The Ward Brothers, World Champion Rowers

Authored by Kerin Santos

Studio Portrait of the Ward Brothers, Joshua and Gilbert appear seated in front, Henry and Ellis are standing behind.

The Ward Brothers, Winners of the Saratoga International Regatta (Joshua, Henry, Gilbert, Ellis) – From a Photograph by Baker & Record, Saratoga Springs

A group of distinguished athletes – all brothers – lived in the beautiful riverfront town of Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York in the mid- to late-1800s (Norsen 1958, p. 20). These Ward Brothers took the world of competitive rowing by storm with their impressive talents. They were five of fourteen children born to Isaac and Winifred Ward. Isaac Ward, originally from Middle Hope outside of Newburgh, was an experienced seaman as a proprietor of fishing vessels, sloops, and “Yankee schooners” and was a hotel-owner as well (Norsen 1958, p.21). Isaac prided himself on teaching his sons to row and sail on the Hudson River from the time they were young and he shared with them everything he knew about the river and boats (Norsen 1958, p.21). From eldest to youngest, the brothers include William Henry (Hank), Charles, Joshua (Josh), Gilbert (Gil), and Ellis.

The brothers set themselves apart from their competition “by developing their skill at rowing into a fine art” (Norsen 1958, p.20). They raced both individually in single-skull races as well as together in four- and six-oared crews. The Ward Brothers won several rowing in the 1850s and returned to the sport following the Civil War. “They set records that have never been equaled, in spite of the fact that improvements in racing skull design known at present had not then been developed” (Norsen 1958, p.20).

One such record, perhaps their most notable achievement (Dempsey, Fulton, and O’Neill 1994), was set on a warm, clear, sunny autumn day at Saratoga Lake, New York (Norsen 1958, p. 40). Thousands of people from all around gathered at this much-anticipated regatta on September 11th, 1871 to see Hank, Josh, Gil, and Ellis race against the best oarsmen from the US and England (Norsen 1958, p. 39). The images included in this post, taken from the September 30th, 1871 edition of Harper’s Weekly, depict the Saratoga International Regatta where the Ward Brothers earned themselves the title ‘Champion Oarsmen of the World.’

A crowd gathers to watch the boat race at Saratoga Lake.

The International Four-Oared Boat Race at Saratoga Lake, New York on September 11th, 1871 – From a Sketch by Thomas Nast

“Capping a career of many victories and some records which still stand,” (Pilot Club Log 1997) the Ward brothers never again rowed together as a crew after 1871 (Norsen 1958, p. 51). Several of the Wards continued to live in Cornwall-on-Hudson and made their living as fishermen and craftsmen of boats and oars. Some of the brothers went on to help establish the sport of rowing as a collegiate and amateur sport. Ellis Ward, the youngest brother, became one of the most prominent rowing coaches in the US and served as the University of Pennsylvania’s first crew coach from 1879 to 1912 (University of Pennsylvania University Archives & Records Center).

The Ward brothers have undeniably left their mark on the world of rowing and their story holds a special place in the local history of Cornwall-on-Hudson. To this day an original Ward Brothers’ racing shell can be viewed at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, NY where it is on loan from the Cornwall Historical Society (Kaplan 2016). The Ward Brothers are remembered for their commitment to excellence and their service to teaching others the art of rowing.


Dempsey, Janet, Colette C. Fulton, and James I. O’Neill. Cornwall, New York: Images from the past. Revised ed. Cornwall, NY: Friends of the Cornwall Library, 1994.

Kaplan, Jason. “Colette Fulton to Retire as Village Historian.” The Cornwall Local, March 4, 2016.

Norsen, Irene Ward. Ward Brothers, Champions of the World. New York: Vantage Press, 1958.

“PENN BIOGRAPHIES: Ellis Ward (1846-1922.” University of Pennsylvania University Archives & Records Center. Accessed March 22, 2016.

Rowing on the River: Transport, Regatta, and Recreation. Hudson River Maritime Museum: Pilot Club Log, 1997.

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