New Bedford HistoryThe original settlement was called Dartmouth (1652), purchased by Bartholomew Gosnold from Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and his eldest son, Wamsutta . After Massasoit's death in 1661, his youngest son, called King Philip by the settlers vowing to rid the settlement of Englishmen began the year long King Philip's War which destroyed all the houses in the settlement and virtually wiped out the Wampanoags. Following the war, Quakers and Baptists, seeking religious freedom from the persecution of the Puritans settled in the forests which later became New Bedford.
Dartmouth encompassed today's New Bedford, Fairhaven and Acushnet (then called Bedford), Westport, and Dartmouth. In 1787, Dartmouth was divided. In the early 1700's the land now occupied by New Bedford was owned by only two families- the Joseph Russell family and the Ephram Kempton family. Joseph Rotch from Nantucket purchased land in New Bedford, brought his whaling experience, capital and technology to the area. Whaling which began by the native Indians in canoes who sought the "right whales", so called because they were the right ones to catch and the name remains to this day. They were so named because these whales would feed on the surface and float when dead making them easy prey. Settlers adopted whaling, but soon had to venture far from shore as the whale population decreased. (From numbering in the thousands, their population today has decreased to a just over 300 and are now a protected species.) By the 1800's the small village of New Bedford had grown into a thriving cosmopolitan city becoming the most successful whaling port in the world. The world's insatiable appetite for whale oil attracted shipwrights, shop owners, bankers and businessmen, captains and crews, all anxious to participate in the wealth and excitement generated in this Capital of Whaling. New Bedford became known as the Whaling City in the 19th century, supplying the world with whale oil, used in lamps for lighting. New Bedford became the richest city per capita in the world. The whaling industry, worth approximately $12 million with 329 whaling vessels employed over 10,000 men. New Bedford dominated the whaling industry because, it had an excellent harbor, and unlike Nantucket, was located on the mainland, with access to railroad transportation. The sea captains built large homes that still adorn the city today. The book and movie, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville depicts the tortuous life of the whalemen whose trips often lasted an average of five years. The longest voyage was twelve years. During the Civil War, many whaling vessels were lost as they were sunk in an unsuccessful attempt to blockade Charleston and Savanna Harbors. Others, caught and crushed in Arctic waters also contributed to the death of the industry. The last whaling voyage ended on August 20, 1925, when the Wanderer broke up in a storm at Cuttyhunk Island, part of the Elizabeth Island chain, 12 miles east of New Bedford. In 1941, the only surviving New Bedford Whaler, "Charles W. Morgan", launched in New Bedford 100 years earlier was sold to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
New Bedford whaling reached its peak in 1857, then gradually declined. By 1900, the whaling industry had collapsed due in part to the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1854. Kerosene and natural gas had replaced whale oil . Also the industrial revolution's great demand for lubricants could not be met by whale oil. The banks and counting houses were vacated for new locations away from the waterfront. Following the demise of the whaling industry, the area became the center of the emerging textile industry which filled the city with textile mills and three decker tenement houses and lured hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to the city. Today, the majority of its residents trace their ancestory to Portugal and the Azores drawn here by whaling and textile manufacturing. It has the largest Portugese population in the U.S.. By 1900, New Bedford had become the world's largest manufacturer of fine cotton goods. Wamsutta Mill was one of seventy operations in the city. By 1924, the textile industry employed nearly one-half the New Bedford labor force, more than 41,000 workers. The word, "wamsutta" appeared in American dictionaries defined as "fine cotton cloth woven in New Bedford, MA. The world famous New Bedford Textile School was established in 1898, and evolved into UMASS, Dartmouth. A depression in the early 1920's and a prolonged strike in 1928 hastened the industries demise. Over 20,000 workers were on strike for six months over drastic wage cuts imposed by mill owners. By 1929, twenty-four mills had shut down. Others moved to find cheaper labor in the South and in 1958 the Wamsutta- oldest of them all, closed its doors forever. Concern over the employment of children in the New Bedford and other city textile mills in the early 1900's brought about the child labor laws enacted in 1911 and 1912. In 1861, Samual Morse developed his world famous twist drill and established the Morse Cutting Tools which functioned until 1990 and was demolished in 1997. When the textile factories moved south, the area turned to diversified manufacturing, however, the fishing industry has always thrived. New Bedford has been the richest fishing port in the Northeast for years.
As old buildings and blight gave way to urban renewal and modern structures, the citizens realized that beneath the decaying waterfront district was a character and sense of power and pride that whaling created which no new edifice could ever hope to preserve, thus the New Bedford Historical Park was born. Through perseverance and dedication, the character of the buildings has been meticulously restored as well as the pride and vitality that makes the waterfront district as exciting as it was in the 1850's.