[ The Evolution of an American Seaport ]



In the 1760s, the new whaling town of Bedford Village attracted Quakers from Newport and Nantucket. Bedford Village was renamed New Bedford by 1787 (as there already was and is a Bedford northwest of Boston) and was incorporated as a town separate from Dartmouth. The town’s appeal as a whaling port lay in her deep water harbor and location on the mainland, which facilitated transport and commerce. Doing business in New Bedford became a desirable and viable alternative to Nantucket with its shallow harbor entrance and off-shore location.


“Our mansions have succeeded the Indians’s huts…” -Daniel Ricketson, The History if New Bedford (New Bedford, 1858)


Old Four Corners by William A. Wall

William Allen Wall (1801-1885), New Bedford in 1807 / Old Four Corners, 1852-1857, Oil on Canvas, #00.34



During the American Revolution (1775-1783), New Bedford harbor proved valuable for privateering operations in the Patriot cause. Because of its importance, the British responded. On September 5, 1778, a British expeditionary force landed at Clark’s Point and marched down King Street, later renamed Union Street. They set fire to shops and warehouses along the river, and burned significant portions of the Bedford Village waterfront.

The whaling industry was virtually shut down during the Revolution. Despite these conditions, William Rotch, Sr. (1734-1828), whaling merchant of Nantucket and New Bedford, worked diligently to maintain neutral trade relations to preserve the whale fishery. He had to be careful not to antagonize his patriotic neighbors while still maintaining his own commercial interests with Great Britain. In 1783, one of Rotch’s vessels, the Bedford of Nantucket, was the first ship to fly the American flag in a British port after the American Revolution as she arrived with a cargo of whale oil.

After the war, many of America’s pre-Revolutionary fortunes were decimated. Nantucket had suffered the loss of Loyalist families who emigrated to British territory. But the skill, experience, and business acumen of two Quaker men, William Rotch, Sr., and Samuel Rodman, practically assured New Bedford would be the preeminent whaling port in the country.

Ship Catherine, 1812
Watercolor on paper

Guiseppi Fedi (fl. early 19th century)
Ship Ann Alexander, 1807
Watercolor on paper



Between the years of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, New Bedford, like the rest of the country, entered into a dangerous period in international relations. Trade was diminished, shipping was often prevented from returning to port and American crews were seized and impressed into both the Royal Navy and the French Navy.

After the War of 1812, New Bedford entered into its greatest period as a world renowned whaling port. In these post-war years, American shipping on the high seas was finally afforded the protection of the United States Navy and commerce could thrive largely unhindered by European interference. With peace came prosperity, and between 1816 and 1825 New Bedford’s whaling fleet grew.

As the city began once again providing vital whale oils and other commodities to national and international markets, important supporting industries like cooperage, metal work, shipbuilding, banking and insurance flourished. The city’s industrial base included several candleworks and oil refineries, plus many of the other necessary ancillary crafts and trades. Nantucket also came back to life after decades of war and economic uncertainty.

While Nantucket had only a few vessels whaling in 1813, by 1815 her fleet numbered forty-seven ships, brigs, schooners and sloops. New Bedford’s ten registered vessels doubled to twenty by 1818, and more than quadrupled by 1828 with over eighty in her fleet. New Bedford was now the dominant port in the region.


The Quaker Connection:  New Bedford, Newport & Nantucket

Portrait of William Rotch, Sr.

Portrait of Samuel Rodman, ca. 1828, Oil on Canvas. #1977.39.1

Spermaceti candles were the first manufactured goods in colonial America. Two Sephardic Jewish merchants in Newport, Rhode Island, Aaron Lopez (1731-1782) and his father-in-law Jacob Riveira (1717-1789), began to specialize in the process in the mid-1700s. Buying their oil from the Rotches of Nantucket and other successful whaling merchants, Lopez and Riveira quickly became very wealthy.

With the settlement of Bedford Village in 1765, Quakers from Nantucket and Newport both began to live and work in the new whaling town. Some of New Bedford’s most successful whaling merchants, like Quaker Samuel Rodman, had worked for Riveira in the candleworks in Newport.

Quaker merchant families who came to New Bedford from Nantucket and Newport brought not only their whaling expertise, but also their traditions that profoundly influenced business dealings and social relations during the whaling era and afterwards. Quaker merchant-financiers practiced a fundamentally egalitarian system of employment that tended to welcome able participants, regardless of race or creed.

The Prevailing atmosphere of tolerance encourage abolitionism and made New Bedford a refuge for escaped slaves and a destination for hopeful immigrants, factory laborers from bigger cities, and farmhands from rural areas. There was ample work in the city’s shipyards, shops, factories and on whaleships. 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 communities of Philadelphia and Newport.


Major support for this exhibition comes from the William M. Wood Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Last modified: August 19, 2016