Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town

By Huntington, Tom | American Heritage, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town


Huntington, Tom, American Heritage


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IN THE EARLY- TO MIDDLE 1800s, whale oil made New Bedford, Massachusetts, "the richest city in the world." In Moby-Dick, his great whaling novel, Herman Melville described the port as "a land of oil," a place with "patrician-like houses" and "opulent" parks and gardens.

Now historians hope that a huge trove of banking records, discovered in September by a local salvage firm in the attic of a former Merchants National Bank building, will cast fight on the complex financial underpinnings that once made the city wealthy: "We estimate that there are 1,800 volumes," says Michael Dyer, the librarian and maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which purchased the records. "There are nine pallets and some of them are stacked four feet high."

The ledgers cover the period from the bank's founding in 1825 to around 1927 and include cash books, deposit books, stock indexes, depositors' balances, letter books, bills receivable--all threads of a vast financial web once centered on the lucrative industry in whale products, which included everything from oil for lamps and baleen for corsets.

Dyer expects the ledgers will illuminate the myriad transactions that supported the whaling industry, in which single individuals or companies might handle many different aspects of the trade. "In many cases, the same people that owned the vessels, also invested in the rope walks; they were ships' chandlers, and grocers, and had their counting houses in buildings that had coopers on the ground floor and a sail loft on the top floor," Dyer says. "They' managed and owned the oil refineries and the distribution networks. …

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Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town
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