Inspired by her experiences in Europe, Barton corresponded with Red Cross officials in Switzerland after her return to the United States. They recognized her leadership abilities for carrying the Red Cross Movement to this country and for influencing the United States government to sign the Geneva Treaty. Armed with a letter from the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton took her appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, but he looked on the treaty as a possible "entangling alliance" and rejected it. His successor, President James Garfield, was supportive and seemed ready to sign it when he was assassinated. Finally, Garfield's successor, Chester Arthur, signed the treaty in 1882 and a few days later the Senate ratified it.
In 1881-with the signing of the treaty in sight-Barton and a group of supporters formed the American Association of the Red Cross as a District of Columbia corporation. Reincorporated as The American National Red Cross in 1893, the organization was given charters by Congress in 1900 and in 1905. The 1905 charter and its amendments provide the basis for today's American Red Cross and the close working relationship between the organization and the federal government.
The American Red Cross, with Barton at its head, devoted itself largely to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag was flown officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan. In 1884, she chartered steamers to carry needed supplies up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to assist flood victims. In 1889, she and 50 volunteers rode the first train into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to help the survivors of a dam break that caused 2,200 deaths.
In 1892, she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine by shipping them 500 railroad cars of Iowa cornmeal and flour. After a hurricane and tidal wave left over 5,000 dead on the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1893, Barton's Red Cross labored for 10 months helping the predominantly African-American population recover and reestablish their agricultural economy. In 1896, Barton directed relief operations on behalf of victims of unrest in Turkey and Armenia, the sole woman and only Red Cross advocate the Turkish government allowed to intervene. During her last relief operation, in 1900, Barton distributed over $120,000 in financial assistance and supplies to survivors of the hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas, and caused more than 6,000 deaths.
Although Henry Dunant had suggested in 1864 that Red Cross societies provide disaster relief as well as wartime services, Barton became its strongest advocate in the years that followed. During the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884, the American Red Cross proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty calling for expansion of Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters. Although some national societies were dubious, the resolution passed and became known as the "American Amendment" to the Geneva Treaty of 1864. Because of work like this in support of the Red Cross Movement, several countries honored Barton with decorations, such as the German Iron Cross for her relief work in the Franco-Prussian War and the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia for the supplies provided during the famine of 1892.
The American Red Cross moved in a new direction near the end of Barton's tenure as head of the organization when it delivered supplies and services to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Recipients of Red Cross aid included members of the American armed forces, prisoners of war, and Cuban refugees. This was the first time that the American Red Cross provided assistance to American armed forces and civilians during wartime.