Ferdinand Hilgard was born in Speyer, Bavaria, Germany on April 10, 1835. After studying at Munich and Wurzburg, he emigrated to the United States in 1853. Soon after arriving he adopted the name, Henry Villard, to prevent his father from learning his whereabouts and forcing him to return to Germany.
He settled in Illinois, and became a journalist and editor, he covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Pikes Peak gold rush, and the American Civil War.
On January 3, 1866, he married Helen Frances Garrison, the daughter of the anti-slavery campaigner, William Lloyd Garrison. Six months later, he was sent to Europe to report on the Franco-Prussian War for the New York Tribune.
In 1875, he helped reorganize the Oregon and California Railroad and the Oregon Steamship Company, and the following year became president of both companies. From 1879 to 1883, he was probably the most important railway promoter in the United States, and his successes enabled him to purchase the New York Evening Post and The Nation.
In 1880, he built a 120 acre estate in Dobbs Ferry, New York. In 1882, he built the palatial Villard Houses, a Italian Renaissance style mansion on Madison Avenue in New York City. He helped to finance the early ventures of Thomas Edison, and in 1889 helped establish Edison General Electric. He died on November 12, 1900, in Dobbs Ferry, New York.