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Mary Ann Brown Patten Was The First Woman Clipper Ship Commander Despite Two Mutinies And Multiple Tragedies

Mary Ann Brown Patten was nineteen years old in 1857 when she sailed from Boston to San Francisco via Cape horn on Neptune’s Car with her husband Joshua Patten. This was the era of great clipper ships like the famed Cutty Sark. They were built for extreme speed and Mary Ann Brown Patten’s husband had established a reputation for handling that power. When hired to make a run to San Francisco, he refused to leave without his young bride. That was the best decision he ever made.

Mary Ann Brown Patten Mastered Technical Skills Of Sailing And Navigation

Mary Ann Brown Patten married sea captain Joshua Patten in 1853. She was 16 and he was 25. Gold had been discovered in California and companies in the east were making fortunes shipping provisions to fuel the rush. They needed captains like Joshua Patten who could shave days off the long trip.

In 1854, owners of the Merchant Clipper ship Neptune’s Car hired him to sail from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn. Although the Cape was considered one of the most treacherous straits in the Western Hemisphere, he requested permission to bring his young wife on the voyage. Like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland years later, Mary Ann had little time to prepare for departure. She rose to the challenge.

Owned by Foster and Nickerson of New York, Neptune’s Car was approximately 216 feet long by 40 feet wide. It had three masts that reached nearly 24 feet. One mast carried 25 sails that spread as wide as 70 feet.

Mary Ann Brown Patten’s first voyage with her husband they travelled from the east coast to the mouth of San Francisco Bay and on to China. Coming from an upscale Bostonian family that gave her a good education, she used her time at sea to master the many technical skills of sailing and navigation.

Mary Ann Brown Patten’s Second Voyage Sealed Her Place In History

Early July 1856 Mary Ann Brown and Joshua Patten set sail for their second journey to San Francisco. Their cargo included machinery, iron and sheet metal for California’s gold mines. The owners of Neptune’s Car gave Captain Patten strict orders: he was not to take the ship into any port other than San Francisco.

The difficult 15,000-mile journey typically took approximately four months to complete by clipper ship. Because several ships would often set sail within days of each other, the need for speed spurred huge competition. Yes, there were bragging rights, but the first into port undoubtedly made the highest profits. Captains and ship owners often made wagers to see who would make port first. In July 1856 Neptune’s Car would race against other clippers including the Intrepid and Romans of the Seas on this particular trip from the Hudson River to San Francisco. Joshua Patten was the favorite to win.

Their Passage to San Francisco Became A Perfect Storm

Troubles for Neptune’s Car started before they set sail. Joshua Patten’s first mate fractured his leg and was forced to cancel his voyage. The owners of the clipper refused to delay the trip. Instead of allowing their captain to select a good replacement they assigned a Mr. Keeler as First Lieutenant. Joshua Patten repeatedly found Keeler sleeping on duty. Keeler would also take in sales when Patten was in his cabin. After several reprimands, Patten demoted Keeler, placing Mr. Hare, the Second Lieutenant, in first position.

Because Hare was not capable of navigating, Patten had to do double duty as the clipper approached the icy waters of the southern tip of South America. When Joshua Patten grew ill and collapsed on deck as a storm approached. Mary Ann Brown Patten tended to him. Word soon came to her that Mr. Keeler was attempting to incite the crew into mutiny.

Mary Ann Brown Patten left her ailing husband’s side to face off with Keeler and the crew. Nineteen years old and a few weeks pregnant, she won the loyalty of the crew and had Keeler confined to a cabin. Because Hare was unable to navigate, she took over the duties of captain. She later told a reporter for the New York Daily Tribune February 18, 1957 that she did not change her clothes for 50 days, for fear of losing control of the ship.

“About one week after the Captain fell sick the mate wrote a letter to Mrs. Patten, reminding her of the dangers of the coast and … offering to take charge of the ship. She replied that, in the judgment of her husband, he was unfit to be mate, and therefore could not be considered qualified to fill the post of commander. Stung by this rebuff, the fellow tried to stir up the crew to mutiny against her. She called the other mates and sailors aft, and appealed to them to support her in her hour of trial. To a man they resolved to stand by her and the ship, come what might.”

By the time the ship came nearly up to the latitude of Valparaiso, Capt. Patten had somewhat recovered from the fever… the mate, after promise of doing better in future, had partially resumed duty. But Mrs. Patten discovered that he was steering the ship out of her course, and making for Valparaiso…. He then sent for the four mates and the sailors, promoting the second officer to his place. Then he gave orders that under no circumstances were his ship to be taken into any other port than San Francisco. Soon after he had a relapse, and for 25 days before the vessel reached port he was totally blind.

Neptune’s Car Still Came In Second

Mary Ann Brown Patten managed to guide the ship through 60-foot icy waves from Antarctica during an 18-day gale. Undaunted, she continued tending to the charts, logs and her sick husband for 56 days. Neptune’s Car reached San Francisco in 120 days, beating three out of four of her competitors. Mary Ann Brown Patten was given $1,399 from a fund for her relief set up by the Boston Courier.

The Heroine Of The Sea Died Soon After

After a period of recuperation in San Francisco, the Pattens returned to Boston. Mary Ann Brown Patten gave birth to their son whom they named Joshua. Captain Patten died in July 1857, less than two years later. At 24, Mary Patten died of tuberculosis four years later in 1861.

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3 Responses

  1. Mary Ann Pattern is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, Ma.
    I visit her grave often and bring a flag and flowers as I do for 2 Civil Was hero’s and Rebecca Pomeroy who was Lincoln’ s family nurse at the White.
    So I was so happy to see this tribute to Mary Ann Pattern.

    1. Dear Brenda, thank you so much for this! Yes, this woman fascinates me. I wish we knew more. I’ll look into the other names you mention for additional posts. If you have information you would like to share, I’m interested!

    2. Dear Brenda, Thank you again. You’ve inspired me to do a post on Rebecca Pomeroy. I came across her every time I researched the Lincoln family. If you have other favorites, please share!

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