Polaroid N.Bedford History 1-2
From Old Dartmouth to New Bedford,
Whaling Metropolis of the World
In 1602 the English colonist Bartholomew Gosnold arrived in the ship Concord , landed at Cuttyhunk Island, off Cape Cod, and laid claim to the entire region. He also explored the forests and meadows along the Acushnet estuary where New Bedford would eventually be situated. But Gosnold himself sailed off and settled in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia, and the Wampanoag Indians remained the only inhabitants of the region for another half century.
In 1652 English settlers from the Plymouth Colony acquired from Chief Massasoit control of 115,000 acres (46,575 hectares) along the south coast of Massachusetts. They regarded the transaction as an outright purchase from the Wampanoags; however, the Plymouth claim has been disputed by the tribe, among such a permanent transfer of land ownership was unknown (as opposed to granting the privileges of hunting, fishing, and farming). The colonial town government, organized in 1664, encompassed the present towns of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, New Bedford, and Westport, and the economy was agrarian–a few scattered villages who supported themselves by farming and fishing. A section known as Bedford Village, on the west bank of the Acushnet River, became the commercial hub, and by the middle 18th century had already developed a modest whale fishery (mostly prosecuted under the supervision and management of Joseph Russell) and a small foreign trade. In the 1760s, just as the French and Indian War was winding down–the colonial war between England and France, by which Britain gained control of Canada–a not entirely coincidental succession of events began to build on these earlier foundations. In 1760 Joseph Loudon, a ship’s caulker, acquired a tract of Acushnet riverfront land on which to establish a shipyard, Benjamin Taber set up nearby as a boatbuilder and blockmaker, and John Allen, house carpenter, built a house that he sold to Barzillai Myrick, a ship’s carpenter. By 1762 Gideon Mosher, mechanic, and Elnathan Sampson, blacksmith, had also settled in the neighborhood, helping to form the core of a versatile maritime community that would soon attract some of New England’s most energetic entrepreneurs–whaling merchants from Nantucket.
The Rise of New Bedford
In the mid 18th century Nantucket emerged as the world’s most vigorous whaling port, with a substantial fleet dedicated exclusively to pelagic sperm and right whaling on distant grounds, and a highly developed network of merchants and mariners to prosecute the hunt. However, while Nantucketers themselves owned and manned the ships, it was a cartel of merchants in Boston, Newport, and Providence who controlled the catch, refined the oil, manufactured spermaceti candles, and set the prices for oil and bone. The cartel even monopolized the coastwise and foreign export routes that brought American products to market. By the 1760s some of Nantucket’s most prominent whaling merchants, the Rotch and Rodman families, grew weary of the cartel monopoly and rebelled against it, moving their operations to the little village on the Acushnet. Here they continued to mount whaling voyages but also started refining whale oil and manufacturing spermaceti candles on their own. They also developed an independent import-export network up and down the American coast and on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was on this rebellious basis, on the eve of the American Revolution, that New Bedford was really founded and its future course as a whaling port charted.
The whaling industry was virtually shut down during the Revolution itself; British troops even marched down King Street–later symbolically renamed Union Street–setting fire to shops and warehouses. But afterwards, with many of America’s pre-Revolutionary fortunes decimated and with Nantucket suffering the loss of Loyalist families who emigrated to British territory, the skill, experience, and acumen of the Rotch and Rodman interests virtually assured that New Bedford would ultimately rise to preeminence among whaling ports.
The "Heroic Age"
Before the Revolution, the American Colonies had enjoyed Most Favored Nation status as an insider in Britain’s worldwide maritime-commercial network. But with Independence, the new Republic was excluded from any preferential trade advantages with England and her colonies. Americans had to seek new commercial markets, new trading partners, and new sea routes to market American products, to acquire imports from abroad, and to sustain the national economy. Historian Robert Albion has called this era the "Heroic Age" of Yankee commerce, characterized by innovation, high risk, and spectacular potential profits. Whale oil and spermaceti candles were among the few types of merchandise that Americans could produce in significant volume for domestic and foreign markets; accordingly, the whaling industry grew rapidly in the Heroic Age, and New Bedford along with it. Despite setbacks and reversals during the War of 1812–the American theater of the Napoleonic Wars, in which the British blockaded the coast, bombarded New England towns, burned the capitol, and shut down virtually all American maritime commerce–afterwards the whaling industry recovered rapidly. The fleet now ventured farther and farther into the Pacific and Indian Oceans in pursuit of the leviathan, and the fishery produced greater and greater prosperity at home.
The merchant families who came to New Bedford from Nantucket in the 1760s brought not only their whaling expertise, but also the Quaker traditions that had sustained them on the Island. These traditions profoundly influenced business dealings and social relations during the whaling era and afterwards. Quaker merchant-financiers practiced a fundamentally egalitarian system of employment that (as it had on Nantucket) tended to welcome able participants, regardless of race or creed. The prevailing atmosphere of tolerance encouraged abolitionism and made New Bedford a refuge for escaped slaves and a destination for hopeful immigrants, factory laborers from the big cities, and farmhands from the rural hinterlands. There was work for all hands in the city’s whaleships, shipyards, shops, and factories. Meanwhile, Quaker business practices that coupled prosperity with stability attracted capital, solidified commercial connections with New York and Boston, and established solid social and business relationships with the prosperous Quaker community in Philadelphia–relationships that endured for generations, well into the 19th century, yielding additional capital, promoting New Bedford’s first railroad (1838), and resulting in a crucial railroad and coal scuttling linkage (1883) that would serve the region handsomely even after the whale fishery declined and manufacturing became the city’s lifeblood.
The New Railroad
Taunton, Massachusetts, seat of Bristol County, where New Bedford is also situated, was already in the early 19th century an important manufacturing town, specializing in iron smelting and foundry. (These industries formed a basis for what later became Taunton’s greatest industry, the production of high-grade steam locomotives and kindred machinery.) In the 1830s, proximity to New Bedford and an existing rail connection to Providence, Rhode Island, suggested Taunton as an advantageous link to connect New Bedford with the big commercial markets of Boston and (eventually) New York. The New Bedford & Taunton Railroad, organized in 1838, was built almost entirely with New Bedford resources and New Bedford capital–New Bedford’s first industrial-scale enterprise to be financed through public subscription (as only banks, brokerages, and insurance companies had been in the past). Some 2505 shares of stock were sold to 205 investors in New Bedford, in addition to about 50 shares sold in Boston and New York, which initially produced $293,000 of capital for the company. Opened in 1840, the rail line penetrated the city right along the waterfront, paving the way for its future usefulness to the wharves, whale oil refineries, flour mills, and textile factories that were to flank it left and right. From the outset the company offered low rates and attractive rebates to woo freight contracts away from the seaborne freighters and packets that had hitherto carried all of New Bedford’s wares to market. As the century wore on, significant growth of manufacturing, and the increasing need for raw materials, iron, and coal that heavy industry required, rendered the rail connection increasingly indispensable; and in 1883 the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company–better known as the Reading Railroad–selected a New Bedford waterfront site for its largest branch, a rail depot, coal scuttle, and land-sea junction of ships and trains.
Whaling Metropolis of the World
In 1838 the rail link to Taunton and Providence was completed and New Bedford’s mainland advantage over Nantucket was assured. New Bedford was formally incorporated as a city in 1847, by which time its ships and barks were making voyages of two, three, or even four years in pursuit of sperm whales, right whales, bowheads, humpbacks, and gray whales in virtually every corner of the world: New Bedford had surpassed Nantucket, London, and all other whaling ports both in the size and tonnage of its fleet and the value of its catch. At the high point, in 1857, the fleets of New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Westport numbered 447 ships, barks, and schooners, an aggregate of 130,625 tons, amounting to 64% of the total American whaling tonnage and 59% of the value of the American catch. This was nearly half of all the world’s whaling. That year the whale fishery employed 9,700 seamen in addition to fueling a galaxy of dependent shoreside industries–shipbuilding, boatbuilding, cooperage (barrel making), sailmaking, shipsmithing, outfitting, infitting, provisioning, cordage manufacture, sparmaking, pump and block making, iron mongering, flour milling, oil refining, and spermaceti candle manufacture; also brokerages, recruiting agents, boardinghouses, hotels, theaters, bakeries, tailors, commission merchants, cargo handling, and transport. Prosperity resulted in a profusion of banks, public buildings, schools, and churches; the hill above the town was graced with fine homes, and the waterfront was filled with shops, counting rooms, warehouses, and factories, while diversified investments of wealth derived from whaling provided capital for an array of industries, from railroads and textiles to edge tools, carriagemaking, glass, and western real estate.
Yankee whaling methods in the early 19th century were fundamentally unchanged from those employed by the medieval Norse Vikings, with later improvements by Spanish and French Basques. The Vikings hunted right whales along shore and devised an arsenal of harpoons, lances, and butchering techniques, with rigorous laws to regulate the fishery. These were adopted by the Basques, who were the first to make long, pelagic whaling voyages offshore: Basque may have been whaling on the Canadian coast even before Columbus reached the New World, and by the 16th century they had set up shore stations on Labrador to process blubber and "whalebone" (baleen). In the 17th century, to facilitate processing blubber on the open sea, the Basques were experimenting with onboard tryworks (oil cookeries). Basque hirelings passed along their time-tested methods to Dutch, British, and other European Arctic whalers in the early 17th century, and it was these same methods that were brought to the American colonies by Dutch and English settlers.
I got this information from Whaling Museum Library.
Read episode 2 also.
Mustafa Umut Sarac