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, as permanent transfer of land ownership was then 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. The economy was agrarian–a few scattered villages that 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 pursued under the supervision and management of Joseph Russell) and a small foreign trade. In the 1760s, a not entirely coincidental succession of events began to build on these earlier foundations- just as the French and Indian War was winding down, the colonial war between England and France by which Britain gained control of Canada began. 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, thus 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 in the colonies, 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, Joseph Rotch and his son William, as well as Quaker families from Newport, the Howland’s and Rodman’s, 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. Afterward, 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. Independence assured 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–afterward 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 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 community in Philadelphia. These relationships 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, the seat of Bristol County where New Bedford is situated, was in the early 19th century already 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, 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 done in the past). Some 2505 shares of stock were sold to 205 investors in New Bedford, added 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. 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.
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. Diversified investments of wealth derived from whaling provided capital for an array of industries, from railroads and textiles to edge tools, carriage making, glass manufacture, and western real estate.
Broad-Based Prosperity of Yankee Whaling
The wealth derived from whaling was not limited to the great merchant families who functioned as ship owners, managing agents, and capitalist-entrepreneurs; rather, it was widely distributed among the various shoreside industries that rode the crest of New Bedford’s wave of prosperity. The caste of mechanics and artisans, who might in other circumstances be stereotyped as humble tradesmen, here often emerged as influential community leaders and powerful merchant capitalists. James Durfee, Jr. was one of the many New Bedford shipsmiths and whalecraft manufacturers who made harpoons, chain plates, and ship fittings with their own hands and sold them to the whaling and shipyards. He also sat on the Board of Trustees of a prominent local bank, served on the first City Council after New Bedford was incorporated in 1847 and listed accounts receivable for his firm of over $40,000 in 1859–two years after a major, worldwide economic panic. Richard Curtis, a rigger, left an estate in excess of $185,000 in 1890, an enormous amount of wealth for a humble tradesman at the time. In 1900, sailmaker John R. Shurtleff–whose predecessor in sailmaking, Simpson Hart, had sat on the boards of a bank and an insurance company–left an estate exceeding $225,000. Such economic success was accumulated gradually, by building small businesses into larger ones, and by sharing the risk of whaling voyages–for example, by accepting a share in the proceeds of a voyage, rather than direct payment, for sails, cordage, or whalecraft sold to the owners. Such figures should be taken to reflect commensurate levels of productivity and employment in the whaling industry at large.
Way back in the 18th century, Paul Cuffe of Westport, the son of a slave father and Indian mother, achieved independence, considerable wealth, and a modicum of fame by parlaying a small boatbuilding business into an increasingly wider network of whaling, trading, and shipping. Along the way he created jobs and self-reliance for others of African and Native American ancestry. In the 19th century the whaling trade and its family of shoreside industries provided analogous opportunities for persons of color–not only the mariners, but the artisans and tradesmen as well. Shipsmith Lewis Temple, also the son of slaves never patented his revolutionary toggle harpoon, and so missed out on the bulk of the wealth that might have been his; that went to others, competitor James Durfee among them. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation Lewis Temple was the master of his own, though small, business. His son, who apprenticed as a shipsmith in New Bedford firm of Dean & Driggs, was later likewise an independent entrepreneur as a popular and successful barber in the city.
Beginning in the 1860s the American whaling industry suffered a gradual decline. Decade by decade, the value of whale oil dwindled, fewer ships were sent to sea, fewer men signed on, fewer fortunes were made, and fewer livelihoods depended on American whaling prowess. Simultaneously, beginning in the 1860s Norwegian entrepreneur Svend Foyn was developing a new, mechanized whaling technology that would ultimately result in an enormous increase in whales taken worldwide. The reasons usually given for the decline of Yankee whaling fail to account for the simultaneous rise of the new "modern" Norwegian whaling technology. For more on this topic see: Overview of North American Whaling.
Even before the whaling industry began to falter, diversification of capital was creating new venues for prosperity and employment. The Wamsutta Company, founded on the banks of the Acushnet in 1846 and opened in 1848, was the first of many textile mills that gradually came to supplant whaling as the principal employer in New Bedford. Potomska Mills opened in 1871–the same year as the great Western Arctic whaling disaster–and several other textile firms followed. By the 1870s cotton textile manufacture was eclipsing the economic importance, if not the romance and international renown of the whaling industry. In 1875, Wamsutta alone rendered 19 thousand bales of cotton into 20 million yards of cloth, an output with a wholesale value roughly equal to that of the entire whaling catch. The years 1881-83 witnessed a virtual doubling of mill capacity in New Bedford. A similar burst of expansion occurred during 1887-89. Between 1880 and 1890 seven new companies entered the field, and the following decade seven more. Meanwhile, Wamsutta Mills expanded several times, until by 1892, with a total of seven mills, Wamsutta was the largest cotton weaving plant in the world. In 1897 Wamsutta was operating 4450 looms and employing 2100 workers. In 1907 New Bedford was home to 25 textile manufacturing companies operating two million spindles in 50 separate mill buildings, with 14 additional mills under construction.
Meanwhile, a variety of other industries arose: The New Bedford Gas Company in 1853; the city’s first iron-rolling plant, the Gosnold Iron Mill, in 1856; and, in 1860, the New Bedford Coal Oil Company, which made sheathing, yellow-metal fastenings, and rollers for printing patterns on calico cotton. The Morse Twist Drill Company, founded by inventor-entrepreneur Stephen Ambrose Morse in 1864, introduced the marvelous new invention from which the company took its name. They eventually branched out into the manufacture of other kinds of industrial blades, cutters, and jigs–reamers, milling tools, lathe chuck, gauges, mandrels, and threading tools. The New Bedford Cordage Company, founded in 1842 to furnish all kinds of rope and line to the whale fishery, actually expanded with the explosion of new industries and the many new demands for cordage. In 1888 this company’s production facility covered four acres with a 500-horsepower steam plant, employed 250, and included among its wares high-quality cordage for the private yachts that prosperity had made fashionable in the higher and middle echelons of New England society.
After the Civil War, with the whaling industry already past its prime, New Bedford became almost as famous for the manufacture of art glass as it was for whaling. The New Bedford Glass Company, established in 1866, was the pioneer, followed by the Mount Washington Glass Works, which moved to New Bedford from Boston in 1870; Smith Brothers, founded by Harry and Alfred Smith in 1873; Samuel R. Bowie, who was in business for only a few years (1876-82); and the best known of all, the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1880 and eventually merged with Mount Washington in 1894. The consolidated firm was employing 1000 workers in 1900.
Glass products, another component in New Bedford’s new so-called "art industry", were primarily decorative and functional objects intended for domestic use, such as lamps with colored floral or pictorial shades, bottles and serving vessels of cut- or blown-glass. The Charles Taber Company, who began as stationers, successfully published prints, photographs, stereopticon views, and calendars, and produced picture frames and other objects of wood and faux ivory.
Electricity came to the city by way of the New Bedford Edison Illuminating Company, organized in 1884, delivering DC current by 1886 and by 1889 running eight steam-driven dynamos delivering between 375 and 435 horsepower. The gas and electric companies were consolidated in 1890. By 1897 New Bedford had 200 arc street-lamps, more than 20,000 incandescent lamps in homes and private buildings, and about 300 horsepower in electric motors.
The tremendous demand for managers, skilled labor, and ordinary factory-workers that these industries required exceeded the region’s indigenous capacity. Immigration from abroad, migration from other parts of the United States, and the recruitment of specialist technicians contributed to a dramatic increase in the city’s population, from 15,000 to 60,000 in two generations. The aggregate became a fertile network of evolving opportunities: Men trained as blacksmiths became carriage-makers and, later, auto mechanics and machinists; machinists who had apprenticed as mill operators formed companies with iron-founders and engaged in manufacturing mill machinery, training men who went into engine-building. Manufacturers sold their machines to mill owners who hired millwrights to install them, mechanics to maintain and repair them, and stationary engineers to operate the power supply. Burgeoning industries constructed factory housing for their expanding ranks, which in turn required the usual array of consumer goods, civic services, churches, schools, and public entertainment. New Bedford was no longer a one-industry town.