The 1870s proved a golden decade for American yachting and, following America's legendary win at Cowes in 1851, the U.S. schooner Sappho had gone to Cowes in 1868 to try and repeat that earlier triumph only to be soundly beaten by Mr. James Ashbury's Cambria. This unexpected success so fired Ashbury's enthusiasm for the sport that he decided to mount the first official challenge for the America's Cup in 1870 using his well-tried Cambria. Undeterred by his subsequent defeat, he then mounted a second challenge the next year and thus set the stage for the numerous challenges which have provided such colourful sport ever since.
After James Ashbury's second defeat in 1871, the next challenge for the fabled trophy came in 1876 when the Royal Canadian Yacht Club 'threw down the gauntlet' to their fellow yachtsmen in New York with their brand new Countess of Dufferin named in honour of the wife of Canada's Governor General. Owned by a syndicate headed by Captain Charles Gifford, the new schooner was designed and built for them by Alexander Cuthbert in his yard at Coburg, Ontario, but immediately attracted criticism when astute observers suggested that her lines had been stolen from a New Jersey boatbuilder. True or not, she was nevertheless a fine craft registered at 138 tons displacement and measuring 107 feet in length overall with a 24 foot beam.
Pitched against her was the New York Yacht Club's Madeleine which, unusually for any America's Cup contest, was already eight years old and a veteran of the two earlier defences in 1870 and 1871. This splendid yacht, designed and built for John S. Dickerson by David Kirby in 1868, was chosen to defend the Cup against the Canadian challenge in 1876 simply because, by then, she had long since achieved her reputation as one of the fastest yachts on the eastern seaboard. Like Columbia before her [in 1871], Madeleine swept to victory in only two races for the Cup and secured her place in yachting's 'Hall of Fame' by so doing. Despite crowning her career with that memorable America's Cup win in 1876 however, she had previously taken part in the 1870 races when Cambria was the challenger; even though she only came in twelfth on that occasion, she then went on to win both the Block Island Race and the Stuyvesant Cup off New York that September. By the time the 1876 challenge came along therefore, she was the obvious choice to defend the Cup despite her age and proved the wisdom of her selection by winning so handsomely.