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The Pregnant Teen Who Captained a Clipper Ship in 1856

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On Nov. 13, 1856, witnesses on San Francisco’s shoreline were astonished by the sight of a pregnant 19-year-old girl guiding a grand, 216-foot-long clipper ship into port. Mary Ann Patten had spent the previous two months leading the crew and cargo of the Neptune’s Car to safety from Chile’s Cape Horn. It was a role the young woman stepped up and took on after her husband — respected captain and master mariner, Joshua Adams Patten — contracted tuberculous meningitis and pneumonia, rendering him blind, incoherent and bedridden.

That Mary had successfully overseen the ship’s safe passage — even while nursing her ailing husband — made her an instant celebrity. That she was the first American woman to captain a merchant vessel made her a nautical legend.

The end of the Pattens’ journey on Neptune’s Car in many ways stands as a testament to their partnership. Joshua and Mary were married when she was just 16. The refined and intelligent girl was born in East Boston to immigrant parents from England, and always had a passion for learning. Joshua was widely viewed as a man of strong principles and good character. Though he was ten years Mary’s senior, the pair quickly developed a deep dedication to one another that was rooted in mutual respect.

That dedication was in evidence after the original captain of the Neptune’s Car became ill and Joshua was asked to take his place on an 18-month around-the world voyage. Keen to accept the business opportunity but loathe to leave Mary for so long, Joshua contacted New York’s Foster & Nickerson shipping company and said that he would accept the job only under one unusual condition — that his wife be allowed to go with him. His bosses agreed.

A 19th century painting of a vast clipper ship at sea.
Neptune’s Car, the ship that Mary Ann Patten would later captain, as seen in Hong Kong Harbor in the early 1850s.

Conditions aboard clipper ships in the 1850s were far from romantic. Everyday life was cold, wet and grueling. Food rations were limited, illness was common on long journeys and, though sick sailors were isolated as soon as possible, it wasn’t unusual for disease to spread in the tight living quarters. Despite what was sure to be a challenging environment, Mary had no fear about joining Joshua on the epic journey. Having been born into a family of seafarers, she held a reverence and love for the open ocean.

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For her first year aboard Neptune’s Car, Mary spent her time wisely and constructively. She studied marinery in Joshua’s library. She assisted her husband with his duties, even keeping the captain’s log. She also took the time to learn how to use the ship’s chronometers — tools to aid celestial navigation. Thanks to her curious mind and diligent personality, by the time Joshua fell ill, Mary had a solid understanding of how to run the ship effectively. It’s a good thing: If she hadn’t, the fate of Neptune’s Car would have been much bleaker.

The reason it was left to Mary to captain the vessel was because the ship’s first and second mates were incapable of doing so themselves. The second mate had never learned how to navigate, and the first — a man named Keeler — was grossly incompetent to the point of dangerous. (Keeler was a hasty replacement for the original first mate, who had broken his leg just before Neptune’s Car set sail.) Keeler was such a liability that he was removed from duty while Joshua was still in charge. One 1877 newspaper article even reported that Keeler was “put in irons” after trying to start a mutiny.

Soon after Mary took over, Keeler wrote her a letter from the brig to try and persuade her that she was ill-equipped to take charge of the ship. He, rather absurdly, suggested that he might take the job instead. Mary responded simply that her husband had not trusted Keeler, so she wasn’t inclined to either. Mary already knew that she had the trust of the rest of the crew, who had adapted remarkably quickly to taking orders from a woman — a diminutive one at that.

In March 1857, the Star of the North newspaper reported:

The rough sailors all obeyed the ‘little woman’ as they called her, with a will, and eyed her curiously and affectionately through the cabin windows while deep in the calculations on which her life and theirs depended … Her time was spent between the bedside of her delirious husband and the writing desk, working up the intricate calculations incident to nautical observations, making entries in the log book in her own delicate penmanship and tracing out with accuracy the position of the ship from the charts in the cabin.

When Neptune’s Car finally arrived in San Francisco safely, Mary’s first priority was getting Joshua home and to medical attention. Because he was a member of their fraternal organization, the California Masonic Temple quickly arranged travel for Joshua and Mary back to Boston.

Soon, news broke that Foster & Nickerson were refusing to pay Joshua’s wages. The resulting public outcry was so great that the New York Board of Underwriters awarded Mary $1,000 and the companies whose cargo she had safely delivered gave her an additional $1,500. (All told, that adds up to around $90,000 in 2023 money.)

After receiving the money, Mary responded with a humble and widely circulated letter. In it, she wrote: “I … endeavored to perform that which seemed to me, under the circumstances, only the plain duty of a wife towards a good husband.”

Sadly, just eight months after the Pattens’ return home, and four months after Mary had given birth to their son, Joshua finally succumbed to his long illness at the McLean Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts. An obituary published July 25, 1857 stated:

Deaf and blind and sick as he has been for months past, [Joshua’s] heroic wife refused to surrender him to the care of strangers. It was not until Friday, when it was apparent that his reason was gone and he was utterly unmanageable, that she consented to his removal to the Asylum. Mary had a fever herself at the time. The patience in suffering and the energy in emergencies which she has hitherto displayed may carry her over this, which she regards as the greatest of her sorrows.

Mary was not long without Joshua. She died of tuberculosis just one month before her 24th birthday, leaving her son, Joshua Jr., to be raised by his maternal grandmother. Today, Mary and Joshua are buried side-by-side in Woodlawn Cemetery, Massachusetts.

Nearby, there is a white stone etched with the words: “Are there seas in heaven, Joshua? And is there such a vessel as our Neptune’s Car? If there is, wait for me and we shall explore the vast and boundless reaches of eternity.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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