The Gift of Corn: Iowan Humanitarian Aid to Russia in the Famine of 1891-1892

Guest post by Olga Ovcharskaia, PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literature, Stanford University

In January 1892, the people of Iowa read an appeal by the newly established Iowa Russian Famine Relief Committee: “While our granaries are loaded to bursting and our railways are blocked with grain trains, across the ocean, hundreds of thousands of men, women and little children are facing death in its grimmest form! It is established that twenty millions of Russians have not bread enough to eat.” This was not an exaggeration: the famine affected seventeen provinces of the Russian Empire with a population of approximately 36 million. Despite generally negative perceptions of Russia in the United States and the reluctance of the American government to support the relief initiatives, public opinion was shaken by the horrible news and people were determined to help.

Iowa was one of the largest centers of humanitarian help. The editor of The Davenport Democrat, Benjamin F. Tillinghast, became the secretary of the Iowa Russian Famine Relief Committee. The Committee encouraged farmers to donate part of their corn harvest that was especially abundant that year. The Iowa Women’s Auxiliary Committee to the Red Cross was an organization of 12 women who collected money in churches and schools; and organized philanthropic concerts and plays. People were especially impressed by the fact that $5 could be enough to feed a Russian peasant for 6 months and gave money generously. Both committees worked closely with the head of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, who organized the shipment of the cargo under the Red Cross Flag. 95,656 bushels of corn in bulk, 21,201 bushels of corn in bags, 400 sacks of meal, 731 sacks of flour, 10 bags of wheat, 2 boxes of hospital stores and other goods were shipped on the steamship Tynehead on May 2, 1892, and arrived in Riga on May 27. Barton made sure that Dr. J. B. Hubbell, a native Iowan and General Field Agent of the American Red Cross, met the ship in Riga (in present day Latvia) and supervised its distribution

Alice French, an author who wrote under the pen name Octave Thanet and daughter of Davenport businessman George Henry French, was one of the driving forces of the relief campaign. Ms. French became interested in the topic of famine in her writing. in January 1891, after a month of historical research and work with sources, she published a short story “An Irish Gentlewoman in the Irish Famine Time” in Century Illustrated Magazine. Charity work described in the story was similar to the humanitarian aid French would organize a year later.

The Iowa Women’s Committee chose an effective strategy that French described in her letter to Clara Barton:

Through the farmers’ wives and daughters we shall reach the farmers, as we are reaching the Germans and the Swedes. Two Swede maids of ours, in one afternoon, brought us sixty members, each pledged to influence her friends and family, each supplied with campaign literature. This is the class that the press does not reach. They cannot give much money but they give the impetus that is more than money. We have interested nearly every prominent woman in town, more or less. We shall interest them all over the state.[1]

Corn seemed to be the perfect choice for food relief as it was much cheaper than wheat but equally nutritious. Iowans thought it could serve two purposes: perform a humanitarian act and create a new market for corn. However, there were two challenges: first, how to ensure that transportation of corn over such a great distance would not affect its quality, and second, since corn was almost unknown in the famine regions, Americans doubted that Russian peasants would know how to cook it and might refuse to use it at all. There was heated debate over the first issue, until the Committee decided to send unground corn rather than cornmeal. Skepticism remained: businessman Robert C. Ogden from Philadelphia went as far as to claim “we might as well send a cargo of pebbles as a cargo of corn to Russia.”[2] The skeptics were proved wrong, the corn reached the destination and was fully used by the peasants. Dr. Hubbell reported:

…there was a degree of satisfaction to see the entire cargo, with the exception of small quantity … loaded in the rain, come out of the ship in as good condition as when it was put in the hold, and to find at our journey in the interior that the peasants even needed no suggestion about grinding it in their windmills, which were amply sufficient.

Iowa corn was safely transported across the ocean and effectively used by Russian peasants. The Russian Famine of 1891‒92 became the first case of private American relief to Russia in history and an important step in Russian-American relations.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *