New Bedford is a city in Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 95,072, making it the sixth-largest city in Massachusetts. New Bedford is nicknamed "The Whaling City" because during the 19th century, the city was one of the most important, if not the most important, of whaling and fishing ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut. The city, along with Fall River and Taunton, make up the three largest cities in the South Coast region of Massachusetts. The Greater Providence-Fall River-New Bedford area is home to the largest Portuguese-American community in the United States.
Before the 17th century, the Wampanoags, who had settlements throughout southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, were the only inhabitants of the lands along the Acushnet River. Their population is believed to have been about 12,000. While exploring New England, Bartholomew Gosnold landed on Cuttyhunk island on May 15, 1602. From there, he explored Cape Cod and the neighboring areas, including present-day New Bedford. However, rather than settle the area, he returned to England at the request of his crew.
Europeans first settled New Bedford in 1652. Plymouth Colony settlers purchased the land from chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. Whether the transfer of the land was legitimately done has been the subject of intense controversy. Like other native tribes, the Wampanoags did not share the settlers' concepts of private property. The tribe may have believed they were granting usage rights to the land, not giving it up permanently.
The settlers used the land to build the colonial town of Old Dartmouth (which encompassed not only present-day Dartmouth, but also present-day New Bedford, Acushnet, Fairhaven, and Westport). A section of Old Dartmouth near the west bank of the Acushnet River, originally called Bedford Village, was officially incorporated as the town of New Bedford in 1787. The name was suggested by the Russell family who were prominent citizens of the community. It comes from the fact that the Dukes of Bedford, a leading English aristocratic house, also bore the surname Russell. (Bedford, Massachusetts had already been incorporated by 1787; hence "New" Bedford.)
The late-18th century was a time of growth for the town. New Bedford's first newspaper, The Medley (also known as New Bedford Marine Journal), came into being in 1792. On June 12, 1792, the town set up its first post office with William Tobey as its first postmaster. The construction of a bridge (originally a toll bridge) between New Bedford and present-day Fairhaven in 1796 also spurred growth. (Fairhaven separated from New Bedford in 1812, forming an independent town that included both present-day Fairhaven and present-day Acushnet.) The town of New Bedford officially became a city in 1847; Abraham Hathaway Howland was elected its first mayor. At approximately the same time, New Bedford began to supplant Nantucket as the nation's preeminent whaling port, thanks to its deeper harbor and location on the mainland. Whaling dominated the economy of the city for much of the century.
Immigration to New Bedford
Until 1800, New Bedford and its surrounding communities were, by and large, populated by Protestants of English, Scottish, and Welsh origin. During the first half of the 19th century, however, a large wave of Irish people came to Massachusetts.
In 1818, Irish immigrants established the Catholic mission that built St. Mary's Church. Later in that century, immigrants from Portugal and its dependent territories of the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira began arriving in New Bedford and the surrounding area, largely because of the whaling industry. As the Portuguese community began to increase, they established the first Portuguese parish in the city, St. John the Baptist (1871). The French (chiefly French-Canadian) also secured a foothold in New Bedford at about the same time, and they built the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1877.
Similarly, Polish-Americans established the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in 1903. A number of Jewish families, arriving in the late 19th century, were active in the whaling industry, selling provisions and outfitting ships. During the years leading up to the First World War, a sizable eastern-European Jewish community joined them in New Bedford, many of whom became prominent merchants and businessmen, mainly in textiles and manufacturing.
Industrial development and prosperity
Paul Cuffee, a whaling captain active in the New Bedford whaling industry, was born in nearby Cuttyhunk and settled in Westport, Massachusetts. Many of his ships sailed out of New Bedford.
Lewis Temple was an African-American blacksmith who invented the toggle iron, a type of toggling harpoon, which revolutionized the whaling industry and enabled the capture of more whales. There is a monument to Temple in downtown New Bedford.
In 1838, Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave who became a famous abolitionist, settled in New Bedford. He writes in detail about the life and times of New Bedford in the late 1840s in his celebrated Autobiography. A historic building and monument dedicated to Douglass can be found today at the Nathan and Polly Johnson properties.
Frederick Douglass was not the only fugitive slave or freedman to see New Bedford as a welcoming place to settle. New Bedford had a small but thriving African-American community during the antebellum period. It was the home of a number of members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an American Civil War regiment which fought, with considerable distinction, to preserve the Union. The 54th Massachusetts was the first regiment in the country's history formed entirely by African-American troops (who served with white officers). The most famous of these soldiers was William Harvey Carney, who made sure that the American flag never touched the ground during the Union assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, near Charleston. There is an elementary school in New Bedford named in his honor.
Bishop "Sweet Daddy" Grace, a native of Brava, Cape Verde, was a New Bedford resident who founded the United House of Prayer for All People, one of the largest African-American sects in America. He is buried in New Bedford.
Other historical instances
In 1847, the New Bedford Horticultural Society was begun by James Arnold.