Native American History

Drawing, flensing a beached whale.
Sketch of men stripping a beached whale is patterned after a Dutch drawing from 1598. Image courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

Wampanoag Indians were the first inhabitants of the area that would become New Bedford. They practiced drift-whaling, harvesting the dying or dead whales that washed ashore. The Wampanoags also used harpoons to catch fish for bait — which sharpened the techniques that would make them so valuable aboard whaleships.

According to Wampanoag oral history, “the captain deemed himself fortunate to have a Gay Head Aquinnah Wampanoag aboard his whaleship as the harpooner, because of his keen eyesight, strength of arm, and unique balance.”
Framed, sepia photo of Captain Amos Haskins.
Captain Amos Haskins. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Amos Haskins
Captain Amos Haskins was a Gay Head Aquinnah from Martha’s Vineyard who advanced through the ranks and became a ship captain – one of a few Native Americans to do so. More information.
Side profile of Amos Smalley.
Amos Smalley. Image courtesy: Reader's Digest
Amos Smalley
As a Wampanoag man, Amos Smalley felt that his success in harpooning a 90-foot white whale was due to his tribe's relationship with whales. More information.
An Iñupiat whaleman holds out a harpoon.
Iñupiat whaleman. Photo courtesy: NPS
The Iñupiat Heritage Center
Through the late 1800s, whaling stretched into the Arctic. New Bedford whalemen may have settled these northern villages, while Iñupiat people were recruited for voyages. More information.
Silhouette of Paul Cuffe.
Silhouette, Paul Cuffe. Image courtesy: Library of Congress
Paul Cuffe
Born on Cuttyhunk Island to a freed African man and Native American woman, Paul Cuffe grew to become a successful whaling captain and respected member of his community. More information.
Sepia image of William Powell.
William Powell. Photo courtesy: National Archives
William Powell
William P. Powell, Jr. was born to an African American father and Wampanoag mother. He later became the first African American physician to receive a contract as a surgeon with the Union Army. More information.
Image of King David Kalakaua.

David Kalakaua. Courtesy of Hawai'i State Archives

The overfishing of whales in the North Atlantic pushed the Yankee whalemen ever further to remote parts of the globe from Cape Verde, to Cape Horn, to the great unknown Pacific. More information.

Last updated: December 19, 2018

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