New Bedford Whaling Museum


In 2006, Barbara and I began volunteering time at the New Bedford Whaling Museum as docents.  The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the museum of The Old Dartmouth Historical Society, founded in 1903 to deal with the history of the original town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  In the latter half of the 18th Century and the first quarter of the19th Century, Dartmouth was carved into the existing towns of Westport, New Bedford, Fairhaven, Acushnet, as well as the original Town of Dartmouth--now much reduced in size.  The region fronts along the northern edge of Buzzards Bay, which is deeply indented with a number of excellent protected harbors.  Since its founding in the 1600s, Old Dartmouth has been a center of maritime activity, beginning with ship building and a robust merchant fleet of coasting and trans Atlantic packets, in the 1600 and 1700s.  During the late 1700s pelagic whaling was established in the ports of Fairhaven, New Bedford, and Westport, and following the War of 1812 New Bedford became the premier whaling port in the United States, and indeed, the world.  By1850 New Bedford had become the original oil boom town, and was just about the richest city, on a per capita basis, in the country.  That wealth was expressed, in part, by an assemblage of craftsmen (shipwrights, coopers, blacksmith, toolmakers) who built and outfitted whale ships, and constructed marvelous mansions for the wealthy ship owners.  The wealth also drew writers (Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau), and artists (eg William Bradford, Albert Bierstadt, Allen Van Beest, R. Swain Gifford, etc),  all of whom spent significant time here.

   The founders of Old Dartmouth in the 1600s were largely Quakers from Boston and Philadelphia, and that Quaker heritage persisted through the whaling period, and helped establish in this region a more egalitarian outlook than many other coastal communities in New England.  The community supported blacks, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and others drawn by the burgeoning whaling industry.  In the 1850s Bedford welcomed former slaves from the South, and became an important station on the "Underground Railroad".  Frederick Douglass, a prominent black abolitionist, spent three years here, and got his legs under him as an orator and organizer of his movement.  The whaling business established close ties with islanders from the Azores and Cape Verdes, which effected immigration from those islands, and by the close of the Whaling Era (about 1900) Azorean and Cape Verdeans were a majority among whaling crews, and a substantial number having become ship owners and officers.

Following the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in the late 1850s, the prices paid for whale oil began to decline.  For period in the late 1800s the business was supported by a strong market for "whale bone" (really baleen, from the filtration apparatus of Right and Bowhead Whales), which became more valuable than the oil.  But when that market disappeared, whaling was finished in New Bedford, and its capital was directed into building and operating textile mills.  That business drew another wave of immigration, both from the Portuguese speaking families of earlier whalers and from French Canadians to the north.  In the early 20th century, the textile business "went south," and New Bedford entered a new reincarnation.  Drawing on its protected harbor and easy access to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, this region became a major fishing port, specializing in ground fish and sea scallops.  Today, the port of New Bedford remains the number one fishing port in the United States, in terms of the dollar value of its catch.  The prominence of its fishing activity continues to draw immigration from largely Portuguese speaking peoples, with about 60 percent of the today's New Bedford  population sharing that heritage.

Against this historical backdrop, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is a wonderful place to do volunteer work.  Barbara spends one morning a week volunteering at the Museum's Research Library.  She helps to read and provide annotations about the log books from whaling voyages in the collection.  Because the library has a collection more than 2400 of these, there is a lot of this work to be done.  The library also has fabulous collections of maritime books and journals, and extensive manuscript collections pertaining to family histories of former whalers, and ship owners.  I'm finding it to be a valuable resource when looking for information about early toolmakers in the New Bedford region.

My volunteer work is split into three areas.  Most Sundays finds me "walking the floor" of the museum, answering questions from visitors, and, during the summer months, leading tours of visitors who arrive on cruise ships making New Bedford a port of call.  On Wednesdays I spend a good bit of the day helping the Museum's registrar describe and catalogue the collection of hand tools.  These had gone untouched before the last couple of years,  and there is a huge volume of them.  Featuring shipwrights', coopers', and black smith's tools, there also are substantial numbers of planes and general cabinet makers tools, as well as "whale craft" (harpoons, blubber spades, lances, etc).  Finally, most recently, I've been spending one morning a week with an informal "scrimshaw study group" that meets, under the leadership of senior curator Stuart Frank, to discuss and evaluate examples of scrimshaw brought to the museum for analysis.  This, to me, is an interesting opportunity to look closely at all sorts of scrimshaw, mainly with an eye to understanding what tools might have been used to produce it.

This "whaling experience" that I've enjoyed for the past couple of years has opened my eyes to things other than just tools, when visiting flea markets and antique shows.  Accordingly I've made a few purchases of documents pertaining to whaling and New Bedford history.  And their analysis is, to me, an interesting undertaking.  From time to time I've written about my little investigations, and have published them in a Museum 'inhouse' newsletter.  To share my little excitements more widely, I'll add these "stories" to this web page, as they are finished.  I hope someone will enjoy reading them.

Jose Correia, Cooper, on board the brig "Daisy".  1912-13

A Whaling Account Ledger

A Shipwright Disaster

Tool Exhibit


A Nicholas Taber Panel Raising Plane--with a Story.

The Ultimate Scrimshaw Exhibition

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