Summary of History of New Bedford


This book tells the story of New Bedford, Massachusetts, starting with its discovery by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. The town, originally a part of Dartmouth, was incorporated in 1787. Early settlers, primarily focused on agriculture, slowly began developing the whaling industry, which ultimately led New Bedford to become the world’s leading whaling port in the 19th century.

However, the whaling industry declined due to the discovery of petroleum and the devastation caused by Confederate cruisers during the Civil War. The city shifted its focus to cotton manufacturing, and by the end of the 19th century, New Bedford had become a major textile manufacturing center, holding the title of the largest cotton mill city in the United States. The book provides a detailed account of these transformations, chronicling the lives and contributions of prominent individuals, industries, organizations, and institutions throughout the city’s history.


  • Bartholomew Gosnold discovered the Acushnet River in 1602. He described the area as having “stately groves, flowery meadows, and running brooks.”
  • The town of Dartmouth was purchased from the Indian Sachem Massasoit and his son Wamsutta in 1652. The purchase was divided into thirty-four shares and records of the owners are still available.
  • The town of Dartmouth was incorporated in 1664. The town sent its first representative, John Russell, to the General Court at Plymouth.
  • The township of Dartmouth was devastated by Indians during King Philip’s War (1675). The demoralization was so complete that taxes were suspended for three years and settlers were relieved of other burdens.
  • The village of Bedford was named in honor of the Duke of Bedford. The name was later changed to New Bedford because there was another Bedford in the colony.
  • Joseph Rotch, an enterprising merchant from Nantucket, settled in New Bedford in 1765. His arrival brought capital, business experience, and initiative to the developing whaling industry.
  • The ship “Dartmouth,” built in New Bedford in 1767, was one of the tea ships boarded by the “Tea Party” in Boston Harbor. The ship later was employed in whaling.
  • The ship “Bedford,” built in New Bedford, was the first vessel to display the American flag in British waters. This occurred in 1783 after the American Revolutionary War.
  • The British invasion of New Bedford in 1778 resulted in the destruction of many of the village’s stores, warehouses, and ships. The damage was estimated at over a half million dollars.
  • The “Stone Fleet” consisted of forty-five ships, twenty-four of which were purchased from New Bedford owners. These ships were filled with stone ballast and sunk at the mouth of southern harbors to block blockade runners.
  • The discovery of petroleum doomed the whaling industry. Though attempts were made to extend the use of sperm oil, the decline was inevitable.
  • The largest and richest catch of ambergris ever reported was taken by the bark “Splendid” in 1882. This amounted to 983 pounds, which sold for $125,000.
  • The “Union,” a Nantucket whaleship, was sunk by an enraged sperm whale in 1807. The incident serves as a reminder of the inherent dangers of whaling.
  • The “Ann Alexander,” a New Bedford whaler, was attacked and sunk by a whale in 1851. The whale was later captured by the “Rebecca Simms” and pieces of the “Ann Alexander” were found embedded in its head.
  • Captain George Fred Tilton walked 3,000 miles across Alaska to reach civilization after his whaling fleet was trapped in the ice pack off Point Barrow in 1898. He carried a message that saved the lives of the remaining whalers.
  • A smallpox epidemic in 1871 aboard the “Belvedere” nearly wiped out the whaling fleet, but Captain Tilton navigated the ship through the ice pack under sail and returned with a rich catch. This was accomplished after the ship’s propeller was lost.
  • New Bedford played a vital role in supplying troops and funds for the Union cause during the Civil War. The city furnished over 3,200 men for military service and donated large sums of money to support war efforts.
  • The “Alabama” and the “Shenandoah” burned a total of twenty-five New Bedford whalers. This had a significant impact on the city’s economy.


  • In 1652, the township of Dartmouth was purchased from the Indians and divided into thirty-four shares.
  • In 1778, the British invasion of New Bedford destroyed property valued at over £105,000 (over $500,000 today).
  • The Stone Fleet consisted of forty-five vessels, with a total tonnage of 10,380. This fleet required approximately 7,500 tons of stone ballast.
  • In 1841, the estimated value of the ships and outfits in the national whale fishery was $20,120,000.
  • In 1841, the annual proceeds to the owners in the whale fishery, exclusive of interest and insurance charges, were estimated at $5,151,316.
  • In 1845, New Bedford registered a tonnage of 233,262, making it the fourth largest tonnage district in the United States.
  • The bark “Splendid” captured an ambergris-laden sperm whale that yielded 983 pounds of ambergris, which sold for $125,000.
  • In 1871, thirty-two New Bedford whaleships were abandoned in the Arctic ocean. This loss was estimated at $1,090,000.
  • In 1916, 3,259,793 spindles were operating in New Bedford’s cotton mills, the largest number in the United States. This number represented an increase of 244,942 spindles over the previous year.
  • New Bedford had a population of approximately 16,000 in 1846.
  • In 1916, the total assessed valuation of New Bedford was $113,121,793.
  • The city of New Bedford had 54 school buildings in 1916.
  • The New Bedford Free Public Library had 160,000 volumes and 40,000 pictures in 1916.
  • The combined capital of manufacturing companies in New Bedford other than cotton mills was estimated at $5,730,000 in 1916.
  • In 1916, the total value of the whaling catch in New Bedford was $180,000.


  • Sconticut Neck: A peninsula on the east side of the Acushnet River in New Bedford.
  • Clark’s Point: A point of land on the south side of the Acushnet River, where the almshouse was located.
  • The Cove: A small cove near Clark’s Point.
  • Horse Neck: A peninsula on the west side of the Acushnet River, where Timothy Tallman’s farm was located.
  • Padanaram: A village in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on the west side of the Acushnet River, where Elihu Akins’s farm was located.
  • Smith Mills: A village in New Bedford, on the west side of the Acushnet River, where the Kemptons had their mills.
  • Try House: A structure used for processing whale blubber.
  • Whaleboat: A small boat specifically designed for whaling.
  • Privateer: A privately owned ship authorized by a government to attack enemy ships during wartime.
  • Toggle Iron: A type of harpoon used in whaling.


  • The “Boston Tea Party”: This event involved the boarding and destruction of the ship “Dartmouth,” built in New Bedford, in Boston Harbor.
  • The “Stone Fleet”: This project saw a fleet of forty-five vessels, filled with stone ballast, sail from New Bedford to be sunk in southern harbors.
  • The “Alabama” Claims: Confederate cruisers, such as the “Alabama,” attacked and destroyed American whalers. The government later paid out claims for these losses.
  • The “Ark” Riots: The “Ark,” an old whaling hulk, became a notorious den of vice and crime, which ultimately resulted in citizens destroying the structure twice.
  • The “Great Gale” of 1815: This storm caused widespread damage in New Bedford, including the destruction of the Bedford-Fairhaven bridge and the loss of sixteen vessels.
  • The “Cold Day” of 1821: The temperature dropped to 12 degrees below zero in New Bedford.
  • The Dudley Davenport Fire: This fire, which occurred in 1848, devastated a large carpenter shop.
  • The “Liberty Hall” Fire: This fire, which occurred in 1854, destroyed a historic building used for lectures, political meetings, and entertainment.
  • The “Howland Street” Riot: This riot in 1856 saw the destruction of a building on Howland Street.
  • The “Great Fire” of 1859: This fire, the largest in the city’s history, destroyed buildings, ships, and cargoes of oil, resulting in a loss of over $250,000.
  • The “Cumberland” Sinking: Lieutenant William P. Randall of New Bedford was one of the officers on board the “Cumberland” when it was sunk by the “Merrimac” in 1862.
  • Sergeant William H. Carney’s actions at Fort Wagner: During the attack on Fort Wagner, Sergeant Carney, a New Bedford man, saved the regimental flag after the color bearer was disabled.
  • Captain George Fred Tilton’s 3,000-mile walk across Alaska: This occurred in 1898 to bring a message to civilization after his whaling fleet was trapped in the ice pack.
  • Captain George O. Baker’s escape from the Confederate cruiser “Shenandoah”: Baker and his crew were captured and forced to swear oaths of allegiance to the Confederacy before they were released.

This information provides a comprehensive overview of the history of New Bedford, showcasing its unique story of transformation and resilience. Click here to learn more

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