and very little else, by 1853 there were over 600 children in the program, receiving lessons from teachers housed in locations all over the city. A bout of laryngitis kept her from her classroom for several months, in the interim the school committee appointed a man as principal of the new program Clara created.

Dissatisfied with this outcome, upon her recovery Clara decided to move on and took a position at the US Patent office in Washington DC. Bordentown’s loss was the country’s gain. Shortly after Clara’s move to the nation’s capital, the Civil War erupted and Clara had a new mission. Clara set up a system of procurement getting food and comfort to both sides of the conflict. Later she created a network of information reuniting loved ones and helping families find their missing loved ones.

Afterwards, she formed the American Red Cross a concept modeled after the Geneva Treaty of 1864 which she studied on a trip to Switzerland in 1869.  Never married, Clara Barton was wedded to her convictions. She died in 1912 at age 90 in her Glen Echo home. She is buried less than a mile from her birthplace in a family plot in Oxford, Mass.