New Bedford Is Rich In History….

An oft-used phrase, New Bedford is indeed rich in history. The diversity of the city’s innovative industries brought economic wealth and a wealth of diversity in terms of the people and social climates that shaped the city. The maritime industry brought an influx of immigrants and was a major facilitator of the Underground Railroad. The ‘city that lit the world’ with whale oil continues to light the world in terms of innovation and inspiration. From the works of famed authors and artists of the past to its present designation as one of the most creative cities in the country, in New Bedford art can be found out in the open or sometimes tucked away in the most unique and unexpected places. Describing New Bedford in one word is difficult because there is not one singular word that can encapsulate the history that has shaped the city’s unique identity, from the early days to the present. This provides endless opportunities to come and explore this unique and charming city by the sea.

New Bedford: Charting the Depths of History and Innovation

In the mid-1800s New Bedford was the largest whaling port and richest city in the world per capita. The whaling industry’s decline brought economic uncertainty until the textile boom in the early twentieth century, with New Bedford becoming among the leading cities in the nation in cotton textiles.

Technological advances, such as trucking and refrigeration, helped expand New Bedford’s fishing industry in the mid-1900s. Today, New Bedford maintains its status as the #1 fishing port by value in the United States (since 2001). Looking ahead, the city focuses on sustainability in watershed preservation efforts, innovative aquaculture operations, and offshore renewable energies.

A Timeline of The City’s Evolution

Early 1600s and prior:

  • Through the 17th century, the area was the territory of the Wampanoag Native Americans, ‘People of the First Light.’
  • 1652: English colonists purchase land in a treaty with Chief Ousamequin (Massasoit) and his son Wamsutta. This land was called Old Dartmouth (encompassing modern Dartmouth Acushnet, New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Westport). Members of the Religious Society of Friends, The Quakers, comprised the largest portion of the population of Old Dartmouth.
  • 1675: While the population of Europeans increased the relationship with the indigenous community suffered, culminating in the King Philip’s War in 1675. As the concept of land ownership was not familiar to the Wampanoag people, the European claim to full ownership of the land caused a dispute that led to conflict.

Early 1700s

  • Captain Christopher Hussey of Nantucket identifies a pod of sperm whales and by 1750 spermaceti oil refining begins in New England. The first large ship is built at Bedford Village, the DARTMOUTH.
  • 1775-1783: During the American Revolutionary War, the whaling industry suffered with ports being strategically captured and destroyed. Nantucket had been the prominent whaling port, but its exposed location put their harbor in jeopardy and New Bedford’s sheltered harbor eventually took prominence in the industry by 1823.
  • 1780: Captain Paul Cuffe, an African American and Wampanoag Native American, petitions for the right to vote as a landowner and taxpayer.
  • 1787: A section along the Acushnet River known as Bedford Village is incorporated as the town of New Bedford. During the 18th century, a small whale fishery and trading port began to develop, spurring the growth of a skilled and comprehensive maritime community. Thus began the Golden Age of Whaling.


  • 1830: New Bedford Port Society is formed and in 1832 the Seamen’s Bethel is built and dedicated. The Bethel was constructed as a chapel for New Bedford sailors to visit before voyages. Herman Melville wrote of the chapel in Moby-Dick (1851) where Father Mapple delivered a sermon in a bow-shaped pulpit.
  • 1833: The anti-slavery group, the New Bedford Union Society, is formed by people of color. The city gained a reputation as a haven for fugitive slaves, in part because the Quakers were vocal in their opposition to slavery in the late 1820s. Although only roughly 15% of the town supported abolition, there were opportunities for work, education, home ownership, and the ability for African Americans to assist others in escaping slavery through the unique situation facilitated by the maritime industries.
  • 1834: The Anti-Slavery Society is organized with William Rotch Jr. as President. Rotch was a whaling merchant, the wealthiest man in the city for decades, and one of the earliest supporters of abolition. The Rotch-Jones-Duff House was constructed in 1834 and stands as a museum and garden to this day.
  • 1838: Frederick Douglass escapes slavery and begins his life in New Bedford, living first at the Nathan and Polly Johnson House. By the 1840s New Bedford was home to 300-700 people who escaped slavery.
  • 1841: Herman Melville sails on the whaleship ACUSHNET. The world’s last remaining wooden whaleship to this date, CHARLES W. MORGAN, is built at Hillman Brothers Shipyard.
  • 1847: New Bedford becomes an incorporated city with Abraham Hathaway Howland as its first mayor. New Bedford Horticultural Society is founded. One of the founders, James Arnold erected what is now the Sarah and James Arnold Mansion and extensive gardens in 1821. He opened his private gardens to the public, which was an unusual act at the time. Some of Arnold’s fortune was used to found the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1872.
  • 1848: African-American Lewis Temple invents the Temple Toggle Iron. This harpoon had a pivoting head so that the point would embed itself into the whale’s flesh instead of coming loose during the fight, revolutionizing the industry. Temple was a blacksmith and abolitionist and was elected as the first Vice President of the New Bedford Union Society.
  • 1857: During the height of the whaling industry, New Bedford’s harbor held 329 vessels worth over $12 million and the city became the richest per capita in North America.
  • 1858: German-American painter Albert Bierstadt organizes the first art exhibit by American and European artists in the city.
  • 1861: Fort Rodman is built at Fort Taber Park on Clark’s Point. The earthworks fort was completed, and this temporary defense was named Fort Taber. By 1863 the granite fort was finished, and earthworks dismantled. In 1898 the entire military property was renamed in honor of Lt. Col. William Logan Rodman of New Bedford.
  • 1867: Fire Station No. 4 is built, which is now the New Bedford Fire Museum. The museum opened in 1976 and moved into the station after the station closed in 1979.
  • 1875: The decline of the whaling industry challenged the textile industry to take the lead in the city’s economy. The mills expanded along the Acushnet River with the Wamsutta Mills remaining the world’s largest weaving plant until 1892. The textile industry eventually surpassed the whaling industry in terms of economic wealth generation. Industrial fortune helped pave the way for a thriving art scene, including the Mount Washington Glass Company, which created glass and silver works for a newly affluent class.
  • 1876: Revenue Cutter Service Marine School of Instruction at Fish Island on board the schooner DOBBIN is established, becoming the precursor to the United States Coast Guard Academy.
  • 1894: Buttonwood Park Zoo opens. It is the twelfth-oldest zoo in the United States.
  • 1895: The New Bedford Textile School opens to keep up with the evolving technology of textile manufacturing. This school eventually led to the formation of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
  • 1898: Butler Flats Light Station is established.


  • 1915: The first Feast of the Blessed Sacrament takes place in New Bedford. Organized by four Madeiran immigrants who wanted to recreate the religious festivals that were so common in the villages of their home. Today, the feast is the largest Portuguese Feast in the world.
  • 1916: New Bedford Whaling Museum, established in 1903 under the operation of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, opens to the public.
  • 1923: Zeiterion Theatre opens. The theatre, a two-story adaption of the Georgian Revival style, was home to live vaudeville performances. The “palace for the people” as the founders called it, was adorned with silk tapestry on the walls, a frieze of gold leaf Grecian dancing muses, a large oval sunset scene on the ceiling, and a cut glass Czechoslovakian chandelier.
  • 1928: The New Bedford Textile Strike lasts several months over a proposed 10% wage cut for workers. Workers demanded a 20% wage increase and a 40-hour work week.
  • 1938: The first freezing and storage plant for flounder opens in the city. The Seafood Producers Association is created to promote New Bedford as a major fishing center. Labor is organized under the New Bedford Fisherman’s Union and the Fish Lumper’s Union. Also in the late 1930s, New Bedford is the center of the growing sea scallop fishery.
  • 1952: New Bedford lands 85% of sea scallops caught nationally.
  • 1958: The first Scallop Festival is held on Pope’s Island, produced by the New Bedford Seafood Council and New Bedford Exchange Club.
  • 1966: New Bedford’s first Historic District is designated, one of the earliest National Historic Landmarks designated by the Secretary of the Interior. The New Bedford Historic District is located downtown with most of its buildings erected between 1790 and 1855 in Federal and Greek Revival architectural styles, reflecting the legacy of the whaling era.
  • 1984: New Bedford is the number one fishing port in the nation by value of landings.
  • 1996: The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and The New Bedford Historical Society are established. The Whaling National Historical Park is maintained by the National Park Service and includes the entire New Bedford Historic District.


  • The New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center opens its doors to the public. The center is dedicated to preserving and presenting the story of the fishing industry's past, present, and future through exhibits, programs, and archives.


  • On April 24, the Abolition Row Historic District is designated, located across from the Nathan and Polly Johnson House on Seventh Street.

The Future of Our City

New Bedford has been at the forefront of technology and innovation since its founding. Today, the city continues to focus on initiatives that ensure a thriving, self-sustaining community. 

Read more about New Bedford’s resilience plan and organizations that are leading the charge toward a sustainable future at these links:

  • – The New Bedford Office of Environmental Stewardship supports the city’s efforts towards a more resilient New Bedford.
  • – The New Bedford Ocean Cluster serves to attract investment in the Port of New Bedford and to support the growth of ocean economy businesses. Their focus is on sustainable practices for aquaculture, commercial fishing and processing, offshore renewable energy, and innovation and technology that support local job growth and opportunities in New Bedford.
  • – A collaborative platform that allows for a broad cross-section of private sector community leaders to shape, advocate, and tangibly advance a strategy of sustainable and shared growth for New Bedford.

Featured Topics


Around 1780, William Rotch, Jr., a Nantucket Quaker moved to Bedford Village. Rotch was the owner of the first whale oil ship, the Dartmouth, to be launched in Bedford Village. She was one of the vessels boarded by the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when Francis, son of Joseph Rotch, as managing owner, protested the loss of his cargo.

In the 19th Century New Bedford gained worldwide reputation as the greatest whaling port and the richest city per capita in the world. Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants formed the backbone of the whaling industry, on the wharves and on the high seas. Herman Melville shipped out aboard the whale ship, Acushnet, in 1841. His experiences inspired him to write “Moby-Dick”.

More Info:
Descendents of Whaling Masters

The Melville Society
New Bedford Port Society
Fort Taber Historical Association, Inc.
Azorean Maritime Heritage Society

Textile Industry

New Bedford’s first mill for the manufacture of cotton cloth was opened in 1846. After the turn of the century New Bedford became one of the largest producers of cotton yarns and textiles in the country, and led all centers in quality and quantity output of fine goods. Around 1920, at the height of prosperity, there were twenty-eight cotton establishments, operating seventy mills and employing 41,380 workers. The mills attracted immigrant populations from countries included but not limited to Poland, French Canada and Portugal.

The Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass

In the days of anti-slavery agitation, the people of New Bedford showed a practical sympathy for fugitive slaves. The town was noted as one of the major “stations” of the “Underground Railroad,” which was not a railroad at all, but merely an undercover system, to provide refuge for fugitives. The most famous fugitive to settle in New Bedford was Frederick Douglass, noted abolitionist orator and leader, who lived here from 1838 to 1841. Abolitionist, Lewis Temple, opened a blacksmithing shop, which primarily serviced the whaling fleet. In 1848, Temple invented the toggle-head harpoon, which revolutionized the whaling industry.

More info:
New Bedford Historical Society

Notable Residents

James Arnold

Whaling merchant, whose estate is now known as the Wamsutta Club in New Bedford. Donated his fortune to create the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

Clifford Warren Ashley

Author, sailor, and artist, most famous for “The Ashley Book of Knots”, an encyclopedic reference manual, copiously illustrated, on the tying of thousands of knots. He invented Ashley’s stopper knot.

Albert Bierstadt

19th century German-born artist whose depictions of the American West were well known throughout the country.

Paul Cuffee

Merchant, philanthropist and civil rights activist.

William Greenleaf Eliot

Co-founder and benefactor of Washington University of St. Louis. Grandfather of T. S. Eliot.

Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green

The “Witch of Wall Street”. Was the wealthiest woman in the world.

Henry Grinnell:

Successful businessman who financed the outfitting of two vessels, the Advance and the Rescue, to search the Arctic for the lost Franklin Expedition.


Captain Henry M. Robert:

Wrote Robert’s Rules of Order in New Bedford, the standard rules for conducting meetings.


Benjamin Russell

Artist best known for his accurate watercolors of whaling ships.


Albert Pinkham Ryder

19th century painter best known for his poetic and moody allegorical works and seascapes, as well as his eccentric personality.

Lewis Temple

Innovator of the whaling industry through his invention the Temple Toggle Iron.

William Carney

First African American to receive the Medal of Honor for his action at Fort Wagner during the Civil War.

Mary “Polly Johnson

One of the preeminent abolitionists and confectioners in 19th century New Bedford.

Frederick Douglass

A powerful orator, writer, and political figure who fought for the rights of all races and genders. New Bedford was his first home as a freeman.

Henrietta “Hetty” Green

Once the wealthiest woman in the world, Hetty Green earned the name “Witch of Wall Street” for her investments in the stock market. At the time of her passing in the mid-1900s, her fortune was estimated to be $17 billion in today’s dollars.