Friends of Rowing History
© 2008 by Thomas E. Weil
Rowing is the first modern sport. One of the principal pillars of this assertion is the scope of competitive boat-racing that was taking place before the rise of other team sports (other than cricket, which is a special case). The following database was compiled in order to provide a central reference source for early North American rowing contests (a parallel effort covers British boat-racing).
Sources for this matrix include random finds in contemporary daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, a fairly close review of contemporary and subsequent histories (Peverelly’s 1866 American Pastimes was particularly valuable, and much material has been obtained therefrom, much of it substantially verbatim), and random data derived from race programs, trophies, memorabilia and correspondence. I am not aware of any comprehensive compilation of rowing records from any contemporary news sources. Each of the New York Times and Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s weeklies would be good sources to start with on any such undertaking; unfortunately, since each began publishing in the 1850’s, none provide coverage of the very early days of rowing. Further complicating any such research is the difficulty of finding old newspapers in useable form, and then in finding rowing articles within the newspaper; newspapers of the era did not segregate “sports” into one section, so one must search column after column of often fascinating but almost always completely irrelevant material to find the occasional article relating to boat-racing.
This database is intended, first and foremost, to note recorded rowing contests in the United States prior to 1861, and, secondarily, to note the formation dates of boat clubs and rowing associations. In the early days of boat-racing, the “institutional” backbone of a “club” was often not a charter and a legal entity, but a boat; the existence of such “clubs” is not explicitly recognized or tracked, in this matrix, but should be the subject of further research and analysis. Emblematic of the importance given to boats is the custom during this era of giving race results by the name of the boat instead of the crew, even for singles races! Thus, while the success of a particular hull (as well as its maker, length, structure and number of oars) may be well recorded, there is often no record of the oarsmen in the boat, or, particularly (but not exclusively) for the professionals, there may be a reference to one member of the crew deemed to be the leader which presumably would have been understood by readers of the time to suggest an associated group of oarsmen who may be unknown to us today (professional team racing was often done by family members, or by combinations of professionals who tended to row together for a period, but could often be found racing one another, especially in singles or pairs competition).
It is also worth noting for this period that there was an extraordinary range of potential events, any number or combination of which might be represented at any given regatta. Distinctions might include not only amateurs and professionals, and singles, doubles, pairs, fours, sixes and eights, but, frequently, working boats, lapstreaks and shells. Interestingly, while allowances were usually given for the difference in the number of oars in races which included boats with differing numbers of oars, I am not aware of any allowance being made for coxed boats racing against uncoxed boats, which was frequently the case; not surprisingly, in most instances, the uncoxed boat would win.
As indicated above, this database is by no means complete (in fact, it is probably substantially lacking in coverage of races outside metropolitan areas with widely distributed newspapers and magazines). It will be updated as further research is done, and it will eventually be advanced to some date between 1865 and 1876, during much of which period rowing could claim to be not only the first modern sport, but the most widely reported and illustrated team sport, and the team sport which attracted the largest numbers of spectators anywhere in the world.
The data contained herein was compiled with much effort (as well as pleasure), and some of the most valuable sources are relatively inaccessible; it may not be reproduced without acknowledgment (please cite as Weil, Recorded Rowing Races, rowinghistory.net), and may not be used for commercial purposes without prior written permission.
Several notes on dates: the database is ordered chronologically, using the convention of day/month/year, so July 4, 1860 is noted as 04/07/1860; if the only date available for a listed event is a year, or a month and year, the entry therefor is placed at the beginning of the applicable year, or month and year (for example, an event for which only the year 1858 is known would be listed as xx/xx/1858 and placed at the head of the listings for 1858). When a date is given for a newspaper, only the day and month is shown if the article appeared in the same year as the event reported upon.
Commonly referenced sources:
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