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Pieces of whaling history were pictured in the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.”

Detail view of the port of New Bedford with the Seamen's Bethel flag flying at left and the Greek Revival steeple of the First Christian Church clearly visible at right. NBWM #1918.27.1.2

Detail view of the port of New Bedford with the Seamen’s Bethel flag flying at left and the Greek Revival steeple of the First Christian Church clearly visible at right. NBWM #1918.27.1.2

By 1848 when Benjamin Russell painted the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World,” New Bedford was a rich, successful, and world-famous mercantile seaport. With resulting pride the city’s citizens began to take a satisfied, if reflective, view of its progress. Colonial Bedford Village was founded in 1765 specifically to pursue commercial whaling, and in 1848, Yankee whaling generally, was well over a century old. After such a long time, the trade had a history, and Russell explored some of the more prominent stories of that history in several of the Panorama’s scenes. Arguably his interpretation of a whaling voyage in the 1840s was steeped in the industry’s larger historical context.

Although he focused on American whaling, he was not alone in broadcasting his perspective on New Bedford’s history. At 1850 the two-hundredth anniversary was approaching of the signing of the 1652 deed  by the Wampanoag tribe granting colonial settlers the lands of the Old Dartmouth region. Local New Bedford artists like William Allen Wall took a fresh view of formative colonial historical events, including the 1602 landing of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold at Smoking Rocks, the 1635 story of Governor John Endicott and the Red Cross, and in 1853, Wall painted “Birth of the Whaling Industry.”

The firm of Britton & Rey of San Francisco produced this lithographic print of Wall's "Birth of the Whaling Industry." It appeared in Charles M. Scammon's Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) under the title of "A Whaling Scene of 1763." It is a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original paining which is currently owned by the New Bedford Free Public Library.

The firm of Britton & Rey of San Francisco produced this lithographic print of William Allen Wall’s “Birth of the Whaling Industry,” for Charles M. Scammon’s Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) under the title of “A Whaling Scene of 1763.” It is a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original paining which is currently owned by the New Bedford Free Public Library.

This painting (and the above print) shows a makeshift oil refinery along the shores of the Acushnet River around 1763. In a statement about it, Wall wrote in 1853: “seated upon the frame of a grindstone… is seen in his broad-brimmed hat and Friendly coat, the founder of New Bedford and the father of her whale-fishery, Joseph Russell.” He included many rich details including a Native American trader, a black hostler, laborers, oxen, the try-house with a sperm whale jaw on the roof, and most importantly, a sloop careened on shore flying the red ensign of the British merchant service. He described the sloop as “undoubtedly the workmanship of some Old Dartmouth mechanic.”[1] The “Friendly coat” is a direct reference to the typical plain Quaker garb of the period, but overall Wall is harkening back, he’s acknowledging the history of the Old Dartmouth Region within the Massachusetts settlement story. Wall adapted these stories, recognized them as significant, and interpreted them, not in the European tradition of history painting from classical themes, but rather as history painting from American themes.

William Allen Wall, "Endicott and the Red Cross," 1853. Oil on canvas, 49 x 60 inches. NBWM #1987.19.1

William Allen Wall, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” 1853. Oil on canvas, 49 x 60 inches. NBWM #1987.19.1

His oil painting “Endicott and the Red Cross,” is another example. Here, Wall folded local history into the story of events that had taken place in Salem, by deliberately painting a persecuted Quaker in the place of the persecuted Catholic of the actual event. In 1635, there were no Quakers. The sect had yet to be formed in England when the Puritan Massachusetts governor, John Endicott, in his fury with the perceived popish policies of Charles I, took his sword and cut the cross out of the English flag. By replacing the Catholic with a Quaker sitting in the stocks, Wall called attention to the later Puritan persecution of Quakers, making a larger statement about the evolution of colonial history in Massachusetts. He was evidently proud of New Bedford and its achievements, prominent citizens, beautiful locale and thriving harbor, and the mid-century mark seemed to have worked on the Wall and others profoundly.

Another significant addition to the story of New Bedford’s historical celebration came in 1858 when Daniel Ricketson, Henry Thoreau’s friend, and New Bedford’s resident Transcendentalist, penned the first history of New Bedford, appropriately titled, The History of New Bedford: Bristol County, Massachusetts. Ricketson had been thinking about the history of the region and its place in American history for years. He structured the book in such a way that it covered the story of Native Americans and King Philip’s War, early settlers, early whaling, and the American Revolution. It served for decades as the sole history of the region. In 1859, New Bedford painter Albert Bierstadt also painted a version of Gosnold’s landing at Cuttyhunk.

Bierstadt painted "Gosnold at Cuttyhunk," in 1858 for an exhibition of American paintings at the Boston Athenaeum in 1859. NBWM #1904.63

Bierstadt painted “Gosnold at Cuttyhunk,” in 1858 for an exhibition of American paintings at the Boston Athenaeum in 1859. NBWM #1904.63

There was a sense of growth and maturity on the part of both the community and the nation. Ricketson summarized this feeling in the introduction to his history: “While other nations are boasting of their antiquity, and exulting in the mysterious deeds of their ancestors, we pride ourselves in the recency of our origin, and the well-known achievements during the struggle for liberty, as well as for the rapidity of our increase.”

Albert Bierstadt would shortly leave New England entirely and travel out across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and beyond, seeking to capture on his canvases the wonder of the wild landscape and its Native people, and something of the new American spirit of destiny. Benjamin Russell also tapped into the feeling of history and civic accomplishment in several of the scenes that he painted. His obvious historical perspective lends some strong clues to the sort of narrative that he told when the traveled with the Panorama.

In the opening sequence of the Panorama Russell gives pride of place to the ship William Hamilton, built at New Bedford by Jethro and Zacharaiah Hillman to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. NBWM #1918.27.1.9

In the opening sequence of the Panorama Russell gives pride of place to the ship William Hamilton, built at New Bedford by Jethro and Zacharaiah Hillman to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. NBWM #1918.27.1.9

The first and most obvious example is his view of the whale ship William Hamilton outfitting in New Bedford harbor. The ship, built to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. at the Hillman Brothers shipyard in New Bedford in 1834, was named for an apocryphal Cape Cod figure of the mid-seventeenth-century who was said to have been the first American colonist to harpoon a whale. Naming a ship from an American whaling legend confirms the awareness of history that ran deep in New Bedford’s whaling community. Russell then went on to highlight a number of the 316 ships registered in the New Bedford port district at the time. Being a shrewd businessman, he included as wide a variety of house flags of New Bedford merchants as he could when he painted these ships. These merchants were, after all, potential patrons for his paintings.  Curiously, he also chose to paint and name the ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn.

Ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. The Lyra was built at Fairhaven by Reuben Fish to the order of John & James Howland in 1822. NBWM #1918.27.1.75

Ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.      NBWM #1918.27.1.75

The Lyra was built at Fairhaven to the order of John and James Howland in 1822. She sailed on a two-year sperm whaling voyage to the South Pacific that same year under the command of Reuben Joy, Jr. It was the Lyra’s fate to sail in consort with the ship Globe of Nantucket, Thomas Worth, master, upon which the famous and dreadful mutiny occurred on January 26, 1824. Reuben Joy was among the last to see Captain Worth alive, for in the night the Globe’s boatsteerer Samuel Comstock killed the captain with an axe. His fellow mutineers assisted Comstock in the murder of the ship’s officers. By daylight Comstock and the mutineers had control of the ship and were sailing it for Mili atoll near the Marshall Islands. Most of the mutineers who landed with Comstock at the island, revolted and murdered him, and most of them were, in turn, themselves killed by the Native islanders. Two men who landed at the island survived, neither of them mutineers, Cyrus Lay and William Hussey. They were rescued a year later by a U.S. Navy expeditionary force, the schooner Dolphin under the command of Lieutenant Commander John Percival, dispatched to the islands to round up any remaining crew of the Globe.

Fifteen years after the mutiny on the Globe, William Comstock published an account of his brother Samuel's life and the story of mutiny. William was also onboard the Globe at the time and the story of the murder of the captain and officers left little to the imagination.

Fifteen years after the mutiny on the Globe, William Comstock published an account of his brother Samuel’s life and the story of mutiny. William was also onboard the Globe at the time and his graphic telling of the story of the murder of the captain and officers left little to the imagination.

The mutiny on the Globe sent waves of horror through the whaling community and the event resonated through the popular memory for years. It was a significant part of the impetus behind the formation of the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen in 1830. The preamble to the 1831 First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the New-Bedford Port Society included the following insightful paragraph:

“Experience has placed the proposition beyond question, that on pecuniary grounds merely, it would be good policy to attempt seriously, the moral improvement of the men who navigate our vessels, and win their cargoes from the monsters of the deep. – Not to advert particularly to the horrid catastrophe that took place on the ship Globe, of Nantucket, or to other cases, where plans of a similar character have been at least meditated, how many voyages have been injured or ruined, by the desertion of sailors, or the misconduct or intemperance of the master, or officers?”

Russell’s inclusion of the view of the Lyra rounding Cape Horn evidently allowed him to expand upon the story in his narration of the Panorama. It was undoubtedly a riveting tale guaranteed to capture the attention of the audience. He followed up the Globe story with a more contemporaneous one, the mutiny on the ship Sharon of Fairhaven.

Russell's view of the re-taking of the ship Sharon of Fairhaven from the mutineers by the crew members in the whaleboats. NBWM #1918.27.1.122

Russell’s view of the re-taking of the ship Sharon of Fairhaven from the mutineers by the crew members in the whaleboats. NBWM #1918.27.1.122

The mutiny on the Sharon took place in the Central Pacific near Ascension Island in the Caroline Islands, in November of 1842. Around this same time, Benjamin Russell himself was whaling around the coast of Australia onboard the Kutusoff. The story quickly made the rounds of the fleet. Unlike the mutiny on the Globe, where the Nantucket-born ring-leader planned the whole affair beforehand, the mutineers on the Sharon were not even white men, they were three islanders, “Kanakas,” who had shipped onboard at Rotuma (Grenville) Island in April of that year to replace several crew members who deserted. These men  rose up in anger against the captain, Howes Norris, and decapitated him with a cutting spade. Norris, by all reports, had treated the crew very badly for most of the voyage, and may have been drunk at the time of the mutiny. The mutineers seized the vessel but a quick-thinking young fellow, Manuel dos Reis, the acting steward at the time, scurried aloft and began cutting up the rigging so that the ship became unmanageable. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew, who had all lowered for whales, attempted to re-take the ship under the cover of darkness which they succeeded in doing. The third mate, Benjamin Clough, was badly wounded in the fight but two of the mutineers were killed and the third taken to Sydney, Australia for trial. Clough was later honored by the owners with a presentation sextant and command of the Sharon on her next voyage. He went on to command another four whaling voyages.

Among the more unique views of the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket is Benjamin Russell's interpretation. Unlike the majority of popular, published versions of the event, Russell painted from the perspective of a whaleman, and while he was not a witness, was better able than most other illustrators to capture a believable sense of the scene. NBWM#1918.27.1.101

A unique view of the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket is Benjamin Russell’s interpretation. Unlike the majority of popular, published versions of the event, Russell painted from the perspective of a whaleman, and while he was not a witness, was better able than most other illustrators to capture a believable sense of the scene. NBWM#1918.27.1.101

If the story of the Sharon constituted more-or-less current events, Russell also harkened back to the most famous event of all (to date), in American whaling history, the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket. As has been told many times, the ship Essex under the command of George Pollard was struck by a large sperm whale on the “Off Shore Grounds” in the southeastern Pacific off the coast of Peru in November of 1820 and sunk. The crew took to the whaleboats and suffered unimaginable horrors and deprivations as they strove to survive on the open ocean. Of the crew of twenty men, eight survived. Captain Pollard and one seaman, Charles Ramsdell, were two of the survivors having been in the whaleboat for 90 days.  The wreck of the Essex was a high-profile event in American whaling history, indeed in popular culture as well. The story was published in a number of books about sea-faring adventures, so it’s no wonder that he illustrated it so effectively.

Other events are not so well-known, but are nonetheless picturesque. Among the Panorama scenes of the fabled Polynesian islands is one that shows a whale ship close in to shore tied up to a palm tree. The story originated in an August 16, 1824 letter written by Captain Richard Macy, master of the ship Maro of Nantucket, to a prominent island citizen Josiah Hussey. Macy wrote describing Eimeo Island, one of the Society Islands about twenty miles west of Tahiti:

I entered the harbor on the North side of the island, which is not to be surpassed for access, and safety by any harbor in this ocean. I took my ship 2 miles up this beautiful harbor (entirely landlocked) and tied her to an old tree. The scene that surrounded me was truly romantic.[2]

In one of the more beautifully composed scenes in the whole Panorama, Russell shows a whale ship tied up to a palm tree in the heart of the exotic islands of the Pacific. NBWM #1918.27.1.145

In one of the more beautifully composed scenes in the whole Panorama, Russell shows a whale ship (presumably the ship Maro of Nantucket) tied up to a palm tree in the heart of the exotic islands of the Pacific. NBWM #1918.27.1.145

Captain Macy, at the time, was exploring the Society Islands and the vast waters to the west. He wrote: “Impressed with the strong belief that great numbers of sperm whales existed among the islands of the Pacific… the Society, Friendly, Feejee and Caroline’s, I resolved to spend three months among those islands.”[3]

Many of the islands of the Pacific had achieved fabled status well before Macy visited them. It was their fame that provided Benjamin Russell fodder for his whaling voyage round the world story. Islands like Pitcairn, Juan Fernandez, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii were fabled to Western mariners. Russell included them all, as these were indeed the stuff of legends. Who hadn’t read of Robinson Crusoe marooned at Juan Fernandez, or heard of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty with the mutineers sailing to remote Pitcairn and settling there? The death of Captain James Cook at the hands of the Hawaiian Islanders at Kealakekua Bay was common knowledge, especially through maritime communities. Cook’s Voyages had been published in many editions and were easily and widely available. Herman Melville himself perpetuated the exotic romance of the Pacific with his novels Typee (New York, 1846), and Omoo (London, 1847). In the Panorama Russell told all of these stories but he told them through the lens of the American experience.

Detail showing the settlement of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers at Pitcairn Island. Note the "celebrated banyan tree" in the center of the landscape and the cultivated fields surrounding it. NBWM #1918.27.1.84

Detail showing the settlement of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers at Pitcairn Island. Note the “immense banyan tree” in the center of the landscape and the cultivated fields surrounding it. NBWM #1918.27.1.84

When Russell painted Pitcairn Island, he painted it almost completely from the description published in Captain Frederick Beechey’s famous Pacific exploration narrative, Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Strait (London, 1831):

“Immediately round the village are the small enclosures for fattening pigs, goats, and poultry, and beyond them the cultivated grounds producing the banana, plantain, melon, yam, taro, sweet potatoes, appai, tee, and cloth plant with other useful roots, fruits, and shrubs, which extend far up the mountain and to the southward; but in this particular direction they are excluded from the view by an immense banyan tree, two hundred paces in circumference, whose foliage and branches form of themselves a canopy impervious to the rays of the sun Every cottage has its out house for making cloth, its baking place, its sty, and its poultry house.”

This superbly rendered scene of a ship foundering off Cape Horn was probably meant to represent an actual event although what that event was remains unknown. In this scene the dismasted ship is flying the American flag upside-down as a signal of distress. Note the single man standing at the stern of the sinking ship as the whaleboats wait alongside to effect a rescue. NBWM#1918.27.1.74

This superbly rendered scene of a ship foundering off Cape Horn was probably meant to represent an actual event although what that exact event was remains unidentified. In this scene the dismasted ship is flying the American flag upside-down as a signal of distress. Note the single man standing at the stern of the sinking ship as the whaleboats wait alongside to effect a rescue. NBWM#1918.27.1.74

Other scenes of the Panorama lend themselves to speculation about his intent. He had obviously crafted an illustrated narrative with a story to accompany the pictures. While the text of the narrative has not survived (or at least has not yet come to light), so many parts of the story can be guessed from actual events, that other parts may represent events remembered by him but which time and contextual separation have forgotten. One such scene, that may represent a known event, is the view of a dismasted ship foundering off Cape Horn. It appears from the action that one man is left onboard and about to leap into the water, while the whaleboats from a passing whale ship are rescuing the remainder of the crew. Such an event did happen. In May 1832, the ship Science of London left Hobart, Tasmania bound to London. In June, the ship was dismasted in a storm, and lost the lifeboats and four sailors about 350 nautical miles (402 statute miles) from Cape Horn. The ship Warren of Warren, Rhode Island rescued the fifteen survivors and the ship was abandoned. Benjamin Russell himself had business and family ties to Warren, Rhode Island and he died there in 1885. It’s possible that he was illustrating the wreck of the Science.

Much of what Russell conveyed through his monumental pictorial overview of the American whale fishery he either witnessed or experienced himself. A great deal of it, however, he gleaned through conversations with other people and possibly research like old newspaper accounts, published narratives and the like. We know that he owned copies of important whaling books of the period including J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (New York, 1846), because his signed copy is in the New Bedford Whaling Museum library. How he developed some of his ideas remains to be researched, but his intent seems to have been to cover American whaling not only from its current status as he experienced it, but also as an industry with a strong heritage. His emphasis on these events as well as those of the storied islands of the Pacific Ocean serve to put the growing American whaling industry on an equal footing with the European influences of the eighteenth-century.

[1] Richard C. Kugler, William Allen Wall, An Artist of New Bedford (New Bedford, 1978), p. 23.

[2] American Activities in the Central Pacific, Vol. 4, Moorea #2, p. 637.

[3] Ibid.

Changing places: Some technical whaling highlights from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848-1851.

The great appeal of the Panorama, at least as far as the newspaper reviews are concerned, was not the actual whaling scenes, but the scenery. The views of the islands including the volcano at Fogo, Cape Verde, drew the most admiration, at least from one reviewer from the New York Courier in 1851, who called the view “sublime.”

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, "burns continuously," and may "sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues."

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, “burns continuously,” and may “sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues.”

The same reviewer commented favorably upon the “graphic and life-like” view of New Bedford Harbor and the “magnificent” rendering of the harbor at Rio Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

While the reviewer determined that the whaling scenes were “sprightly,” little more is said about the industrial aspect of the whaling subject. This is a pity, really, as few Americans outside of a few established New England whaling ports, even New Yorkers living in one of the world’s great seaports, had any idea about the actual techniques used by whalemen in both ship management and hunting.

While a ship at sea is generally acknowledged a beautiful thing its management was little considered by those who did not participate directly in the proceedings. As far as the sailor’s themselves were concerned, their labors were performed out of sight of all but their fellows under exceptionally difficult conditions for hours, days and weeks at a time during voyages that could last years. Ships were out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind to most people, unless there was some compelling reason to think about them, such as having a loved one onboard, an expected letter from overseas, or a monetary investment in a voyage or cargo.

Details like this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, lowering boats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few others document lowering boats including the handling of the ship while lowering for whales. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could easily be required to kill a particularly large sperm whale.

Details from the Panorama, such as this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, and lowering the whaleboats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background, serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few other artists document lowering boats including how the ship was handled during this operation. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could be and commonly were required to kill a particularly large or dangerous, “ugly,” sperm whale.

Benjamin Russell, however, documented whaling directly from his experience; hence his whaling scenes serve a larger purpose, both at the time they were painted and today. Even in New Bedford in the 1850s, some of the most accomplished artists in the city, never having gone a’ whaling themselves, had a hard time capturing the essence of the hunt. Two of these painters, Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford, for instance, undertook in the early 1850s to make a mass-market print of sperm whaling, however, it was poorly received in New Bedford and Benjamin Russell was called upon to assist them in elements of proportion, whaling and nautical details, points of naval architecture, etc. The resulting prints were among the most solid representations of the industry done by Americans.

"Sperm whaling No. 1 - The Chase," 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

“Sperm whaling No. 1 – The Chase,” 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

As far as his work on whaling scenes in the Panorama is concerned, he transcended the usual broadside ship view, or other simple perspective of whaling so common to most whalemen’s illustrations. He drew his ships from a variety of perspectives and with a reliable attention to accuracy. He also focused on other little-documented details of the hunt. William Morris Davis, whaleman and author of Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman (New York, 1874), commented favorably on Russell’s art:

“There have been lately published by Benjamin Russell, of New Bedford, two illustrations representing both the sperm and right whale-fishing, which gives and accurate idea o the the general features of the business, both in the boats and onboard the ship. The illustrations show the positions of the boats in the contest, and of the ships, and in cutting-in, etc. Mr. Russell himself was a boatsteerer; and, guided by several years’ experience, his artistic skill has embodied in the small space of two pictures the most correct idea of whaling which I have seen.”[1]

One good example from the Panorama is his view of the boat-steerer and boat-header exchanging places in a whaleboat that is fast to a whale. This oft-described oddity of the whaling trade has no pictorial parallel. The description appears in many whaling texts, including this one from Reverend Lewis Holmes that appears as “A Brief History of Whaling,” in The Arctic Whaleman; or, Winter in the Arctic Ocean (Boston, 1861):

“When, however, the whale becomes so exhausted, having been perhaps harpooned by some other boats, that the warp can be hauled in, and the boat or boats approach the whale again, the lancer [boat-header], who is generally one of the mates of the ship, exchanges places with the boat-steerer, and takes his position at the bow of the boat, with a lance ten or twelve feet long.”[2]

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

Close-up detail of the above scene.

Close-up detail of the above scene showing the men exchanging places.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, in his fundamentally critical fashion commented not only on the practice, but upon its disadvantages to the success of the hunt:

” Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boatheader and harpooner likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent jeopardy of themselves and everyone else. It is then they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat. Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them. To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”[3]

Regardless of Melville’s opinion on the practicality of this matter, the practice retained its tradition well past the 1840s when he was whaling, and continued throughout the rest of the history of the American industry. As late as 1887 in The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, where the details of the methods of the fishery were outlined, James Templeman Brown wrote: “When the animal has been fastened to “good and solid” the harpooner and officer immediately change places.”

Detail from Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

Detail from the Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen painting, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

The origins of this practice dates to the earliest days of commercial whaling in the early 17th century when Basque whalemen were training British and Dutch whalemen in the techniques of killing bowhead whales in the Arctic. The Basques, being the most experienced whalemen, commanded the boats and undertook the actual killing of the whale. Following the Basques long established hunting techniques, the most experienced whaleman in the boat was the officer in charge. He knew how and where to place the boat so that the harpooner could get fast. The second most experienced person was the harpooner and having planted his irons, ceded his position to the boatheader who again, knew where to plunge the lance and how to handle the lance once it was planted in the animal to ensure a quick death. Thus, a hunting technique originating in the early 17th century European Arctic fishery continued throughout the American sperm and right whale fishery into the 20th century.

Hand-whaling techniques did spread beyond the American and European experience. Curiously, while many of the techniques and technology of the Yankee whale fishery were retained by the Azoreans as the islanders developed their own sperm whale fishery in the 20th century, this exchange of crew members during the actual killing of the whale was not retained. Robert Clarke reports in Open Boat Whaling in the Azores (Cambridge, 1954) that:

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around. 1977.17.1

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail and one under oars, are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around in the traditional way. 1977.17.1

In the American whaleboats, the striking of mast and sail was partly the job of the harpooner as he went aft to change ends with the boat-header. In the Azores the bow and midship oarsmen attend to the mast and sail, for the boat-header and harpooner never change ends in the present survival, and this is the one detail that which distinguishes the existing technique of hunting from that of 100 years ago. To the last days of American whaling it was an invariable rule that the harpooner fastened to the whale but did not lance it; he gave place to the boatheader for this operation, and himself went aft to take the steering-oar and tend the line at the loggerhead.[4]

Without the full text of Russell’s narration of the Panorama as it traveled from town to town, we’ll never know the extent to which he addressed many of the details that he drew. As he was himself a boat-steerer onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford on a four-year sperm and right whaling cruise to the Pacific Ocean, 1841-1845, he would certainly have been intimately familiar with the process, another fascinating detail of his whaling experience shared in the Panorama.

[1] Davis, p. 171.

[2] Holmes, pp. 273-274

[3] Melville, Chapter 62.

[4] Clarke, in: Discovery Reports, Vol. 26, pp. 281-354.

Whalemen’s natural history observations and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Apart from the specific species that they were targeting during the hunt, whalemen were generally poor observers of wildlife. Sperm whales, right whales, bowhead whales, their habits, habitats and general appearance were commonly understood at a commercial level but only a few whalemen made any attempt to systematically identify other species of whales or small cetacea. Blackfish (Globicephala melas, the long-finned pilot whale) are an exception as these were also frequently hunted and whalemen had the opportunity to observe both their behavior and anatomy closely.

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

At the very least whalers were inconsistent in whatever observations they may have made.[1] This is not to say that whalemen didn’t see an astonishing array of the world’s species, just that their interests were almost wholly commercial and only rarely systematic. The whales, birds and other cetaceans illustrated and described in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World are no exception. Obviously, frequent mentions are made in seamen’s logbooks and journals noting a wide variety of birds, fish and whales but seldom are these animals illustrated, and even more rarely are they either named or described in any useful way. Vernacular, seemingly random, and completely unsystematic terms are commonly employed to which none but a whaler can relate.

Scene described as "brig in a school of porpoises," from Purrington & Russell's Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Scene described as “brig in a school of porpoises,” from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

For instance, this particular scene in the Panorama is described in the handbill text as “brig in a school of porpoises.” By no stretch of the modern imagination could the animals painted in this scene be described as “porpoises,” yet whalemen commonly applied the term to any number of small cetaceans. Modern descriptions of the porpoises (Phocoenidae) describe them as small, blunt-headed and coastal; “preferring to keep to themselves, porpoises are typically shy creatures and rarely perform the acrobatic feats of dolphins.”[2] The only species of porpoise common to the Cape Verde archipelago is the harbor porpoise, (Phocoena phocoean) a small, blunt-nosed creature. However, even with their pointed snouts, a hint of a dorsal fin, a large aggregation and fairly acrobatic portrayal of behavior, one would be hard-pressed to say what exactly Purrington and Russell intended these animals to be.

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two "algerines" in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. ODHS #572

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two “algerines” in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. Apart from their generally pointed snouts, the only other prominent anatomical feature is the dorsal fin, a feature common to many dolphin species. ODHS #572

They are obviously some type of cetacea, probably of the dolphin tribe, possibly of the sort called “algerines,” or “algerine porpoises” by the whalemen. The animals in the picture also greatly resemble members of the beaked whale tribe of the sort sometimes called the “grampus” by whalers. The region where this scene took place was in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Cape Verde Islands. These waters are home to a wide variety of oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae) however current habitat projection maps do not suggest that any species of beaked whales (Ziphiidea) live in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands. Recent observations (2010, 2014) have placed small groups of at least two species of beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and Gervais’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon cf. europaeus) around the waters off Cape Verde, but these are confirmed as rarities.[3] Dolphins are another matter. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and spinner dolphins all live in these waters, are socially gregarious and acrobatic in their behavior. That, combined with the use of the whaler’s term “porpoise” suggests that these animals are probably dolphins.

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. KWM #436

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. Like other whalers, White calls them “porpoises.” These particular animals are about the size of a man and are obviously frolicking in the water in a large, social school. KWM #436

One solid advantage to the relational usage of the term “porpoise” is that most whalemen used the term to describe the multitudes of dolphins encountered in large schools on the high seas. Further, as beaked whales seldom congregate in social schools gamboling about in the waves, the likelihood is very strong that Purrington and Russell accurately described the behavior of a school of dolphins.

Probably the best single synopsis of whalemen’s vernacular language describing the various whales and small cetaceans encountered is from Moby-Dick. A selection of these can be read in Chapter 32, “Cetology, ” with the following caveats:

  1. There was at the time of its writing considerable inconsistency in the naming of cetacean species and popular language swapped around between actual species as far as Linnaean nomenclature could identify them and mariner’s usage.
  2. Melville as a whaleman himself adopted whalemen’s usage.
  3. Melville was mocking the books of science written by persons with no firsthand knowledge of what it was they were describing.

He writes in the first part of that chapter: “of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty.” He then goes on the arrange his classifications and subdivisions similarly to the table of contents of Robert Hamilton’s “On the Ordinary Ceacea, or Whales,” in William Jardine’s Naturalists Library, as well as John Hunter’s “Observations on the structure and œconomy of whales” in Philosophical Transactions of London (June 28, 1787); that is Roman numeral, genus, species. Being the satirist that he was though, instead of even attempting to sound “scientific,” Melville makes up these foolish categories of whale species compared to the sizes of books, presumably representing the varieties in size of the very books he consulted, hinting that books are the sole source of knowledge of cetacean, and that whalemen, while seeing most of the animals in question could not properly identify most of them. Dolphins and porpoises are not distinguished and just because Melville calls it a porpoise does not mean that it is one. Numerous whaling references, including early 20th century photographs identify dolphins as porpoises and we know that whalers lowered for dolphins as well as harpooned them from the bows of the ship for food.

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronei), what he calls a "Right Whale Porpoise" in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii), what he calls a “Right Whale Porpoise” in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Sulphur bottom – Undoubtedly Balænoptera musculus (Blue whale) as verified in Charles M. Scammon’s Marine mammals of the Northwestern coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874)  and Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966). The “Great Northern Rorqual” of Jardine/Hamilton (PH 5190-A) is derived from the two 1827 prints of the blue whale that stranded at Ostend, Belgium  which was in large measure copied in 1832 for another print.

Killer/Thrasher – Undoubtedly Orcinus orca. In the text of Jardine/Hamilton under the entry for “The Grampus” is the following: “Finally it is the fish which the Americans have long been in the habit of denominating the killer or thrasher, from its reputed pugnacious and cruel disposition.”

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this fine view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

As this entry mentioning “thrasher” serves as the only reference that I have ever seen (including logbook and journal references to killers) I suspect that Melville either legitimately heard this phrase used in the fishery or, what is more likely, borrowed it from Jardine/Hamilton. Please note that Melville separates “killers” from “grampus.” What was meant by the whalemen’s term of “grampus” is difficult to determine. Sometimes in the whalemen’s writings it seems to refer to the killer or orca, other times, the killer is distinct and the grampus is also distinct. Jardine/Hamilton’s illustration of “The Grampus” is obviously an orca. Grampus griseus or Risso’s Dolphin is the only official appearance of the term grampus. The only actual illustration of the grampus of whalemen’s parlance is from KWM #1033, a journal kept by seaman Daniel C. Whitfield onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1856-1859. It is obviously a beaked whale of some kind.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the "Grampus." It is an almost perfect outline of Cuvier's beaked whale. This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1853-1855. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the “Grampus.” It is a near-perfect outline of Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale, and if the grampus was actually the beaked whale, as Whitfield suggests, then whaling logbooks and journals can provide valuable information about the distribution and common sightings of these pelagic animals. While the Dr. Franklin cruised primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Whitfield describes a number of species from his experiences on other whales in other oceans. KWM #1033.

Huzza porpoise – Probably Lagenorhynchus obliquidens of Scammon, the striped or common porpoise. Scammon’s text description coincides well with Melville’s the difference being that Melville claims that they are found “almost all over the globe,” whereas this particular animal is a Pacific species. Apart from that the striped dolphin or common dolphin is the most likely candidate being gregarious and global.

Algerine porpoise – Completely unidentifiable. Whaling logbooks and journals frequently mention them although they are seldom illustrated (ODHS#572, September 22, 1859). Chances are good that they are one of the many species of larger dolphins, such as Tursiops truncatus, the bottle nose dolphin.

Mealy-mouthed porpoise – Undoubtedly the Southern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis peronii .

While the bulk of American whalemen did not record their observations of sea creatures, some did. Those few who did actually identify species in a useful fashion have contributed some important clues to understanding the prolific life of the oceans. Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama was intended to be educational entertainment, but for all that, it serves today as an important document serving to offer insights into the world as witnessed by American mariners. Whether or not the artists captured the true nature of marine life, they absolutely captured the significance of the American whalemen to the growing understanding of the world and its seas in the 19th century.

[1] Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (Edinburgh, 1839); William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions (Edinburgh, 1820); Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) are notable exceptions. These books, written by whalemen are all superb natural history texts, illustrated accurately with a wide variety of species and other documentary pictures. The average whalemen produced nothing even remotely as insightful as these.

[2] Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995).

[3] Hazevoet, Monteiro, et al. “Recent data on whales and dolphins (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of four taxa new to the archipelago,” Zoologia Caboverdiana 1 (2) 2010: 75-99

New Bedford Harbor Small Craft Illustrated in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.

Albert Van Beest painted this view of shipping in New Bedford Harbor in the mid-1850s. This boat, a lapstrake open boat with stayed masts and a jibboom appears to be of the dogbody type with a square transom. The foresail appears to be of the loose-footed type without a boom, as the mainsail boom is prominently shown. Typical of Van Beest's work, the boat is an element of the larger scene and while it may be reliably interpreted as a boat type, it's activities are ambiguous. This detail is from "View of Shipping in New Bedford Harbor," 1975.17.

Albert Van Beest painted this view of shipping in New Bedford Harbor in the mid-1850s. This type of boat, or one very similar to it, appears in the Panorama a number of times and in other paintings of New Bedford waters in the 1850s as well. This boat, a lapstrake open boat with stayed masts and a jibboom appears to be of the “dogbody” type with a square transom. The foresail appears to be of the loose-footed type without a boom, as the mainsail boom is prominently shown. Typical of Van Beest’s work, the boat is an element of the larger scene and while it may be reliably interpreted as a boat type, it’s activities are ambiguous. This detail is from “View of Shipping in New Bedford Harbor,” 1975.17.

Purrington & Russel painted several versions of this type of craft. This particular one has two unstayed masts with a boom on the mainsail, a loose-footed foresail, a jibboom and head sail, a square transom and is mostly decked over. Its use is ambiguous although it appears to be ferrying people. 1918.27.1

Purrington & Russel painted several versions of this type of craft. Unlike Van Beest’s painting above, this particular one has two unstayed masts with a boom on the mainsail, a loose-footed foresail, a jibboom and head sail, a square transom and is mostly decked over. Its use is ambiguous although it appears to be ferrying people. 1918.27.1

The boat shown in this detail from William Bradford's 1854 portrait of the ship Twilight of New Bedford appears to an almost perfect example of a Block Island Cowhorn. The two men are obviously fishing and the scene is in Buzzards Bay off Dumplin Rocks lighthouse. Note the double-ended "pinky" style of hull, the open deck, unstayed masts and lack of a jibboom. 1980.43

The boat shown in this detail from William Bradford’s 1854 portrait of the ship Twilight of New Bedford appears to an almost perfect example of a Block Island Cowhorn. The two men are obviously fishing and the scene is in Buzzards Bay off Dumplin Rocks lighthouse. Note the double-ended “pinky” style of hull, the open deck, unstayed masts and lack of a jibboom. 1980.43

While much has been written of New Bedford whalers, the famous ships, barks and schooners that sailed the world round, little has been written of the small working craft of the harbor. These boats were employed all up and down the East Coast in a variety of styles and sizes, from the large double-ended “pinky” schooner to the smaller pinky “Chebacco Boat,” dogbody Hampton Boat and  little working skiff. Perhaps it’s because at first glance there seems little to say about them. As they appear in prints and paintings, they all look sort-of similar and are engaged in some activity, but seldom can one tell what that activity actually is. Obviously small boats were used for a host of purposes including everything from fishing to freighting to ferrying people. Not appearing in either the official enrollments of American vessels in the coastwise American trade or the registers of ships engaged in foreign trade, these boats are often merely adjunct details to larger art works or photographs. Yet for all of their ubiquity, these boats suggest a fundamental element of a maritime culture. People worked on the water and used various sorts of boats to do it. These boats would, most likely, have been of local manufacture and designed for the waters they would ply.

Purrington and Russell commonly drew these boats with decks. This example shows a boat around 20 feet long, with unstayed masts, a jibboom and a loosefooted foresail.

Purrington and Russell commonly drew these boats with decks. This example shows a boat around 20 feet long, with unstayed masts, a jibboom and a loosefooted foresail.

This detail of a small New Bedford boat is part of a larger painting by New Bedford painter William Allen Wall. Wall clearly indicates that these boats were rowed as well as sailed. It is a very small version of this boat but the jibboom is clearly shown and the masts appeared unstayed. 2012.26

This detail of a small New Bedford boat is part of a larger painting by New Bedford painter William Allen Wall. Wall clearly indicates that these boats were rowed as well as sailed. It is a very small version of this boat but the jibboom is clearly shown and the masts appeared unstayed. 2012.26

If the boats are challenging to identify, their users are even more so. “Boatmen” appear occasionally in the New Bedford City Directories and these people made their livelihood either renting or working onboard small craft about the harbor. As larger shipping was anchored in the stream, boatmen would move people and goods from the shore to the ship.

In this view from the Panorama, two sloop-rigged work boats transfer the crew of a whaler and their sea chests onboard a vessel anchored in the stream. 1917.27.1

In this view from the Panorama, two sloop-rigged work boats transfer the crew of a whaler and their sea chests onboard a vessel anchored in the stream. 1917.27.1

Work boats alongside the ship William Hamilton, outfitting in New Bedford Harbor in June of 1848. Note the black seaman onboard and the sea chest coming over the side of the ship. 1917.27.1

Work boats alongside the ship William Hamilton, outfitting in New Bedford Harbor in June of 1848. Note the black seaman onboard and the sea chest coming over the side of the ship. 1917.27.1

A gaff-rigged sloop approaches the ship William Hamilton in New Bedford Harbor, June of 1848. Onboard are crew members ready to join the ship. 1916.27.1

A gaff-rigged sloop approaches the ship William Hamilton in New Bedford Harbor, June of 1848. Onboard are crew members ready to join the ship. 1916.27.1

Whether or not the people can be positively identified and discussed, the boats appear often enough that one can glean much information about them. When Purrington and Russell painted New Bedford harbor in 1848-1849 they included a large number of these small working craft. Unlike the formal oil paintings by prominent marine painters, the boats in the Panorama are not adjuncts, they are integral to the interpretation of a busy seaport. The Panorama was intended for audiences nationwide, and by showing the full array of busyness, the artists created an effective interpretive sequence. Among the more easily recognized are the larger two-masted schooners and single-masted sloops. These often appear as pilot boats in marine paintings. The larger ones were undoubtedly coasters as well trading domestic goods coastwise.

Here a large topsail schooner is shown standing down New Bedford harbor before a following breeze. 1918.27.1

Here a large topsail schooner is shown standing down New Bedford harbor before a following breeze. 1918.27.1

Purrington & Russell painted this view of three men in a long skiff jigging for squid or mackerel in New Bedford harbor opposite Palmer's Island. They are probably jigging for squid to use for bait. 1916.27.1

Purrington & Russell painted this view of three men in a long skiff jigging for squid or mackerel in New Bedford harbor opposite Palmer’s Island. They are probably jigging for squid to use for bait. 1916.27.1

In this curious detail, Purrington & Russell show two men in a rowboat towing a raft of logs up New Bedford Harbor. 1918.27.1

In this curious detail, Purrington & Russell show two men in a rowboat towing a raft of logs up New Bedford Harbor. 1918.27.1

The smaller boat close-by the larger is among the more common aspects of ship portraiture. But who was sailing these pilot boats? Who were the pilots? Where were the boats built and by whom? Why did they look the way they did? These questions are difficult, if not impossible to answer because these small craft are seldom the subject of the painting. The pilots were listed in the New Bedford City Directories and thirty-five appear in 1852 along with five named pilot boats. As these boats are seldom identified by either flag or by name their actual appearance is merely circumstantial.  The artists seem to include them as necessary decoration; evidence of the full range of complexity involved in an active seaport, but small craft often only appear as elements in the arrangement and structure of the composition.

William Bradford painted this scene of a merchant ship hove-to for a pilot off Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard in 1850. Note the small craft in the foreground and the pilot boat, a schooner, off the stern of the ship. 2005.20

William Bradford painted this scene of a merchant ship hove-to for a pilot off Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard in 1850. Note the small craft in the foreground and the pilot boat, a schooner, off the stern of the ship. 2005.20

Detail from William Bradford, "Hove-to for a Pilot," 1850. This boat has a pinky hull, two stayed masts and a jibboom. It is obviously a fishing boat with two men engaged in fishing in the waters between Cuttyhunk Island and Martha's Vineyard. The cliffs of Gay Head are in the background. 2005.20

Detail from William Bradford, “Hove-to for a Pilot,” 1850. This boat has a pinky hull, two stayed masts and a jibboom. It is obviously a fishing boat with two men engaged in fishing in the waters between Cuttyhunk Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The cliffs of Gay Head are in the background. 2005.20

Likewise, another small craft commonly seen, especially in New Bedford scenes, is a two-masted work boat with a small jibboom, the hull of which is either double-ended (a pinky) or with a square transom (a dogbody). These boats seem to have evolved from the much earlier 17th century European “shallop,” often around 25 feet long, two-masted, fore and aft rigged, simple to sail and very weatherly, used for fishing and other work. On these New Bedford boats, the main sail is rigged with a boom and the fore sail is loose-footed. The short jibboom may have been removable. (See John Gardner,  “The Elusive Hampton Boats,” The Small Boat Journal (November, 1979). Sometimes the boats are ¾’s decked over with a passenger cockpit aft. Sometimes the masts are stayed and sometimes un-stayed. They appear in a variety of lengths.

William Bradford drew this pencil sketch of a Block Island Boat in the 1850s. The lines are a perfect Cowhorn but it is unclear if there is a removable jibboom. There is certainly an anchor on the starboard bow and tit has an after deck. 1960.7.9

William Bradford drew this pencil sketch of a Block Island Boat in the 1850s. The lines are a perfect Cowhorn but it is unclear if there is a removable jibboom. There is certainly an anchor on the starboard bow and it has an after deck. 1960.7.9

This craft is commonly shown with two men on board, and whether they are fishing, or doing something else is often ambiguous. The context of their appearance, especially in the formal marine paintings of artists like William Bradford and Albert Van Beest suggests that these are fishing boats. Boats of this type were built in a variety of sizes all along the New England coast. On Block Island a similar craft was called a “cowhorn.” In Gloucester there was the Chebacco boat, on the coast of Maine and New Hampshire there was a similar craft called a Hampton Boat. The New Bedford boats appear to be a kind of Hampton or Hambden Boat (see Chappelle, The National Watercraft Collection, Washington, 1960, pp. 254-257). Chapelle reports that these “two-man” boats were common as fishing and lobster boats on the coast of Maine in the late 19th century but the frequency with which they appear in New Bedford paintings suggests a much broader geography of use. In 1845, there was at least one lobsterman in New Bedford, Joseph Crapo, (City Directory, 1845, p. 80) and while no individuals are listed as fishermen in the Directory the Bartlett family operated a fish market at the Ferry Boat Wharf, so presumably someone must have been providing them with fish.

In the below list there are doubtless a number of builders who specialized in whaleboats. This was a major manufacturing sector of New Bedford’s whaling industry. Most, if not all of the below list of boat builders could and probably did build other sorts of working craft but the full extent of that production remains to be researched.

List of New Bedford boat builders from the 1845 City Directory
Alexander Wall, boat builder, 1845 Ray Street
Joseph Warren, boat builder, 1845, Ray Street
Daniel Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Lawrence Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Robert C. Topham, boat builder, 1845, Foot of Griffin
William H. Smith, boat builder, 1845, rear 98 South Water St.
Sprowell Pease, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Calvin D. Macomber, boat builder, 1845, no address
George C. Lewis, boat builder, 1845, 214 Ray Street
Ebenezer Leonard, boat builder, 1845 works for D. Wardsworth (possibly whaleboats)
Joseph Irish, boat builder, 1845, no working address
John D. Hillman, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
Alvin Hinckley, boat builder, 1845, no working address
George Hart, boat builder, 1845, rear 94 South Water St.
Samuel E. Gabriel, apprentice to Robert C. Topham, 1845
Samuel A. Enholm, boat builder, 1845, works for R. C. Topham.
James M. Cranston, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Joseph W. Cornell, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Edmund B. Coffin, boat builder, 1845, no working address
Shubael C. Coffin & Co. (Edward F. Slocum), boat builders, 1845, Rotch’s South Wharf.
Henry Butler, boat builder, 1845, no working address.
Frederick F. Bunker, boat builder, 1845, works for T.N. Allen, lives on Ray Street.
Charles Bosworth, boat builder, 1845, house and shop 61 South Water St.
James Beetle, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
John G. Bailey, boat builder, 1845, 20 Elm St.
Rhodes G. Arnold, boat builder, 1845, South Water St.
Thomas N. Allen, boat builder, 1845, 94 North Water St.

“An Excellent Thing of its Kind”: The Culture and Context of Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.

Apart from its intrinsic appeal and importance as a document speaking directly to the American whale fishery of the 1840s, Purrington and Russell’s “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” serves to contextualize New England’s maritime culture within the larger American experience of the day. Whaling was a specialized industry prosecuted by a number of active ports in New England and the Long Island. While America’s maritime trades were widespread and globally influential, whaling, while equally influential on a global scale, demanded skills, financing, hardware and other expertise far outside the normal activities of America’s trading ports. Obviously, Benjamin Russell (1804-1885), erstwhile New Bedford banker and leading citizen turned whaleman  artist, sought to earn cash from his traveling panorama picture show of the New England whale fishery. Although it was a large and demanding, labor-intensive industry worth over $8 million dollars per year to the national economy, the significance of whaling was little known or appreciated outside of its immediate geographical management sectors.

Ship India of New Bedford bound in, 1848.

Ship India of New Bedford bound in, 1848.

Russell included an accurate representation of Abraham H. Howland's house flag flying from the India's main peak. Under Howland's ownership the India was a Northwest Coast right whaler. William Tallman Russell owner her from 1827-1840 when she was primarily an Indian Ocean right whaler.

Russell included an accurate representation of Abraham H. Howland’s house flag flying from the India‘s main peak. Under Howland’s ownership the India was a Northwest Coast right whaler. William Tallman Russell owner her from 1827-1840 when she was primarily an Indian Ocean right whaler.

 

Detail of the starboard bow of the ship India of New Bedford. Characteristically, Russell painted the crew hard at work on the foredeck. Note that the ship has her anchor at the bow which the crew are probably securing prior to her arriving home at New Bedford harbor.

Detail of the starboard bow of the ship India of New Bedford. Characteristically, Russell painted the crew hard at work on the foredeck. Note that the ship has her anchor at the bow which the crew are probably securing prior to her arriving home at New Bedford harbor.

Panoramas in general were very popular in the 1840s and 50s, and Russell and Purrington certainly went all-out to create a stunning documentation of the whaling experience for the intended audiences. The New York Morning Courier in July, 1851 noted: “Ever since the great success of BANVARD with his panorama of the Mississippi River, the public have been overrun with panoramas and dioramas of every conceivable river and land known to the civilized world—panoramas of the North Pole—panoramas of the South Pole—dioramas of the Creation—dioramas of the End of the World—panoramas of California, of Oregon, of Asia, Africa, Europe and every part of America have been painted or daubed and, like every dog, each one has had its day, blazed awhile in the streets and in the newspapers, and then are gone—nobody knows whither.”

The same editorial then went on to praise the high quality of Russell’s panorama: “of all the gems we have seen, RUSSELL’S great panorama of a Voyage Around the World is, on the whole, the best.” It then went on to describe the “magnificent” and “sublime” scenes, but significantly noted that Benjamin Russell himself was the “lucid” narrator of the show which he based on his own sketches and experiences as a whaleman.

New Bedford whaling merchant John Avery Parker owned the ship Trident, which was among the most successful whalers sailing out of New Bedford at this period. The Trident landed many thousands of barrels of sperm and right whale oil at both Bremen, Germany and New Bedford. She made seventeen voyages between 1828 and 1873 when she was finally lost on the coast of Panama in the Pacific.

“The illustrations of ships at sea in every possible situation of the process of taking the various species of whale and the mode of preparing the oil, are sprightly, lively and very interesting…” (New York Morning Courier, July, 1851)  In the above view, the ship Trident of New Bedford is shown cutting in a whale at sea. New Bedford whaling merchant John Avery Parker (176901853) owned the ship Trident, which was among the most successful whalers sailing out of New Bedford at this period. Under Parker’s management the Trident landed many thousands of barrels of sperm and right whale oil at both Bremen, Germany and New Bedford, between 1828 and 1855. She made seventeen voyages total between 1828 and 1873 when she was finally lost on the coast of Panama in the Pacific. Parker was among Benjamin Russell’s creditors and throughout the Panorama Russell shrewdly identified some of the most successful ships of New Bedford’s most important merchants.

Russell scheduled an ambitious line-up of venues. Cities like New York and Boston seem obvious choices. Other sites, however, such as Buffalo, St. Louis,  Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky really do raise some significant questions as to the viability of the scheme as a money-making venture. While these were   fairly large cities and towns for middle-America in the 1840s and 50s, the specific appeal of such an alien subject matter as pelagic whaling to the farming and urban-dwelling citizens of the hinterland was undoubtedly a gamble. However, New Bedford did have business interests in all of these cities and towns, so Benjamin may been counting on an interested populace. Oil refiner and candle manufacturer William Tallman Russell (1788-1872) of New Bedford, for instance, sold his products to retailers in Buffalo, St. Louis and Baltimore.

View of Buffalo, New York, 1853.

View of Buffalo, New York, 1853 where Russell visited with the Panorama in November of 1849.

By 1850 Cincinnati had a population of 115, 000, St. Louis, 63,000, Buffalo, 40,000. New Bedford itself only numbered about 17,000 people. While, if the press accounts are any indication, the Panorama was wildly popular in New Bedford and elsewhere in New England, it’s popularity in the mid-west seems to have been moderate at best. In Buffalo in November, 1849, the press really did approve heartily of the show: “[it] is one of the most interesting and attractive exhibitions that has been witnessed in Buffalo. It presents views of some of the loveliest islands in the world, and shows how man plays with and conquers the leviathan of the deep. Come and see it. It will give you more real information than can be gleaned from books in months. The view of the beautiful city of New Bedford alone is worth the price of admission.”

Advertisment for the Panorama from the Buffalo Daily Courier, November 24, 1849

Advertisement for the Panorama from the Buffalo Daily Courier, November 24, 1849

 

Benjamin Russell however, complained of competition from other panoramas and attractions almost everywhere he went in the mid-west. Most of these cities and towns had large halls especially devoted to exhibiting panoramas. In Boston it was Amory Hall, in New York is was at Stoppani Hall, Broadway and in Buffalo is was Clinton Hall on the corner of Washington ands Clinton Streets.

Maro at Huaheine

For this view of the fabled islands of Polynesia, Benjamin Russell chose a scene based on the lore of the whale fishery in the Pacific. In March of 1825, the Nantucket Inquirer newspaper then the New Bedford Weekly Mercury in April 1, 1825 published a letter. The letter was written by the Nantucket whaling master Richard Macy of the ship Maro dated Coast of Japan, August 16, 1824 “I steered first to the Society Islands, where I proposed to stop in order to procure wood and water – the island I selected for that purpose is called Eimeo, and lies 20 miles west of Otaheite. I entered a harbor on the north side of the island, which is not to be surpassed for access and safety by any harbor I this ocean. I took my ship 2 miles up this beautiful harbor (entirely landlocked) and tied her to an old tree.” Such a romantic and undoubtedly beautiful location was guaranteed to entice landlocked young fellows into the whale fishery.

Russell may have had an ulterior motive, such as labor recruitment by visiting these inland cities and towns. These places were potentially full of young men hungry for adventure. It may be a mere coincidence but in the same New York paper where a glowing advertisement for the Panorama appeared, the New York Morning Courier, October, 1851,  a lengthy story appeared about the success of the American whaling industry with a paragraph specifically highlighting that the New Bedford fleet needing 4000 young men to man its ships.

Among the more fascinating questions about Russell traveling with this enormous painting and, presumably, the apparatus necessary to work it, is how did he get around? Between 1848 and 1851, railroads were rapidly connecting America’s mid-west cities and towns. Russell had even included a picture of the railroad in New Bedford at the extreme beginning of the Panorama.

panorama railroad picture

In what may be the earliest picture of the railroad in New Bedford, Russell and Purrington drew a locomotive, coal car and other cars on the line passing north behind Wamsutta Mills.

Even at their best, however, these railroads were not quite up to scratch. John Avery Parker described his journey to Buffalo from Albany on the railroad as particularly arduous:

“Take it from Albany to Buffalo the road with some exception is more like riding in an old stage coach than on a railroad and the worst managed road that I ever rode over and the slowest road by about one half of any road in Massachusetts and about 75 percent higher fare 12 or 13 miles is all you go per hour. On our great Western Railroad from Boston to Greenbush they go over 20 miles per hour including stops. Very seldom more than 5 minutes is taken to land baggage and passengers, on your road from 10 minutes to 30 are generally taken up and no punctuality observed in starting. I will give you some facts which I was an eye witness to and could give you two hundred more witnesses for there were about that number altogether. We reached Utica from Troy in good time no complaint. Stopped all night at a good house first rate (Brag’s Hotel) next day two o clock was the starting hour our ladies got seated in the cars at ¼ before two at 3 oclk we started after backing & filling one whole hour. @ 3 oclk along we went for Auburn where we were told we should arrive by 8 oclk in the evening which was the hour we arrived at Syracuse which was the time my company wished to stop. Could not get our baggage because it was put in for Auburn in fact it was as much as a man’s life was worth to get in the neighborhood of our baggage so I took my seat in the cars thinking that the safest place. In the course of an hour we started and soon brought up and found they had wood & water to take in, after getting a supply as I supposed we backed up again as I judged nearly to Syracuse from thence we started ahead. Soon after the cars began to move at a slow pace all hands were called on to get out and push at the wheels to keep her moving. Finally got started and rode off 8 or 10 miles an hour, got on a few miles farther. We brought to a stand again and finally got to Auburn—12 oclock same night. Next morning we were told the cars left at 9 oclk we of course were to the depot in time. At about half past ten we started from Auburn and got on after that with the usual delays.” (MSS 14, John Avery Parker Papers, Letter book, October 9, 1847).

Russell must have encountered very similar challenges in his travels to those described by Parker, even more when one considers that there was no railroad to St. Louis from Louisville, Kentucky in 1850. Russell must have come to St. Louis via steamboat.

St. Louis, Missouri, waterfront, 1849 from a wood cut by Julius Hutawa.

St. Louis, Missouri, waterfront, 1849 from a woodcut by Julius Hutawa.

By the time that Russell had actually made into the American interior with his fascinating pictures of the adventures of world travel in the whale fishery, gold had been discovered in California. Men were leaving the old ports of the East Coast and traveling westward by whatever means they could.

Josephine gold rush

In this 1849 New Bedford broadside, the ship Josephine is advertised as leaving New Bedford for the gold fields of California. The Gold Rush was a major drain on skilled mariners and others who had hitherto spent their careers, or hoped to, in the whale fishery and maritime trades.

Panorama Conservation Project Reveals Hidden Content.

One of the great treasures of the New Bedford Whaling Museum collection, Caleb P. Purrington and Benjamin Russell’s 1848 painting, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, is currently receiving conservation treatment. Concerns with the 1,285 foot long painting include flaking paint, wrinkling and tears in the fabric. The entire composition consisting of tempera on cotton sheeting, even after being bundled around from city to city 150 years ago, remains in a remarkable state of preservation. It  is nonetheless in need of attention. The painting is stored on rolls, as it was originally, and abrasion has caused some paint loss. For its treatment, the painting has been separated into a series of padded spools. One at a time, the spools are mounted on a custom-fabricated steel table outfitted with cogs, cranks, swivels and other apparatus necessary to maneuver the giant paintings safely and effectively. Its location in the Bourne Building, just adjacent to the model whaling bark Lagoda, gives visitors the opportunity to witness the ongoing treatment firsthand. One goal of the treatment is to minimize the loss of paint as it flakes away from the cotton sheeting. Using a combination of liquid spray consolidates and targeted forensic triage the conservators are systematically stabilizing this important artifact of American maritime history. Another goal is to repair any damage to the fabric.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

One ten foot section of the Panorama is treated weekly to consolidate the fragile and powdered paint layer, in order to prevent it from falling off the cotton substrate. First, the section is examined for minute particles on the surface that are carefully  removed with tweezers. Particulate commonly found are lint, human hairs, dirt and other debris. Once the surface is free of such materials, the section is sprayed with a superfine mist of weak-gelatin solution from a dahlia-sprayer. The solution (.75% conservation grade gelatin in deionized water) serves a dual purpose: as an fixative for the powdering paint, and to humidify the cotton sheeting substrate and reduce wrinkling. 

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores. Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores.
Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

While the conservators examine and treat the painting for its forensic issues, the curators and historians seize the opportunity, while the painting is flat on its bed, to examine the great whaling document for the details of its content; and this painting is replete with fascinating historical details. Everything from flags to geography, to the rigs of ships and boats, is documented in varying degrees of detail and accuracy. Benjamin Russell (1804-1885) was a self-trained artist and himself a whaleman. He is a fascinating figure in New Bedford history. As a young man his prospects were great. His family were successful merchants and he sat on the board of directors of the newly formed Marine Bank. The national banking crisis precipitated by the Andrew Jackson administration, however, caused a constriction of credit and Russell’s assets were insufficient to cover his debts. So, like many in desperate straits, he sought his future at sea and went a’whaling. He sailed on at least one whaling voyage onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford, a sperm and right whaling cruise to the Indian Ocean and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1841-1845. While on the voyage he is said to have kept a sketchbook to record the exciting events and scenes of the hunt intending to use the experience to further his career as a whaling artist. By the 1860s he had firmly established himself in New Bedford and was working as a ship portraitist and print maker, but after he had returned from his whaling voyage he and local sign painter Caleb Purrington (1812-1876) undertook this traveling panorama picture show to take whaling to a broader American audience.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer take a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping shown in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer takes a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

For anyone interested in whaling history and especially for those conversant with the  limited quantity of published American artistic production documenting the whale fishery of the 19th century, any picture offering details of the period of the 1840s is naturally of great interest. The panorama, however, was never meant to be studied as a fine work of art. It was meant to be viewed by a mass audience from a certain distance; hence the artists emphasized broad details for maximum impact and painted the rest with just enough definition to be seen and understood by the audience but not to be examined in detail. Several good examples demonstrate their working style in the creation of this painting where scenes are included but are later painted out entirely or changed significantly.

For instance, as the voyage leaves the Azores, actual whaling begins as sperm whales are seen, boats are lowered and the chase is on.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination. These include the house flag at the top of main mast (the tall one in the middle), the set of the sails, and a large-scale sperm whaling scene, barely visible and easily overlooked.

However, the artists, probably Russell himself, were not content with the scene as it was originally drawn. The sails of the ship, which is shown hove-to with its main topsails and topgallant sails aback, indicate that the wind is blowing from one direction. The American ensign and the house flag at the main also show that wind direction. The original house flag flying from the top of the main mast was originally painted flying the wrong direction and was later painted out completely. Not only was it flying the wrong direction, but the entire design of the flag was changed. It appears that originally, the house flag could have been that of T. & A.R. Nye, it being a blue swallowtail with white lettering, but it was changed to a completely non-descript and unidentifiable design.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

Likewise, the artists changed the foresail which, originally shown as being set, is shown clewed up. This presumably reflects Russell’s practical experience as a sailor and a whaleman, where “having determined from the known quality of the ship, what sail would be best to heave-to under,” Russell made the changes that he thought necessary.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

The artists made other changes in this scene as well. Whether the pictures did not effectively mirror the accompanying narrative or vice versa, that the painting was not following the narrative, the artists eliminated and changed two sperm whaling scenes. It may well be that the painting and the narrative were in a state of creative evolution together and that the artists were making it up as they went along in order to produce a better product in the end. In the below scene, as it was originally painted, a whaleboat is shown on the flank of a very large sperm whale which has been lanced and as shown by its bloody spout, is dying. This could have been the point in the narrative where Russell describes the whaleman’s language “his chimney’s a’fire,” to indicate a whale that has received its death wound.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene and leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the below scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the even more faint outline of the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

As the process of conservation on the Panorama goes forward, doubtless many more new observations will come to the fore regarding the process of its creation. Such observations will fill gaps in the sparse historical record of the Panorama and make for an exciting new narrative about it and its place in American whaling history.

Sources:

William Brady, The Kedge-Anchor; or, Young Sailors’ Assistant (New York, 1850), p.173, entry #308.

The Mystery of the New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company Models

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with the partially assembled New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company models. Photo: Arthur Motta.

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with the partially assembled New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company models. Photo: Arthur Motta.

As the community debate continues about whether a casino should (or should not) be built on New Bedford’s waterfront, the old New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company (NBG&ELC) buildings  stand at the heart of the latest proposed reuse of the site. Also known as the Cannon Street Power Station, the last redevelopment effort, launched in 1997, desired to transform it into a “world-class” aquarium. Turbine Hall, the 1917 monumental structure at the center of the site, once again figures prominently as an architectural centerpiece in the early conceptual drawings of a proposed casino complex.

The proposed New Bedford Aquarium, model, ca. 1998 (Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.)

The proposed New Bedford Aquarium, model, ca. 1998 (Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.)

I will not elaborate on the remarkable history and importance of the company, the building or its many additions constructed over the decades in order to deliver power to the region. It has been well documented by research historian Peggi Medeiros, for its nomination in 2002 as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places (an effort led by the Waterfront Historic Area League and its former executive director, Tony Sousa). Peggi also recently reviewed the site’s history in the Standard-Times in light of the casino proposed by KG Urban Enterprises.

Instead, my focus is to ask the public’s help in solving a mystery regarding a very unusual group of large wooden models of the old NBG&ELC complex, rediscovered recently in the Whaling Museum’s collections.

Now, you may be wondering: How does the Whaling Museum not know about these objects? The answer is: We do know a little about them, but not the maker or makers, when and where they were made and for what purpose. With more than 750,000 objects in the Museum’s collections, the curatorial staff continues its unending quest to preserve and interpret it all, and on rare occasion, is presented with mysteries such as this one, which any latter-day Sherlock Holmes would relish solving.

Some of the original exhibit labels remain attached to models. Photo: Arthur Motta

Some of the original exhibit labels remain attached to models. Photo: Arthur Motta

What we do know is that it was part of an exhibit by NBG&ELC at the New Bedford Armory for the City of New Bedford’s Centennial celebrations of 1947, and thus, it may be the only extant display of the New Bedford Centennial Industrial Exposition, which touted the city’s major business concerns. The model includes several hand-lettered labels explaining the functions of the buildings.

Portion of the Centennial feature in the Standard-Times, July 4, 1947.  Photo: Arthur Motta

Portion of the Centennial feature in the Standard-Times, July 4, 1947. Photo: Arthur Motta

Under the headline “Thousands Visit Centennial Industrial Exhibit at Armory,” a two-page feature article in the New Bedford Standard-Times remarked only briefly how “Miniature old and new plants, gas tanks and a model freighter were combined to make the novel display of the New Bedford Gas and Edison Light Company” (July 4, 1947). Despite its many photos, the feature article did not include one of the exhibit.  So it may be that the models were fabricated expressly for the exposition, however, this has not been confirmed with research to-date.

The models came to light relatively recently, when reallocation of all storage space was necessitated in advance of construction of the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center. Stored deep in the recesses of Johnny Cake Hill’s labyrinth of storage rooms, the models’ presence predate the living memory of the longest-serving staff member, Barry Jesse, who recalls it being in the attic in 1971. Even Eversource spokesperson, Michael Durand and Dana P. Howland, a former director of the company – both men with the longest institutional memories of the utility around – didn’t know of the models’ existence.

D. Jordan Bernson, collections manager, with the NBG&ELC models. The large metal tank model weighs approx. 50 lbs. (photo: Arthur Motta)

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with some the NBG&ELC models. The large metal tank model weighs approx. 50 lbs. (photo: Arthur Motta)

Recently, collections manager D. Jordan Berson and me committed to laying out the sprawling 24 models to see what we could see. It required more floor space than we had anticipated. Constructed of fir plywood, metal and wire, the models are of an undetermined scale, perhaps a quarter inch to a foot. The largest, Turbine Hall, is about 6 feet in length. Several of the models will require careful repair if the entirety is ever to be exhibited again. Indeed, Dr. Christina Connett and her curatorial staff debated the models’ inclusion in the recently opened exhibition, Energy and Enterprise; Industry and the City of New Bedford. However, without its full history, the models were deferred for perhaps a future project and the “Energy” narrative of the current show was related through other objects and images from the collection.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company complex, 1897.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company, 1897.

Using among several references an aerial photograph of the NBG&ELC complex reproduced in the Centennial “Official Souvenir Book” of 1947, we managed an approximate assembly of the plant, sans the missing freighter model aforementioned in the newspaper account. Mr. Berson indulged my request that he be photographed with the models in order to relate scale, although upon inspection of the photos his presence in them recalls for me some distant Christmas morning scene with a Lionel train set!

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company,  New Bedford Standard-Times, 1924.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company, New Bedford Standard-Times, 1924.

The insides of the models are hollow; no internal details were meant to show. Only the exteriors are treated; all ofwhich are painstakingly hand-painted to include dozens of mullioned windows, entablatures, smokestacks, chimneys and vents.  It should be noted here that actual interior of NBG&ELC’s Turbine Hall is amazing, designed by the renowned engineering firm Webster & Stone – designers of the MIT dome in the same year – Turbine Hall’s interior looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel, with its colossal steel girders, massive bolts and riveted crossbeams. Only one of  four soaring smokestacks still stands at the site. The aquarium designers of 18 years ago took full advantage of these imposing elements, and it is hoped, any new project will, too.

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

So please contact me about what you may know of the origin of the NBG&ELC models. My email address is: amotta@whalingmuseum.org.

Perhaps a late, great uncle built it upon retirement. Or a great grandfather worked in a carpentry shop that was hired by the company to build a miniature of the power plant at a scale sufficiently large enough to create an impressive display in the Armory’s sweeping Drill Hall.

Many of the smaller models in the group have metal eyelets screwed in along their bases, it is assumed, in order to fasten each building to a very large base-board, probably painted to delineate the plant’s grounds and also to hold them in position. Unfortunately, the base is missing. To add to the puzzle, some of the models look like structures from an earlier era in the company’s history, as can be inferred from an 1897 illustration of the complex. Could it be that the models as originally exhibited were intended to show the company throughout its history?

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Also, without the base we could not surmise the location of the mysterious so-called Lake Trinidad, noted in historical accounts of the site. As the Standard-Times reported “In 1924, a looming coal strike inspired the installation of an oil-gas generator. This inspiration had drawbacks – the oil-gas generator suffered from a bad case of by-products. The set yielded tremendous quantities of tar and lampblack. The tar was finally run off into a large puddle where it grew to be 3 feet deep and won the name of “Lake Trinidad!”” (Oct. 29, 1950) This was a mocking reference to one of the world’s largest natural asphalt lakes.

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

In closing, we need to learn more about the models and hope someone may know something about their creation. They represent a considerable slice of history for an always-strategic site on New Bedford’s central working waterfront – first, as a simple landing place for the native Wampanoag and then the earliest European explorers; then settlers; then colonial burying ground; then wharves and piers; then iron foundry; then illuminating gas manufactory, then electric lighting company; then New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company; then a wholly-owned subsidiary of New England Gas & Electric Association; then CommElectric; then NSTAR; then a proposed aquarium; now Eversource; and perhaps, a future casino.

Former New Bedford Cannon Street Power Station, 2015 (photo: Arthur Motta)

Former New Bedford Cannon Street Power Station, 2015 (photo: Arthur Motta)

SOURCES:

Ellis, Leonard Bolles. History of New Bedford and its vicinity, 1602-1892, Syracuse, N.Y: D. Mason & Co., 1892.

http://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20150328/NEWS/150329366

KG Urban Enterprises

New Bedford Free Public Library (newspaper microfiche collections)

New Bedford Semi-Centennial and Industrial Exposition Official Souvenir, Providence, R.I.: Journal of Commerce Company, publishers. 1897.

Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

Herman Melville’s Return to New Bedford

Herman Melville

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

157 years ago tonight the author who immortalized the city in Moby-Dick returned to speak, on of all things, Roman statuary. What was it like to be there?

It had been 17 years since Herman Melville was last in the whaling city. His stay was brief then; just a few days before shipping out on the whaleship Acushnet, January 3, 1841. In the years that followed his reputation as an adventurer writer would make his name synonymous with the South Seas. Now, on the evening of February 23, 1858, his return was as a speaker at the New Bedford Lyceum. Just seven years after the publication Moby-Dick, one might expect his topic would be related to that ponderous tome; surely some in town had questions about it. But his lecture that night was titled “The Statues of Rome.” In the Republican Standard a week earlier his talk was listed within a diminutive advertisement.

What was it like that night, arriving at the Lyceum, finding a seat, and waiting for Mr. Melville to take the stage?

Melville’s manuscript of “Statues of Rome” has not turned up. Perhaps he spoke from scant notes; after all, he had been on the lecture circuit some several weeks speaking on this one subject. New Bedford was to be his sixteenth and final engagement in a tour  that left him exhausted. Whether he directed the attention of his audience to placards with illustrations of the works he discussed is not known but it is probably  unlikely. Certainly, many in the hall would be familiar with the stories behind the statues; Greek and Latin were taught in schools for those who could afford an education. Melville’s extraordinary gift of description doubtless could have provided all the visual imagery needed, though one would expect a portfolio of large illustrations upon an easel would have enriched the program for all. Nevertheless, Melville gave his audience their money’s worth.

Melville_Bag_concept_2Although the exact content of the program remains undiscovered, scholars have meticulously pieced together Melville’s talk by studying the many reviews published in local newspapers where he appeared. Thanks to the Melville Society Archives, housed in the Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, multiple sources are available to examine Melville’s lost lecture. Within the Archives “The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860,” published by Northwestern University Press (1987), attempts such  a glimpse. In a section titled Reconstructed Lectures, “The Statues of Rome” is reassembled based upon more than thirty reviews and news articles in the local press where Melville appeared. It should be noted here that the Piazza Tales volume was the work of many academics, including contributing scholar Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, now the Melville Society Extracts Editor.

Thus, we can with  a degree of confidence know what Melville covered through this  Reconstructed Lecture. For example, the Boston Journal (December 3, 1857) reported that “He began by suggesting that in the realm of art there was no exclusiveness. Dilletanti might accumulate their technical terms, but that did not interfere with the substantial enjoyment of those who did not understand them. As the beauties of nature could be appreciated without a knowledge of botany, so art could be enjoyed without the artist’s skill.” (p.727)

Apollo_Belvidere

Melville included the Apollo Belvedere in his lecture on Roman Statuary.

In New Bedford, both the Mercury and the Republican Standard published reviews of Melville’s lecture; the former on February 24th and the latter on February 25th. Neither review noted Melville’s authorship of Moby-Dick. The Mercury reported “Mr. Melville gave an interesting and instructive lecture last evening on the Sculptures of Rome, more especially with many suggestive and thoughtful criticisms on art interspersed.” The Mercury article continued, noting the many works upon which Melville touched. “After enumerating other salient points of the Roman antique, and dwelling upon the vast ruins of the Coliseum and the Baths, the lecturer passed to the villas of Rome, which were the houses of the best collections of the finest objects of art, and where nature had been raised by culture and refinement into an almost human character.”

The Republican Standard was more critical in its review, which also confirms that Melville read from a prepared script.  “The lecture on Tuesday evening was a well written and scholarly essay, which would doubtless be read with much pleasure, but was not calculated to interest as a lecture.” Like the Mercury, the Standard related the various works, which Melville covered in sequence. “The lecturer then gave an account of some of the more ideal works, such as the Apollo Belvedere, which was a model for poets, and from which Milton must have obtained some of his grand conceptions of dignity and grace… The Laocoon, Castor and Pollux, and the Hercules Farnese, with other statues were also described.”

In the week before Melville spoke, the New Bedford Lyceum featured a lecture by the Reverend Henry Fowler (1824-1872), titled “A View of the Pulpit by the Pews.” The content of his lecture mirrored his book on the subject. However, Fowler’s program is important in relation to Melville’s program  because it inspired a parody piece in the Republican Standard, published on February 25, 1858 – the same issue in which its review of Melville’s lecture was published. Titled “The Audience as Seen from the Reporters Box,” the column vividly and humorously describes the scene in Liberty Hall as the audience assembles for the Lyceum lecture. It is a wonderfully witty piece of editorial, which doubtless records the scene of Melville’s program; so much so, the text in its entirety is included here so that the reader may be the judge:

Laocoon

Melville’s talk included this sculpture titled “Laocoön and His Sons” in the Vatican Collections. This image is taken from Smith’s Classical Dictionary, 1866.

“It is the night of the weekly lecture, an occasion which competes for the public attention with the auction room, the reading club, the itinerant psychologist, the prayer meeting, and the spiritual medium. On lecture night all these have to suspend operations. The beauty and the chivalry, the beaux and the belles, the whits and the blues of New Bedford, each having some especial taste to gratify, crowd to the lecture room. The doors are thrown open at an early hour, and those who are blessed with nothing to do, secure the best seats and pass away an hour or two with sandwiches and sewing, magazines and small talk.

“The reporter, to whom lectures, city council and school committee meetings, and all public gatherings which it is his duty to attend, are only a bore, defers his arrival to the latest possible moment. He winds his way through the furniture of the stage and at the risk of his neck, ascends the rickety ladder by which alone he can reach his lofty perch. He folds his shawl and places it on the three legged stool he is privileged to occupy, so as to have as comfortable a seat as possible, wipes his glasses and in the first place, glances over the evening papers, internally anathematizing the ill placed gas light which tries alike his eyes and his temper. The journals are speedily dispatched and he has nothing to occupy his attention previous to the entrance of the lecturer but the audience before him.

“The hall is already pretty well filled. A few however are dropping in. Every seat is occupied. From orchestra to loftiest gallery there is not a vacant space. The latest comers overflow upon the platform, hardly leaving room for the speaker, or stagnate in the aisles. What a sea of faces! What a study for a physiognomist! How many histories can be read in all these countenances! How character stands out not only in the features, but in the dress, the conduct and attitudes of all this crowd! What a contrast between the expression of that shrewd sharp-featured man of business and that dreamy large-eyed youth! Between that cold and calculating politician and that warm hearted and impulsive girl! Between those lineaments molded into sternness by long habits of thought, and the smooth, unmeaning vacant face of one whose mental faculties have never been called into exercise.

“Some are busied with their magazines and newspapers. Others are improving the time by knitting and sewing. Others are communing with their own thoughts. But most are engaged in conversation. Some, talking politics; some criticizing the audience; some talking over last evening’s ball; some whispering tenderly – but the reporter will not reveal the secrets which have reached his ear.

Liberty_Hall_c1860

Liberty Hall, at William and Purchase Streets was the site of the New Bedford Lyceum where Melville spoke on February 23, 1858. (photo ca. 1860, published in the Rotogravure Section, New Bedford Sunday Standard-Times ca. 1930-1950).

 

“Now a slight murmur of applause, which the boys in the gallery aggravate with their feet into a horrible din, announces the entrance of the lecturer. He pushes his way slowly down the aisle and along the crowded platform. He takes his seat, wipes his face with his handkerchief, and looks around him. He is evidently a good deal astonished. He thought he was coming to some small out of the way place to waste his fine thoughts and unappreciated eloquence on a hundred or two of uncultivated people. Perhaps he didn’t think it worth while to bring down his best effort. But he finds himself exceedingly mistaken. He finds, the reporter ventures to say, as fine and well-lighted a hall, as intelligent and appreciative an audience as anywhere in New England, out of the Metropolis. Well, he has got to make the best of it. He is announced. The murmur of conversation gradually dies away, and a profound stillness prevails.

“The lecturer’s fame has probably preceded him, and it now remains to be seen whether it will stand the test of actual experience. His exordium is listened to with attention. As he proceeds, the audience by their air, indicate the judgment they are forming. The politician sneers at some evidence of fanaticism. The eye of the dreamer kindles as he gets a new insight into some great truth. The man of business moves restlessly in his seat as he perceives the subject has no “practical” bearing.  The young girl whispers “beautiful” at some display of flowery rhetoric. The lawyer smiles as he detects a fallacy, and the head of the unthinking one whom no rhetoric, eloquence, humor or logic can move, gradually subsides as he sinks into a dreamless sleep. Sometimes there is a faint applause at some happy expression. But the reporter has observed that our audiences are timid in this respect.  They seem to be afraid of interrupting or disconcerting the speaker.

“But it is more likely that discriminating and genial applause helps to establish a more complete sympathy between the audience and the speaker, to give increased confidence to the latter, and more animation to his delivery. But cat-calls, whistling, and loud stamping, are rude, ill-tempered and abominable.

“So the hour passes away. If the speaker be a man of true eloquence, and sincere earnestness, if he is untrammeled by manuscript and speaks with animation and heartiness, he will generally secure the attention of the audience to its close. But if he be a near rhetorician, a bounding in words but scanty in ideas, if he be confined to manuscript or speaks in the manner of a school boy declaiming from memory, the attention of the audience will soon begin to flag. Conversation will be renewed. General uneasiness will prevail and a universal sense of relief will be felt at the close of the performance.

“But whoever the lecturer may be, he cannot please all alike. None has secured the unanimous suffrage or favor of those who have heard him. To some Beecher is merely theatrical; Chapin, only a thunderer; Phillips, a fanatic; Parker, an infidel; Cushing, a sophist, and Emerson, an unintelligible transcendentalist. In our estimates of lectures as of books, we are all more or less influenced by our prevailing habits of thought, our degree of culture, our standard of taste and our personal prejudices. “What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is true of the ineffectual as well as the bodily appetite. What one admires another abhors. What one approves, another condemns. And so, taking the course of lectures as a whole, each has heard something to disapprove of and condemn, but, we will hope, more to relish, entertain and instruct.

“ We should endeavor to divest ourselves of all personal prejudices, to expand our contracted habits of thought, to acquire a catholicity of taste, and to detect whatever there may be of truth in all the varieties of opinion and doctrine. For each of them is a partial development of the common mind, and what we find wanting in ourselves, we may supply by a candid reception of that which others seek to impart.

“But the reporter didn’t intend to philosophize. The lecture is over. The audience gradually makes its way out of the building, tarrying for the interchange of friendly greeting by acquaintances and of criticisms favorable or unfavorable on the evening’s performance. The lecturer remains behind to receive the fifty he has earned (?) and the reporter hurries home to decipher his hieroglyphic notes before the impression of the lecture has faded from his memory and thus rendered the task almost impossible.”

One wonders 157 years later, if anyone lingered after the lecture to shake Melville’s hand and ask him to autograph their copy of Moby-Dick? And did he smile?

SOURCES:

Melville, Herman. Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860: Volume Nine, Scholarly Edition. G. Thomas Tanselle , Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, Editors. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Parker, Herschel. Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 2, 1851-1891). Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Wallace, Robert K. Douglass And Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Spinner Publications, 2005.

Smith, William. A Smaller Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology and Geography. New York, New York: American Book Company, ca.1866.

New Bedford Mercury, February 1858.

New Bedford Republican Standard, February 1858.

http://www.melvillesociety.org

 

 

 

Interning at the Research Library

UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed her internship in the Research Library. Below are her reflections on the experience:

The New Bedford Whaling Museum has always been a fascinating place inside – you’ve got the Lagoda, the forecastle, and the whale skeletons hanging over you. The exhibits detail answers to every question about whales and whaling that could ever be asked. But there is so much research and materials that the Museum can’t possibly display and discuss them all – for those stories, you have to visit the library.

I interned in the Research Library over the summer, looking for an experience that would allow me to further my interests in New Bedford whaling as well as teach me some new skills, like library management. I enjoyed my experience, and I certainly learned a lot in just a few months.

  • Organization: My tasks primarily focused on organizing Manuscript (Mss) collections. These collections can have all sorts of items – correspondence was common, but there could also be business records, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, pictures, or various mementos. Many of these collections had been accessioned by the Museum (purchased or donated) but not processed (organized with a complete finding aid). This is where I came in – to process the collections. First, I would take a thorough inventory of what was initially in the boxes, taking notes on the content I came across. Next, I’d review my notes and attempt to think of a series arrangement in which to sort the content – whether that was by type of content, time period, or individual associated with the materials. Once running my organizational ideas by Mark, I’d typically start arranging the materials and folders in chronological order. When all the folders were organized, I’d have to officially process them, writing descriptions on each folder. Finally, I’d write the finding aid, have it checked by Mark, and code it for the website. It wasn’t always easy to do, especially as the collections became larger and less organized. It required attention to detail, focus, and great organizational skills – all of which I was able to perfect.
  • New Bedford (Whaling): Working with unprocessed manuscripts was like a crash course in Old Dartmouth history, jumping from century to subject in a matter of pages. And unlike most history courses, which provide overviews of a topic or period, I was able to use primary sources of a particular individual or family to begin to understand what life might have been like. In regards to the whaling industry, the Mss collections covered more than just the experience at sea. I read about whalers writing home to their wives and children explaining day-to-day activities on board; I analyzed records of businessmen managing their vessels and crew; I saw the cards and drawings from children and wives detailing their lives as they waited for fathers and husbands to return. These primary sources served as guides to the stories of whaling I already knew. Through the Delano Family Papers (Mss 134), I saw the beginnings of whaling as various young businessmen traded ships amongst themselves. I saw a wife in the Eliza Russell Papers (Mss 136) writing to her husband on voyage in the North Pacific. I saw as the Matthew Howland family triumphed in the business and then failed disastrously in the Arctic disasters of the 1870s in Mss 135.
  • New Bedford (Outside of Whaling): I also got to view New Bedford as a city of its own – sometimes in its heyday, sometimes long after. Within the Akin Family Papers (Mss 140), I saw the success of industrial businesses, such as the Howland Mills or F.T. Akin & Company, come into power. And from a social perspective, I was able to some of the work of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society through the papers of Charles Gardner Akin, Jr., as well as the sales and exhibitions of Winfred W. Bennett and his Old Colonial Antiques Shop (Mss 138). I even read things entirely different from whaling, like Walter Teller’s research of Joshua Slocum (Mss 131) and Walter Rounsevell’s quest for gold in California (Mss 126). In general, though, I learned a lot about the people that made New Bedford and the surrounding community important.
  • The Library: Other than New Bedford history, I discovered what it takes to work in a library. It’s nowhere near as impersonal as people make it out be – with all the activity, every day was a different experience. While I’d often be in my own little corner working on the project of the week, I’d see all sorts of people looking at all sorts of materials and for all sorts of reasons. Unlike the way people portray or talk about libraries, it’s not this still or stationary place. A library is a haven and a home, ever-growing and shaped by the needs of the researchers. A librarian or an archivist has to be able to think about information differently – not necessarily on linear terms, but in a form that allows you to link ideas and people together. You have to know where to find things off the top of your head, and how to help people find exactly what they are looking for. It’s not an easy job, but it certainly seems like an interesting one.

I’d like to thank the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the opportunity to work in the Research Library, especially Mark Procknik as my supervisor, and Michael Dyer and Michael Lapides for support.

Matthew and Rachel Howland

UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed another project in the Research Library. This time Emily worked on Manuscript Collection #135 (Mss 135) and produced a full finding aid in addition to her reflections below:

Matthew and Rachel Howland were the power couple of 19th century New Bedford: Matthew, co-owner of George Howland & Sons, worked diligently to make the family whaling business a success. While his brother, George, was the face of the business, Matthew monitored the fitting and repair of all the vessels, the sale of oil in foreign ports, the running of the candle-making factory and the hiring of captains and crews. His wife, Rachel, stood as “queen of New Bedford society,” serving as a minister in the Society of Friends for over 50 years and donating to the city of New Bedford through multiple acts of philanthropy. As an activist, Rachel founded multiple institutions for the betterment of society – the Ladies City Mission Society (1868), Association for the Relief of Aged Women (1866), Children’s Aid Society (1891) were just some of the contributions. She was an important individual in the abolitionist movement on a local, regional, and national scale.

Though the collection gives no information on how they met, it does contain the beginning of their relationship. From 1840 to 1842, Matthew sent multiple letters to Rachel, who lived in Burlington, New Jersey. The first letter, written November 20, 1840, appears to be in response to one of Rachel’s. Though not explicitly stated, one can infer that Matthew had proposed a courtship correspondence with her, which she turns down in favor of “at least another year must pass away without further communication.” Matthew, obviously hurt by this, professes his love and his promise to wait for her.

His regular correspondence, however, begins in 1841, waiting the appropriate amount of time before apologizing for the previous letter and asking Rachel to burn it. His letters then go onto detail his life as he takes on responsibility within George Howland and Sons, and the Society of Friends’ meetings he attends.

Several visits are made by Matthew to Rachel’s home of West Hill. It appears they refer to the manor house as “the asylum,” though no explanation is given as to why. Though the collection lacks Rachel’s side of the correspondence, we can infer that her feelings do change for Matthew, as he changes his salutation from “Esteemed Friend” to “My Dearest Chelly” in a letter dated October 1841. We also learn some of Rachel’s fears in marrying Matthew – primarily, the fear of leaving her entire life behind in New Jersey for the “strange land” of New Bedford. Matthew reassures her that he will do as much as possible to make her feel at home here once they are to be married.

Their engagement begins in January of 1842, though it is not official until Matthew’s uncle Isaac sends his approval for the marriage a month later. Very little is stated about the marriage itself, but primarily focuses on events near the chosen date – specifically, Matthew’s excitement of a trip to Niagara with friends Samuel and Sarah.

For an unknown reason, Rachel requested to delay their marriage until September. (One can assume that Michael’s responsibilities in New Bedford, which had significantly increased, were taking a significant amount of time.) Matthew agrees to this request somewhat reluctantly, as it means they cannot attend an event in Niagara. The date September 8th is mentioned as the future date for marriage. Though the letters end in August, records elsewhere indicate that the couple did indeed get married on that date. The final letter of correspondence from October 1847 refers to Rachel as his wife, mentions their daughter Susy [Susanna], and is signed “thy sincerely attached + loving husband.”

The Howlands were major players in New Bedford’s economic and social scene, and their story starts right here – in Mss 135. Matthew’s letters to his future wife preserve a story of friendship, of love, and most importantly, of ambition.

If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this manuscript collection, please call Mark Procknik at the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.