New Bedford's Whaling Heritage

Men keep a rowboat steady on the open ocean while others try harpooning a whale.
Harpooning a whale. Image courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Though the land that New Bedford currently sits on was purchased from the Wampanoag people in 1652, the area was not developed as a whaling port until the mid-1700s. In the 18th century, whales were caught in near-shore waters. The nearby island of Nantucket had an advantage over New Bedford because it was located closer to whale migratory routes.

As voyages moved farther offshore in the 19th century, Nantucket’s shallower harbor, obstructing sandbars, and dangerous shoals led to its decline as a whaling port. As voyages increasingly went beyond Cape Horn (Chile) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in search of prey, ships increased in size, and New Beford’s whaling industry swelled because of its amenities.

In 1800, 17 ships left from Nantucket compared to the seven from New Bedford. In 1815, Nantucket boasted 50 ships to New Bedford's 10; and in 1820, Nantucket outnumbered New Bedford, 45 to 36. The gap closed quickly thereafter. In 1823, New Bedford passed Nantucket in the number of whaleships departing annually on voyages, and never gave up its lead. With the arrival of the railroad in 1840 and easier access to New York and Boston markets, New Bedford became the wealthiest city in the world.

In its heyday, New Bedford's whaling industry influenced its shoreside industry, fashion, architecture, and culture. Today, the city's whaling roots are depicted in its art, industry, and demographics.
Modern photo of Charles W. Morgan, docked in Connecticut.
Charles W. Morgan. Photo courtesy: Mystic Seaport
Charles W. Morgan
The Charles W. Morgan is the last American whaleship still afloat. In its 80-year career, the Morgan made 37 whaling voyages. More information.
The Custom House, complete with white columns and sitting on the corner of William and N Second streets.
U.S. Custom House. Photo courtesy: NPS
Custom House
The U.S. Custom House in New Bedford is the oldest continually operating custom house in the country. Whaling masters of the past registered their ships and cargo in this building, while today's commercial ships continue to log duties and tariffs here. More information.
Photo of statue memorializing Lewis Temple.
Statue commemorating Lewis Temple. Photo courtesy: NPS
Lewis Temple
Working as a blacksmith, African-American Lewis Temple created a tool that revolutionized the whaling industry. The Temple toggle iron secured into whale flesh better than earlier harpoon designs. More information.
Two men cut meat onboard a whaleship.
Mincing whale blubber. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Life Onboard a Whaleship
Between whale sightings, crewmen would repair gear, write letters, play games and music, and craft to pass the time. More information.
A sihouette of Paul Cuffee.
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.
Man cuts whale from scaffolding off side of whaleship.
Cutting up a sperm whale's head. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
The Whale Hunt
Capturing and processing whales was dirty and dangerous work. More information.
A sperm whale fluke breaks the ocean surface.
Sperm whale fluke. Photo courtesy: Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
Whale Populations
The whaling industry devastated whale populations worldwide. The U.S. Congress didn't legally protect whales until 1972. More information.
Colorized image of casks of oil unloaded from whaleships.
Casks of oil unloaded from whaleships. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum/ NPS
Whale Products
Oil, blubber, and baleen from beached whales was so lucrative that it inspired commercial whaling. A successful voyage meant harvesting these products from at least 50 whales. More information.
1845 map of whaling grounds and currents.
Map of the currents and whaling grounds (1845). Image courtesy: Digital Public Library of America
World Knowledge
Following America's independence, information and artifacts collected by whalemen expanded America's knowledge of the world and influenced its policies. More information.
Old photo of Centre Street

Centre Street. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum

Life on Shore

The whaling industry required many supporting industries which supplied materials, tools, food, and other products necessary to make a whaleship work. These skilled craftsmen or “mechanics” included More information.

Last updated: July 20, 2021

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