August 13, 2020        Login     
 OUR PASTRev. Dr. Joseph Ward   
1838 - 1889
Founder of Yankton College


         "Joseph Ward was the gentlest strong man I ever knew." - Charles M. Sheldon, Ward's nephew                                         

On November 6, 1868, 30-year-old Joseph Ward and his young bride, Sarah, arrived in Yankton, then a river-port town, after a bone-rattling stagecoach ride from Sioux City, Iowa.  Joseph was a native of Perry Centre, New York, a veteran of the Civil War and a graduate of Phillips Academy, Brown University and the Andover Theological Seminary. He was sent to the meagerly populated Dakota Territory by the American Home Missionary Society to assume the pastorate of the recently organized Congregational Church.  At the time, Yankton was known as the “Mother City” and the first capital of Dakota Territory – where Indians and buffalo were still occupants.

Before arriving, Joseph and Sarah Frances Wood were married earlier on August 12, 1868, at Central Falls, Rhode Island, where her father was a wealthy cotton cloth manufacturer.  Less than three months later, the newly-weds set out by train for the sparsely-settled region of Dakota Territory which had been created just seven years earlier by Congress.   

Ward, ironically, first turned down the appointment on the Plains and was to take a clergy position in Oakland, California, that soon was taken by another minister.  For the state of South Dakota and eventually, Yankton College, it was a fortunate happenstance. 

On November 8, 1868, two days after arriving, Ward – not yet fully ordained - stood and preached his first sermon behind a pulpit constructed of a dry-goods box draped with cambric to 33 members of the newly created First Congregational Church in the unassuming Territorial Capitol building.  Ward was ordained the following year and as more settlers arrived, he energetically pursued his missionary responsibilities.  New churches were created in Dakota Territory following the formation of the Congregational Association of Dakota.  Ward preached at these various locations, in addition to his post in Yankton.  

Though Ward is considered the Father of Congregationalism in South Dakota, Ward’s legacy in Yankton and throughout the state, extends far beyond the church. While the church was to be his prime responsibility, Ward was given a second mission by the secretary of the society:  to see to it that the cause of Christian education be “vigorously carried forward in the great Northwest.” 

Ward turned his attention toward promoting education and began teaching students in his own private school.  He soon established the Yankton Academy by 1872, which was turned over to public control later, known as Yankton High School; and in 1881, pushing his vision for education, founded Yankton College, the first Christian institution of higher education in Dakota Territory, to be long associated with the Congregational Christian Church - later United Church of Christ. The church took the first step when the General Association created a College Commission in 1875, meeting annually, until 1880, when they finally believed there was enough support for a Christian college to become a reality.

Ward was also influential in politics, especially pushing for statehood for southern Dakota Territory and was selected as a delegate to every statehood and constitutional convention holding significant leadership positions at each one. Living in the territorial capital helped him forge relationships with powerful politicians, many of whom were members of his church.  It was not uncommon for imprtant pieces of legislation to be debated and discussed in the Ward home.  

Before his untimely death in 1889, Ward’s many contributions to South Dakota earned him a lasting place of honor in the commonwealth’s history. 

Right: Joseph Ward statue housed in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.


The Wards lived in this historic 18-room brick house provide for them by Joseph Wood, Sarah's father.  It became the meeting place for many of the territory's political and religious leaders.  Built in 1873, it was once mortgaged for $7,500 to raise funds for the college when an early fiscal crisis occured.   


Left to right:  Sarah Wood Ward, wife of Yankton College founder, Rev. Dr. Joseph Ward; an aging Ward with three of his sons, Donald, Freeman and Sheldon; a handwritten letter by Ward, circa 1885.  

For more information, contact the Yankton College business office toll-free (866) 665-3661
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