Thursday, December 21, 2023

One woman makes history at the helm in 1856

From FreghtWaves by Brielle Jaekel
When the captain of an American merchant ship fell ill, his wife took command

Mary Ann Brown married Joshua Adams Patten before she turned 16.
He was captain of a ship named Neptune’s Car, owned by Foster & Nickerson, according to an article from the New York Tribune
After their marriage, she joined him on the ship for a journey that lasted 17 months and took them from New York to San Francisco, China, London and back to New York.
Mary Patten helped pass the time by studying navigation.

This pastime would become more important than she ever could have predicted.

In 1856, a 19-year-old pregnant woman by the name of Mary Ann Brown Patten took command of an American merchant vessel named Neptune's Car when the captain (her husband) developed tuberculosis and fell into a coma.
Usually in such a case, the first mate would have assumed command of the vessel. However, the first mate had been locked up in his cabin after it was discovered that he had been purposely slowing down the vessel because he had taken bets on a competitor vessel.
As for the second mate, he was an illiterate man who was unable to navigate.
For 56 days, Mary Ann took the helm of Neptune's Car and was able to bring it safely to San Francisco despite a mutiny to overthrow her.
During the voyage, the first mate demanded that Mary Ann release him immediately and reinstate him as commander of the vessel.
However, she refused.
The first mate then tried to instigate a mutiny, but Mary Ann was able to convince the crew to stick by her side and eventually won their unanimous support. 
Mary Ann did not change her clothes for 50 days and during her spare time, studied medicine in order to take care of her husband.
While his health never fully recovered, Mary Ann managed to keep him alive for the duration of the trip.
When the insurers of the ship rewarded Mary Ann with a $1,000 gift, she replied in a letter that she was doing "only the plain duty of a wife."

A history-making journey

Capt. Patten was commissioned to again command Neptune’s Car from New York to San Francisco in 1856.
Mary, now 19, was four months pregnant but still joined her husband for the voyage.

The navigational skills she had acquired proved vital when Capt. Patten developed a high fever and fell gravely ill.
Mary Patten became the ship’s commander and navigated the vessel on its difficult journey, which included sailing around Cape Horn, according to
The journey was not easy and Mary Patten faced a lot of difficulties.
While she was in command of the ship, she also tended to her husband’s illness.
And as Mary Patten battled rough seas and her husband’s worsening condition, another problem was brewing.

Early in the voyage, the first mate, whose name has been lost to history, reportedly fell asleep while on watch and was fired by the captain.
Yet he remained onboard Neptune’s Car.
Said to be angry about his circumstances and distrustful of a woman in command, he began to plan a mutiny.

The former first mate insisted on changing course and abandoning the trip to San Francisco, according to the New York Tribune article, which said Capt. Patten relayed his disagreement from his chambers and continued to put his faith in his wife.
The crew reportedly was also confident in Mrs. Patten’s abilities and rallied behind her, successfully quashing any attempted mutiny.

After 120 days, Neptune’s Car made its arrival in San Francisco.
The owners of the ship awarded Mary Patten $1,000 for her service in delivering the crew and cargo safely, according to

In an interview with the New York Tribune following the harrowing journey, Mary Patten revealed she had not changed out of her clothes for 50 days in order to maintain her duties.
She expressed a desire to be excused from talking about herself and claimed she had only done her duty as a wife.
She also disclosed that her husband had lost his sight and hearing to the sickness.

Mary Patten gave birth to her son a few months later, and Capt. Patten passed away from his illness three months after that.
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