History of New Bedford

New Bedford is internationally known as “The Whaling Capital of the World.” It was the world’s most important port for the whaling industry, sending out more whale ships at its height than all other ports combined. The whale oil that lit the lamps of America brought New Bedford tremendous wealth and industrial development, as well as hard-working immigrants from across the Atlantic, contributing to New Bedford’s flourishing art and culture.

The whaling industry is central to the history of New Bedford and the surrounding area, but there is much more to the rich history and unique culture of New Bedford and Buzzards Bay, which can be traced back to the early days of European exploration.

Colonial Times

Bartholomew Gosnold, the English explorer influential in the founding of Jamestown and the Virginia Company, first discovered and explored New Bedford for England in 1602. He was the man who named Cape Cod after all of the fish he saw. Gosnold’s crew built a small stockade on Cuttyhunk Island as a base from which to explore the area, but due to a lack of supplies, they decided to return to England without leaving a permanent settlement.

Fifty years later, Quakers, from the famous pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, established the first European settlement on the South Coast. In the Plymouth Colony, the Quakers had ideological differences with the stringent Puritans, and were subjected to unfair taxes. The Quakers were pacifists, and didn’t want to pay taxes to fund a military. Frustrated with living as a minority under them, they purchased Old Dartmouth—a region comprised of Dartmouth, New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Westport—from Chief Massasoit of the native Wampanoag to start a new society in 1652.

Old Dartmouth was sparsely settled in its beginning. The township’s expansive 115,000 acres of territory was devoid of major town centers, and had isolated farms and small villages instead. The locals supported themselves primarily through agriculture and fishing. Land availability attracted many Quakers and Baptists from Newport and Portsmouth in Rhode Island, as well as more Puritans migrating for Britain.

The rising European population and increasing demand for land led the colonists’ relationship with the Native Peoples of New England to deteriorate. Tensions erupted in 1675 with the start of King Phillip’s War, which brought devastation to the settlements of Old Dartmouth.

The Rise of New Bedford

As the region recovered, Acushnet became the largest of the South Coast’s settlements. However, a collection of towns across the river known as Bedford Village became the commercial hub of the region. A small whale fishery developed, as well as modest international trade. In the 1760’s, between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, shipwrights, carpenters, mechanics, and blacksmiths, settled in New Bedford harbor, creating a skilled and comprehensive maritime community.

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Whaling Ships and Barrels of Whale Oil in New Bedford

Before New Bedford became the Whaling Capital, Nantucket was the dominant whaling port. However, the operation was controlled by a cartel of merchants in Boston, Newport, and Providence. In the 1760’s, Nantucket’s most prominent whaling families had moved to New Bedford. They refined their own oil and made their own premium candles.

The American Revolution completely paralyzed the whaling industry. The British forces blockaded American ports, and captured or destroyed American commercial ships. Redcoats even marched down King’s Street in New Bedford (defiantly renamed Union Street after the Revolution) and set businesses on fire. The physical destruction, frozen economy, and import taxes imposed after the war obliterated previous fortunes, which curbed Nantucket’s advantage over New Bedford. As a result, New Bedford prevailed over Nantucket as the premier whaling port, and so began the Golden Age of Whaling.

Whaling City

After the War of 1812’s embargo was lifted, New Bedford started amassing a number of colossal, sturdy, square-rigged whaling ships, many of them built at the shipyard of Mattapoisett. The invention of on-board tryworks, a system of massive iron pots over a brick furnace, allowed the whalers to render high quality oil from the blubber. This allowed the whaling ships to go out to sea for as long as four years, processing their catch while at sea. Ships from New Bedford came back to port with barrels of oil for lamps and lighthouses, and spermaceti—a white, waxy substance taken from the whales’ heads and used to make the finest candles. Occasionally, whalers would encounter ambergris in a sperm whale’s intestines. Ambergris was a rare and extremely valuable ingredient in high quality perfume; it was worth its own weight in gold.

The Quakers remained prominent in New Bedford throughout the whaling era, and had a profound influence on the whaling industry. They brought religious values into their business models: they promoted stability as well as prosperity, invested in infrastructure projects such as rail, and established solid social and professional relationships in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

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Train in New Bedford

These excellent business practices, as well as global demand for whaling goods, allowed the whaling industry to reach its height in 1857. At that time, the harbor hosted 329 vessels worth over $12 million, and New Bedford became the richest city per capita in the world. The whaling industry also drove the establishment of secondary and tertiary businesses, as well as infrastructure to support it. The famous New Bedford Cordage Company provided rope and line for the whaleboats, as well as products for farmers, miners, and textile mills. The area had its own foundries, such as the Fairhaven Iron Works, which helped the area modernize and industrialize. In addition, New Bedford was supplied with many modern luxuries, such as coal, oil, and gas.

Land of Opportunity

Ten thousand men worked in the whaling industry—men from all walks of life coming from all over the world. Perhaps the most significant influence the Quakers had was their attitude of tolerance and egalitarianism. In New Bedford, there was work for every set of hands—on the boats, at the docks, at the factories, or in the shops. The British, Wampanoag, Cape Verdeans, Azoreans, Irish, West Africans, and escaped slaves could all find opportunity in New Bedford.

In fact, the city became one of the first fermentation centers of abolitionism in North America, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The Quakers were ardent abolitionists, and their open sensibilities, as well as the work opportunities of the whaling industry, attracted escaped slaves in search of freedom, as well as Cape Verdeans and West Africans who found work aboard whaling ships.

The African Americans have a rich history in New Bedford, and have made great contributions to the city. For example, Paul Cuffe—an Ashanti-Wampanoag Quaker and self-made tycoon—among several other remarkable achievements earned black property owners in New Bedford the right to vote decades before President Lincoln even signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lewis Temple, an African-American blacksmith, invented the Temple toggle iron, which was the most successful harpoon design. Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist and orator, also found amnesty in New Bedford and worked at the wharf for three years.

The Textile Industry

The whaling industry went into decline after the 1859 discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania. Each decade since then saw a gradual decrease in whaling work, activity, and revenue. During the Civil War, the federal government bought several inactive whaleboats, filled them with stones, sand, and dirt, and towed them to Charlestown, South Carolina where the Union Navy sank them in an unsuccessful attempt to blockade the Confederate bay. Along with the poor business and low whale populations, this dealt a potent blow to a failing industry.

In the midst of this decline, greater New Bedford’s economy became more dependent on the textile industry, which began to eclipse the whaling industry in the late 19th century. The mills grew and expanded constantly, eventually comprising multiple sites along the Acushnet River. In 1875 alone, the Wamsutta Mills processed 19,000 bales of cotton into 20 million yards of cloth, which had a wholesale value comparable to that of the entire whaling catch, and continued to produce over 20 million yards of cloth yearly after 1883. The Wamsutta Mills remained the world’s largest weaving plant until 1892.

The textile mills redefined wealth in New Bedford, and gave birth to a prosperity greater than that of the whaling industry. New Bedford, funded by industrial fortunes, developed a thriving art scene. The Mount Washington Glass Company (which later became Pairpoint) crafted fine decorative works of glass and silver for the newly affluent class, and examples of these beautiful works can be seen today on the second floor of the Whaling Museum.

Union & Purchase Streets in 1941

The mills had a lasting impact on the region in the populations they drew from far away shores. The roaring industry demanded managers, workers with specialized skills, and everyday laborers to support it. The job opportunities attracted Polish, French-Canadians, Eastern European Jews, and—most famously—the Portuguese. This was the time of major immigration from Portugal and its imperial holdings in the Atlantic (The Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira). Although they had an important presence earlier in New Bedford’s history since the whaling era long beforehand, it wasn’t until the rise of the textile industry that migration from Portugal and the islands reached its height.

The population in Greater New Bedford exploded during this time period, and the massive Portuguese immigration changed the face of the city and the surrounding region. Today, almost 60% of New Bedford claims Portuguese heritage. Thanks to the comprehensive social network Portuguese immigrants established when they arrived in the area, the vibrant cultures of Portugal and the islands have been kept alive. Today, Portuguese culture is still prominent all around the city, and can be seen in New Bedford’s many Portuguese restaurants, feasts, and community activities.

The opulence from the textile industry in New Bedford began to diminish with the lack of employment in the late 1920’s and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many textile companies relocated to Georgia and the Carolinas to take advantage of cheaper labor in the South. As a result, New Bedford went through decades of struggle and suffered an increase in poverty and gun violence in the mid 20th Century.

Modern New Bedford

New Bedford’s centuries-old fishing industry survived, and is thriving today. New Bedford remains one of the nation’s most prominent port cities, true to its proud maritime heritage. With the fishing experience and culture of hard work of the Portuguese immigrants and their descendants, New Bedford stands today as the nation’s number one commercial fishing port. Nearly 50 million pounds of sea scallops arrive in New Bedford Harbor per year. Additionally, major companies, such as Titleist, Polaroid, Johnson and Johnson have established themselves in the New Bedford area, and the city continues to grow, especially with tourism and the downtown cultural scene. New Bedford hosts the region’s only airport, and offers ferry service to Cuttyhunk and Martha’s Vineyard.

People and eras have swept in and out of New Bedford like the waves on the shore, shaping and coloring it with their stories and ambitions. The history and culture of New Bedford—from the Wampanoag tribes, to the brave whalemen from foreign shores, through the trawlers returning with the fresh catch—call out from the cobblestone streets, the sounds of the harbor, and the ethnic neighborhoods, beckoning to be discovered.


All images made available by Spinner Publications. Title image from left to right: Whaling Bark Charles W. Morgan, Woman Working at Textile Mill, Downtown New Bedford with Trolleys and Carriages

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