• Historic buildings and the waterfront in New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

    New Bedford Whaling

    National Historical Park Massachusetts

Geographic Location

The prevailing southwest winds of Buzzards Bay make it one of the best sailing destinations on the Atlantic seaboard. In 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold planted the first British settlement in New England on Cuttyhunk Island, at the mouth of Buzzards Bay. The mainland across the bay was pronounced to be beautiful, made up of "stately groves, flowering meadows, and running brooks. "The Wampanoag people who lived at "Acushnet" were "all courteous kindness" and quickly offered trade and friendship.

Though the original settlement was abandoned, the advantages of Buzzards Bay for navigation were well known early in the colonial period. The community of New Bedford would eventually grow on the bay, built on the west shore of the Acushnet River, where a large source of fresh water, a deep and commodious anchorage, and easy access out to the Atlantic Ocean were all the elements necessary for a successful port. Though the land on which New Bedford sits today was purchased from Wampanoag people in 1652, there was no real settlement of English people on the site until after 1699, when Quakers built a meetinghouse there. The primary property owner was Joseph Russell, and by 1750 he had set up a tryworks on the Acushnet's west bank for rendering oil from whale blubber. In April 1761 Russell sent the ship Manufacture on a whaling cruise from the port, then still called Acushnet. In 1767 Joseph Rotch, an experienced whaleman from Nantucket, purchased land from Russell and joined him in the fledgling business; he launched the Dartmouth that same year. With Rotch's assistance, Russell and Isaac Howland built a spermaceti candle factory in 1768. It was Rotch who suggested that the name of the place be changed from Acushnet to Bedford, to honor Russell (who shared his surname with the Duke of Bedford). As they were the second city in Massachusetts to choose that name they were obliged to change it again, to New Bedford, in 1787. Despite the vicissitudes of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, New Bedford steadily ascended as an important whaling center.


In the 18th century, when whales were caught in near-shore waters, the island of Nantucket proved to have the greater advantage, in being nearer to the migratory routes. As voyages moved farther and farther off shore in the 19th century, however, the disadvantages of Nantucket's more shallow harbor with its obstructing sandbar and difficult access to the island through dangerous shoals led to a decline of that island's port. As voyages increasingly went beyond Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope in search of prey, and as ships increased in size, the greater convenience of New Bedford led to a rapid escalation in the city's involvement in the industry.

In 1800, 17 ships left from Nantucket compared to seven from New Bedford; in 1815 Nantucket could boast 50 ships to New Bedford's ten; and in 1820 the island outnumbered the port on Buzzards Bay by 45 to 36. But the gap closed quickly thereafter. In 1823 New Bedford passed Nantucket in the number of ships departing annually on whaling voyages, and never gave up its lead. In 1840 with the arrival of the railroad and easier access to markets in New York and Boston, the domination of the port was decisive. Even the sentimental

Herman Melville was forced to admit in Moby-Dick that "New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and in this matter poor old Nantucket is now Much behind her." And, while Ishmael made his voyage from Nantucket, Melville made his voyage in 1840 from Fairhaven, on a vessel named Acushnet for the river on which New Bedford and Fairhaven were built. The port is still an important one today, with fishing having replaced whaling as the primary industry. Certain modifications have been made, including the construction of a hurricane barrier, completed in 1965, to protect the fishing fleet from the occasional surges that come when the wind turns to come from the south south-east. Ferries from New Bedford bring tourists to Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. Yachters consider the nearby ports of Mattapoisett and Marion among the most desirable in the country.

Melville once called New Bedford "a queer place." Without whaling, he said, it would have been "in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador." But he could not have failed to see the natural advantages that made it the most logical site for a port to develop on Buzzards Bay. And he could not help but admit he found it "perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England."

Did You Know?

The bow-shaped pulpit of the Seamen's Bethel

The Seamen's Bethel is still in use today as a non-denominational house of worship, just as it was in Herman Melville's day. More...