In 1787, the eastern portion of Dartmouth seceded and formed a new settlement calledNew Bedford. This new town included areas that are the present-day towns of Fairhaven,Acushnet, and New Bedford itself. Fairhaven eventually separated from New Bedford, and it was officially incorporated in 1812. At that time, Fairhaven included all of the land on the east bank of the Acushnet River. The northern portion of Fairhaven, upriver fromBuzzards Bay, formed another independent town, called Acushnet, in 1860. Thus, what had once been a single town, Dartmouth, with a substantial land area, became, in less than 75 years, four separate municipalities. (The western portion of the original Dartmouth land-purchase eventually became a fifth town, Westport.)
Fort Phoenix (now the Fort Phoenix State Reservation) is located in Fairhaven at the mouth of the Acushnet River, and it served, during colonial and revolutionary times, as the primary defense against seaborne attacks on New Bedford harbor.
Within sight of the fort, the first naval battle of the American Revolution took place on 14 May 1775. Under the command of Nathaniel Pope and Daniel Egery, a group of 25 Fairhaven minutemen (including Noah Stoddard) aboard the sloop Success captured two British vessels in Buzzards Bay.
On 5 and 6 September 1778, the British landed four thousand soldiers on the west side of the Acushnet River. They burned ships and warehouses in New Bedford, skirmished at the Head-of-the-River bridge (approximately where the Main Street bridge in Acushnet is presently situated), and marched through Fairhaven to Sconticut Neck, burning homes along the way. In deference to the overwhelming force approaching from the landward side, the fort was abandoned, and it was destroyed by the enemy. An attack on Fairhaven village itself was repelled by militia under the command of Major Israel Fearing, who had marched from Wareham, some 15 miles (24 km) away, with additional militiamen. Fearing's heroic action saved Fairhaven from further molestation.
The fort was enlarged before the War of 1812, and it helped repel an attack on the harbor by British forces. In the early morning hours of 13 June 1814, landing boats were launched from the British raider, HMS Nimrod. Alerted by the firing of the guns at Fort Phoenix, the militia gathered, and the British did not come ashore.
The fort was decommissioned in 1876, and in 1926 the site was donated to the town by Cara Rogers Broughton (a daughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers). Today, the area surrounding the fort includes a park and a bathing beach. The fort lies just to the seaward side of the harbor's hurricane barrier.
Prior to the second half of the nineteenth century, whale oil was the primary source of fuel for lighting in the United States. The whaling industry was an economic mainstay for many New England coastal communities for over two hundred years. The famous whaling port of New Bedford is located across the Acushnet River from Fairhaven. Fairhaven was also a whaling port; in fact, in the year 1838, Fairhaven was the second-largest whaling port in the United States, with 24 vessels sailing for the whaling grounds. The author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, departed from the port of Fairhaven aboard the whaleship Acushnet in 1841.
However, once New Bedford's predominance in the whaling industry became apparent, Fairhaven's economy evolved into one that supplemented the New Bedford economy rather than competing directly with it. Fairhaven became a town of shipwrights, ship chandlers, ropemakers, coopers, and sailmakers. It also became a popular location for ship-owners and ship-captains to build their homes and raise their children.
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