Modern history


The Newer Bedford

Dartmouth was still a quiet backwater of independent farmers, fishermen, and a few carpenters and blacksmiths, with no unifying central industry, when Joseph Rotch left Nantucket in 1765 with the intention of establishing a whaling port somewhere on the mainland. He had centered his search along the coast of Buzzards Bay, conveniently close to both Nantucket and Boston. The Acushnet River, running into the bay’s north shore from far inland, was wide and deep enough to accommodate a squadron of large ships, but arms of land at the river’s mouth formed a sheltered, landlocked harbor. There were long, straight stretches of river shoreline on which to build wharves and shipping facilities. Woods offering fine lengths of timber—completely absent in Nantucket—with which to build ships, houses, a port, and all its trimmings, lay in all directions.

Some whaling had been carried on here, though when Rotch arrived it was almost a hundred years behind Nantucket in its development. Eighty whaleships sailed from Nantucket in 1756, while “several” set out from Dartmouth at about the same time. A rough map from this period shows only one structure on the western shore of the Acushnet, the site of present-day New Bedford. This was the “try house” belonging to one Joseph Russell, who was using the place as a base from which to send out whaleships, and to process their cargoes when these vessels returned home laden with hogsheads of blubber. His ancestor, John Russell, son of settler Ralph, had been the township’s first representative at the General Court at Plymouth after Dartmouth’s incorporation in 1664. Joseph Russell—the third of that name—had acquired a large parcel of land along the Acushnet’s western bank. In 1760, he sold some of this land to John Loudon, a boat-caulker, who intended to set up his own boatyard; the next year, Benjamin Taber bought a site and erected a shed for boatbuilding and block-making; and house carpenter John Allen bought land nearby and built a house. In 1762, Elnathan Sampson, a blacksmith from Wareham, bought a site south of John Loudon’s place.

Rotch first tried to buy land on the east bank of the Acushnet—the town of Fairhaven today—but here, too, lay an existing “try house and oyl shed” whose owner was unwilling to sell. Unable to secure the shore rights he wanted there, Rotch paddled across the river and bought up a large parcel from Joseph Russell. He soon employed the skills of his neighbors, and the names Loudon, Taber, Allen, Sampson, Russell, and Rotch became hallmarks in the whaling business that grew here.

Rotch’s timing was pure kismet. He brought money and boldness to Dartmouth, but history made an alchemy with these. Whale products as illuminants and lubricants were relatively new and scarce at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Lighting and lubrication were still supplied by products that had served adequately for millennia. Sponge-like mosses soaked in animal fat placed in shells or stones were being used as lamps at least seventy thousand years ago. Palm, olive, and fish oils were used in lamps in China and Egypt long before Homeric times (though not generally in the Middle East or in Greece: torches are specified throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey). Tallow was the mother of all greases. Tubs of it were at hand throughout history, to swab every moving mechanism, from chariot wheels to guillotines. Easily made from the chopped-up, boiled-down, waxy white protective suet fat packed around the kidneys and loins of cattle, sheep, and horses, tallow had long been abundant. It worked well. It made soaps and candles. There was no need for anything else until, in the eighteenth century, everything changed—first, and most profoundly, in Britain.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain’s colonies in Virginia and New England, as well as in India, the West Indies, and Australasia, were beginning to produce great quantities of raw material such as cotton, coffee, tea, sugar, spices, lumber, fur, and slaves. In return, the colonists and their growing towns and cities, and, by extension through trade, the colonies’ natives—Indians, with their desire for metal and cloth—became an insatiable market for British and European manufactured goods. At home, Britain was discovering huge deposits of coal and iron ore beneath its ancient landscape. Throughout the eighteenth century, there was a merging of these and many other things. In 1709, the process that produced pig iron by smelting iron ore with coke and limestone in a blast furnace was perfected. Pig iron was the raw material for the great clanking wheels, the blocks, the levers, the pistons, and all the wheezing, racing machinery that was about to convert Britain from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The inventions of the fly shuttle, the spinning jenny, and the power loom transformed the discrete, homely, truly cottage industries of spinning and weaving into William Blake’s dark satanic mills and factories that sprang up like brick toadstools all over England’s pewter-gray, mineral-rich Midlands. Threshing machines made large numbers of farmworkers redundant; parliamentary acts governing land enclosure forced people off the land and into growing cities, looking for work. They lived in wretched urban warrens that shocked contemporary observers who were bold enough to look through the doorways, and they bred like rabbits. Britain’s population doubled in the eighteenth century. Light was needed in every hovel and home, shop and factory, and in the lamps of miners; and the gears and machinery of the Industrial Revolution would require millions of barrels of lubrication.

A lamp using a wick burning whale oil was found to be far superior to a flickering, smoky, tallow candle. Sperm oil proved even better, a brilliant, clear, nonsmoking illuminant. Lighthouses, once lit by braziers holding wood and coal fires, sprouted up everywhere once the technique of interlocking granite stones allowed them to be built on rocky outcrops at sea, and in the eighteenth century they were increasingly lit by sperm oil.

The new, faster-moving machines exposed the weakness of tallow: it lost its chemical stability when subjected to the heat and friction of high speeds. As machinery improved, better lubricants were sought and tried. The grease made from whale oil degraded at a much slower rate. Sperm oil, especially, retained its consistency and properties under conditions of extreme friction and temperature, and became highly valued as a lubricant of faster-running and increasingly fine and sophisticated machinery, from watches and clocks to high-speed textile machinery.

The impact of this scientific advance on the whale fishery in America was swift and far-reaching. Thomas Hutchinson, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1749, later (1771-1774) royal governor of the colony, wrote in his history of Massachusetts, first published in 1765: “The increase of the consumption of oil by lamps as well as by divers manufacturies in Europe has been no small encouragement to our whale-fishery. The flourishing state of the island of Nantucket must be attributed to it. The . . . whale fishery, being the principal source of our returns to Great Britain, [is] therefore worthy not only of provincial but national attention.”

The mid-eighteenth century was a period of rising fortunes in America, and spermaceti candles—brilliant, smokeless, but expensive—quickly became the preferred illuminant for those who could afford them. George Washington, who burned perhaps a dozen spermaceti candles a night at Mount Vernon, figured the cost to him at about £100 per year, a sizable lighting bill for those days. In 1761, the Reverend Edward Holyoke, president of Harvard, who appears to have been thrift-minded, computed that even if he burned the cheapest tallow candles, it was costing him £40 a year to light his house.

Lighting quickly became big business. The production of spermaceti candles became such a coveted industry that it gave rise to the first attempts at monopoly and price-fixing in America, by a cabal of merchants who sought to break Nantucket’s control over the whaling industry. The manufacture of spermaceti candles, from the waxy “headmatter” found in the headcase of the sperm whale, was at first an industrial secret, pioneered by Benjamin Crabb, of Rehoboth, Rhode Island. In 1749, Crabb petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for, and was granted, the sole right to manufacture candles of “Sperma Caeti Oyle” in the colony. He didn’t take up his grant in Massachusetts, however, but moved to Rhode Island, where he set up a candle-making operation for a Providence merchant, Obadiah Brown. Though Crabb and Brown tried to keep secret the details of their process, by 1760 there were perhaps a dozen spermaceti candle-making businesses in New England. Most of these were in Rhode Island. In 1761, in order to avoid cutthroat competition among themselves, and to discourage others, Brown and a group of eight other merchant firms formed the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers. This “Spermaceti Trust,” as it has been called, attempted to control the purchase (mostly from Nantucket) and distribution (among themselves, or for sale to London or Boston) of headmatter, and establish a minimum price for the sale of all spermaceti candles.

Three of the nine firms party to this agreement, and six of the twenty-six individuals representing them, were Jews who had come to America seeking, like the Puritans, freedom from religious persecution. They not only had found that freedom, but also had become among America’s wealthiest and most successful merchants. The great leveler of the transatlantic passage, and the emphasis in America on what a man was capable of doing, rather than who he might claim to be, meant that rank in the colonies was determined almost solely by achievement rather than by any other baggage or perception of worth. The rising merchant class was, from the beginning, the aristocracy in America, and men like Aaron and Moses Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island, became its princes.

Brothers José and Duarte Lopez, ethnic Jews who maintained an outward devotion to Catholicism, had grown up in Portugal. As in many other times and places, assimilation was no protection. One of these “New Christians,” as Jews who had converted to Catholicism during and after the Inquisition were called, the playwright António José da Silva, known as “O Judeo”—the Jew—was garroted and burned in public in Lisbon on October 19, 1739, because of his ethnic origin. By that time, José Lopez had already fled, first to England, then to America. Duarte joined him there in 1752, at the age of twenty-one, bringing with him from Portugal his wife and daughter. In America both men openly embraced Judaism for the first time in their lives, underwent circumcision, and formally adopted the names Moses (José) and Aaron (Duarte).

Though Moses first traveled to New York, he soon relocated in Newport. That town, famously blessed with an excellent natural harbor, had become one of colonial America’s major commercial seaports by 1750, its waterfront lined with wharves and warehouses. Newport was home to a large group of “merchant grandees” and was an important market for slaves newly arrived from Guinea and other African coasts. Aaron Lopez joined his brother there.

Their timing was propitious. England’s desire to see settlers in America encouraged even Jewish immigrants. In 1740, Parliament passed an act granting the right of naturalization to every foreign-born Protestant or Jew who resided in its American colonies for at least seven years. Jews were even exempted from the requirements of receiving Anglican Communion, and from taking an oath of allegiance “upon the true faith of a Christian.” (The needs were not the same at home in England: when a similar—domestic—act was passed in 1753, granting naturalization to Jews residing there, so great was the public outcry that the “Jew Bill” was quickly repealed.) But the colonies were not without bigotry, particularly aimed at Jews. Moses Lopez was naturalized in New York in 1741, but when Aaron applied for naturalization in Rhode Island twenty years later (the same year he formed the Spermaceti Trust), he was refused. Rhode Island’s legislators informed him that the intention of the parliamentary naturalization act had been to increase the number of inhabitants in the colonies, now deemed sufficient in number, and to propagate the Christian views with which the colony had been settled. Aaron Lopez’s friend Ezra Stiles, later the president of Yale, commented at the time: “Providence seems to make everything to work for mortification to the Jews, and to prevent their incorporating into any nation; that thus they . . . continue a distinct people.” A year later, after becoming temporarily resident in Swansea, Massachusetts, Aaron was naturalized in Massachusetts as a British subject.

Thirty years old in 1761, Aaron Lopez was a leading figure in the Spermaceti Trust, and one of America’s most successful businessmen. His mercantile interests ranged far beyond candle-making. He was brokering and shipping pewter, indigo, sugar, tea, coffee, molasses, rum, chocolate, and soap. Many of these items he shipped to his premier “headmatter” suppliers in Nantucket, Joseph Rotch and his son, William, who sold these in their stores there. He also bought, imported, and traded slaves, and owned ships that carried them to America from Africa. Aaron Lopez’s residence and business establishments on Newport’s Thames Street were impressive. By the 1770s, he owned at least twenty sailing vessels, and had survived vicissitudes of business that had reduced many of his former partners. But the Spermaceti Trust did not last for more than a few years and was unable to break the de facto monopoly that Nantucket then enjoyed over all whaling-related enterprises. This was due as much to the intractable nature and determination of the Nantucket Quakers as to any other advantage they enjoyed—all of which stemmed in large part from that nature and determination. Henry Lloyd, one of Aaron Lopez’s trust partners in Boston, advised him:

I must caution you against being too nice [or] critical with the Nantucket men, for I can assure you that nothing can be done with them. . . . The only way is to make the best terms you can with them, whenever you have occasion to purchase; but tis in vain to attempt to tye them down to any measures they don’t like.

The Nantucketers didn’t like supremacy in another group. In 1770, William Rotch opened Nantucket’s first spermaceti candle-making manufactory, at the head of Straight Wharf in the town harbor, and Rhode Island’s momentary lock on the candle business was over. But in the Lopez brothers and their Jewish partners in the Spermaceti Trust—Jacob Rodriguez Rivera and the Hart brothers (Naphtali, Samuel, Abram, and Isaac)—the Quaker Rotches had discovered formidable rivals and dependable trading partners. They felt comfortable dealing with a clannish group held together by shared religious convictions and habits. They understood the desire for mercantile protectionism as had perhaps no other group since the Hanseatic League monopolized trade in northern Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. In two centuries of Quaker dominance in the American whale fishery, the Jews of Newport were the only rivals the Quakers ever recognized as true peers.

Had he lived long enough, Aaron Lopez might have figured larger in the growth of the whaling industry, possibly in New Bedford after Joseph Rotch made his move there in 1765, or in the development of Newport—already a thriving international seaport when New Bedford was an isolated backwater—into a serious competitor. While Lopez and his family were visiting Providence in May 1782, the horse drawing him in a sulky (a light, two-wheeled carriage) veered too deeply into a pond, and the sulky began to sink. Lopez, aged fifty-one, who had never learned to swim, drowned in full view of his wife and children, who sat in another carriage on the nearby shore.

FOR ABOUT A CENTURY, from the 1750s to the 1850s, American whaling perfectly matched and complemented a rapidly changing world. The Industrial Revolution was greased by whale oil. It in turn drove the productivity and evolution of the whale fishery to its greatest heights. Joseph Rotch’s relocation to Dartmouth came in tandem with this exponentially growing market for whale oil across the Atlantic—where most of the oil produced in America was then shipped.

Only four whaling vessels—owned by Joseph Russell, his brother Caleb, and a William Tallman—sailed to and from the try houses and “oyl” sheds on the Acushnet in 1765, the year Rotch arrived. Within ten years there were eighty ships, averaging eighty-one tons, operating out of Dartmouth, mostly from the west (New Bedford) bank of the Acushnet, and nearly all of them had been built there. Nantucket was still the industry leader, with 145 whaleships sailing from its harbor in 1775, but Dartmouth had become America’s second-largest whaling port and was growing at a rate never seen in Nantucket. Boston, for all its merchants, money, ties to London, and long-established infrastructure, was a distant third—all these many Bostonian concerns were the discrete businesses of many, rather than, as in New Bedford and Nantucket, the single preoccupation of an entire population.

Most of the oil that landed in New England was shipped on to London. The early Nantucket whalers had sold their oil to Boston merchants, who simply transferred the barrels to their own ships and sailed them to England, at great profit. But, as with candle-making, the Nantucketers saw no need to hand the raw materials of a profitable business to someone else. In 1745, a Nantucket ship was sent to London in an attempt to bypass the Boston middlemen. The trip was doubly successful, for after the sale was made, the ship returned laden with British iron, hardware, hemp rope, sailcloth, and various other goods needed at home. American whaling merchants quickly built and began using their own “merchantmen” to take cargoes directly from the wharves in Nantucket and Dartmouth to London’s dockyards, and to return, often by way of the West Indies, carrying sugar and molasses. Joseph Rotch’s first large ship built on the shore of the future New Bedford was not a whaler but a merchantman, intended for this transatlantic trade. Her keel was laid under a grove of buttonwood trees beside the Acushnet, and he christened her Dartmouth.

This secondary trade further spurred the growth along Dartmouth’s waterfront, which proceeded at a pace not seen before on American shores. Wharves, sheds, houses, and roads were quickly built along the Acushnet’s west bank. Workmen from all over Massachusetts and their families arrived and settled. The area boomed with the raw ugliness of a gold-rush town. Local sawmills processed immense quantities of timber into lumber for ships and the unpainted houses that appeared up and down the river’s west bank. The hill rising inland from the former lonely Russell tryworks—that now rises across the river from the Moby Dick Marina in Fairhaven, carrying traffic along I-195 between Cape Cod and Providence—and the woods on the Russell homestead were clear-cut, left stump-pocked, muddy, and scarred as tree trunks were dragged down to the river by teams of oxen. The noises of many businesses—the clanging of blacksmiths, the kerf-biting roar and scream of sawmills, the squeal of coach and wagon wheels, the jangle of harnesses, the pounding of mallets, and the thunk of adzes in the boatyards—carried up and down the river and rose into the nearby hills. Smoke hung everywhere in the air, except during the strong cold northwesterlies. A dark, sooty pall—an oily smog fed by chimneys, forges, shipyards, cooperages, sawmills, and brush fires burning in the surrounding fields—marked the town from far down Buzzards Bay. And as whaleships returned to the wharves every few days, their hogsheads of putrid cargo kept the fires burning nonstop in the riverside tryworks. Emissions of greasy particulate settled over the town like a glaze and gave it the permanent odor of burnt flesh and fat.

Rotch soon wanted to establish a name for the site of all this industry across the river from the original Dartmouth settlement. In deference to his friend Joseph Russell, whose name suggested a possible kinship with the English Duke of Bedford, whose family name was also Russell, Rotch called the place Bedford village. For the rest of his life, his fellow townsfolk flattered Joseph Russell with the honorific “the Duke.” When the town came to incorporate itself in 1787, it was discovered that there was already a Bedford in Massachusetts, so it was renamed New Bedford.

BUT FIRST, Bedford village and its unparalleled industry were all but destroyed by revolution.

In June 1773, the Rotch ship Dartmouth, built under the buttonwood trees, sailed with a cargo of sperm oil to London. There, after unloading her barrels, she took aboard a cargo of tea chests for a return voyage. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Dartmouth tied up at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston on November 29. Two other tea carriers, the Beaver and the Eleanor, arrived and berthed alongside her a few days later. But the unloading of the tea was held up for more than two weeks by Boston citizens, led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who opposed the threepence-per-pound tea tariff levied by the British government on shipments of tea from England, although this taxed tea was still cheaper than the Dutch tea then widely supplied to the colonial market by smugglers (New Haven merchant Benedict Arnold among them). It was the principle—taxation without representation—that angered the Bostonians and others. Francis Rotch, Joseph Rotch’s son and a co-owner of the Dartmouth, made energetic, even heroic efforts, considering the prevailing mood in Boston, to find a solution between the Boston patriots and the patrician consignees of the cargoes—Joshua Winslow; Richard Clarke & Sons; Benjamin Faneuil, Jr.; and Thomas and Elisha Hutchinson, sons of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts—to land the tea. But on the night of December 16, a group of militant patriots who had started calling themselves the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and boarded the three ships, chopped up the tea chests, and threw the cargoes into the harbor water. It was a signal skirmish in the growing division not only between England and her prize colony, but also between neighbors and friends among the colonists, which was about to erupt into war.

Quakers were pacifists, and though most of Bedford’s citizens were sympathetic to the American cause, few of them enlisted in the Continental Army. For more than three years after the war began, with the battles at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Dartmouth and Bedford remained largely untroubled by fighting. But a number of priva teering ships and their crews used Fairhaven as a base from which to attack the British navy, and their prizes had been sailed up the Acushnet River, until the area became notorious for anti-British shipping activity. The British would not make, or failed to make, a distinction between the two communities facing each other across the river. In dispatches to his superiors, British commander Sir Henry Clinton wrote that in early September 1778, he had directed a naval squadron “to Bedford, a noted rendezvous for privateers.”

On September 4, two British frigates, at least one of them bearing forty guns, plus an eighteen-gun brig, and thirty-six smaller schooners and lighters carrying about 4,000 infantrymen, grenadiers, and some mounted troops, sailed from New London for the towns on the Acushnet River. There were fewer than 7,000 people living in the entire area of the original township of Dartmouth. A Continental Army artillery company of eighty men and four officers arrived a few days before the British, but apart from this token force it was thought that there were no more than “fifteen able-bodied men on this side of the river”—that is, men, other than Quakers, who were armed and prepared to fight in Bedford. On Saturday, September 5, the British arrived. Some of the troops were landed on Sconticut Neck, on the river’s eastern, seaward-jutting arm, south of Fairhaven. The main body of the squadron, piloted by a royalist-sympathetic local Tory, sailed into Clark’s Cove, inside Clark’s Point, a few blocks from the center of Bedford village.

They were seen, of course. The weather was fine. And, with the neighborly intimacy of a civil war, news of the fleet’s impending arrival had been circulating in Bedford and Fairhaven for more than two weeks. Since the middle of August, some villagers had been carrying merchandise and personal valuables into the fields and woods around town. William Russell, unable to carry his prized grandfather clock out of the house, removed its works and hid them in a stone wall in a field. Mrs. Taber left everything behind but a treasured warming pan. Mother Gerrish refused to flee with her neighbors until she had tidied her house. Others waited, too long, to see for themselves what would happen, as people often do, disbelieving until the end, when wars approach their doorsteps.

All day, troops and military stores were ferried ashore from the ships to the fields on Clark’s Point and at the head of the bay below the town. At nightfall the troops marched from the fields through the streets to the waterfront.

“Tradition says,” wrote New Bedford historian Leonard Ellis, “that the night was one of surpassing beauty, for the moon made it as light as day.”

The British intention was to destroy the town’s shipping business. Their first targets were the long ropewalk buildings and adjoining warehouses on the Rotch and Russell wharves; these were set afire in the beautiful moonlight, and more fires, whether set intentionally or not, soon spread and engulfed buildings along the entire riverfront and spread to the stores and houses in nearby streets rising uphill from the river. Twenty-six warehouses in Bedford and across the river in Fairhaven, containing such combustible stores as rum, sugar, molasses, coffee, tea, tobacco, cotton, medicines, sailcloth, cordage, shipping supplies, and gunpowder, were destroyed or blew up in the fire. Seventy ships of varying sizes were set afire and sunk in the river, where some of them remained hazards to navigation for many years.

Surprisingly few people were harmed. Miss Peace Akins, a relative of Joseph Russell’s, was delayed as she tried to flee. “She had forgotten something (how like a woman!),” wrote Ellis in 1892. She was overtaken by the troops but was told she would not be harmed if she remained quiet. She stood to one side and watched the British army torch the town. But bloodlust was ignited in the fire and explosions, and three of Bedford’s citizens, Abram Russell, Thomas Cook, and Diah Trafford, who may have attempted some resistance, were killed by the troops—Russell’s head “being entirely cut to pieces,” Cook’s bowels ripped open by a bayonet, while Trafford, shot in the leg, would die the next day.

(One of the British officers in Bedford that night was Captain John André, a handsome but impoverished twenty-eight-year-old aristocrat. He was ambitious and looking for a faster route to a glorious military career than his current post as a bearer of dispatches seemed to offer. A year later, André was appointed to British intelligence in New York, where his natural talents led him into a spectacular scheme: he began a secret correspondence with General Benedict Arnold, hoping to lure America’s most successful commander over to the British side. André was captured by American forces while helping Arnold cross British lines and was hanged as a spy on October 2, 1780.)

The destruction of Bedford by British forces was as complete as the routing and burning of Dartmouth during King Philip’s War, 103 years earlier, but this time the scale of the wreckage of both property and the hopes that had been invested in it was far greater. Joseph Rotch, who had dreamed up Bedford’s whaling industry and made a town for it, saw his home burned that night and, at the age of seventy-four, was so dispirited that he returned to Nantucket and remained there until his death, in 1784.

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