Until the discovery of kerosene in the mid-19th century, Americans had burned whale oil for heat and for light for many years. Native Americans on the east coast had routinely butchered beach whales for centuries before white settlers arrived in Massachusetts. English colonists developed a thriving whaling industry, and New Englanders set sail on voyages to the north Pacific that took them away from home and family for years. The city of New Bedford was a center of the industry.
The place to start is the New Bedford National Whaling Historic Park. There are a couple of small exhibits and extremely helpful people there who can answer your questions.
From there, go to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. At the museum, you can see everything from whale skeletons to an actual whaling ship. The museum has great exhibits showcasing the whaling industry and the lives of the sailors, their families, and the men who profited most from the trade and made New Bedford one of the wealthiest communities in the country.
Across the street from the museum, take a short walk to the Seaman’s Bethel, a small church that was attended by sailors and captains before and after their long, dangerous voyages. The dangers of whaling are highlighted by the many memorial plaques marking the deaths and disappearances of crewmen over the years. Herman Melville attended this chapel (You can sit in his pew.) and set a famous chapter of Moby Dick in this very chapel. Very friendly volunteers are on hand to answer questions.
New Bedford was important in antebellum American history for another reason; it was a center of the abolitionist movement. It was one of the major final destinations of the Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass lived there for years. In fact, Douglass met abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison in New Bedford, and the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the black regiment immortalized in the movie “Glory”, recruited there. A recently completed mural near the museum honors this history. The National Park office has information as well.
New Bedford also boasts museums dedicated to glass, firefighting, art, and the Portuguese immigrants who settled in the area.