Mary Patten never set out to be a sea captain, but that’s what she became in 1856.
She had married Joshua Patten, a sea captain, in 1853 at the age of 16. He was 25, and worked ferrying cargo and passengers from New York to Boston.
In 1854, when the captain of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car fell ill just before a voyage to San Francisco, Joshua Patten received an offer to take over. Reluctant to abandon his young wife, Joshua got permission to bring Mary along for the voyage.
With just a matter of hours to prepare, the couple departed for their first trip. Mary spent her days looking after her husband, studying the ins and outs of sailing and assisting with the navigation. Coming from a well-to-do family in East Boston, Mary knew how to read, and she began studying navigation in depth.
That first round trip went smoothly, but the same voyage in 1856 would not — by a long shot.
In July of 1856, Joshua again captained the Neptune’s Car as it left New York. Mary Patten again joined him. This time she was pregnant with their first child.
As was common in those times, several clipper ships that had departed at the same time were conducting a friendly race to San Francisco. The need for speed was anything but trivial. A captain might earn $3,000 for a successful voyage from New York to San Francisco. But if he could complete it in less than 100 days, he could receive as much as $5,000.
No wonder, then, that the actions of the first mate infuriated Joshua. He caught the man sleeping on his watch and leaving the sails reefed, which slowed the ship considerably.
Joshua ordered the man confined. The second mate couldn’t navigate, so as the ship approached the southern tip of South America, Joshua attempted double-duty — both his and the first mate’s.
He had already been feeling under the weather before the start of the trip, but the double duty further weakened him and he soon came down with fever. Mary Patten took to reading medical books to learn how to treat her husband. When he could no longer captain the ship, she filled in for him.
Mary set the course and navigated the vessel. She also nursed Joshua, shaving his head to reduce his fever. At one point, during rough seas, she had to tie him into his bunk while she carried out the navigator’s duties.
The First Mate
The greatest threat to the success of the voyage, however, was the first mate. He had sent a letter to Mary offering to faithfully carry out the duties of captain if she would release him. But 19-year old Mary held firm to her husband’s wishes. If Joshua did not trust the first mate, she said she would not overrule him. The mate turned to the crew, asking them to mutiny, but Mary persuaded them to obey her.
As Joshua regained some of his strength, he relented and returned the first mate to active duty. Soon, however, he noted that the first mate was not following the course he laid out. He again had the mate detained, and upon investigation he learned that the frightened mate was attempting to take the vessel to Valparaíso in Chile. Had the ship detoured, Joshua feared the crew would leave and the cargo would be lost.
With $300,000 worth of cargo on board, sea captains were chosen because of their sense of responsibility. Neither Joshua nor Mary Patten were prepared to sacrifice the cargo entrusted to them. So with the mate again confined, and Joshua relapsed into a feverish haze, Mary once again had to take command.
She would spend 50 days, she said later, wearing the same clothes. When the vessel arrived in San Francisco, completing the dangerous trip around Cape Horn, Mary Patten stood at the helm and navigated the ship into port. The journey had taken more than 130 days, hardly a record, but of the three vessels that left New York at the same time as Neptune’s Car, Mary had beaten all but one of them to San Francisco.
Word spread of how Mary Patten had nursed her husband, navigated the clipper ship and protected the vessel’s cargo, all at the age of 19. Suddenly she found herself an instant celebrity. Newspapers coast-to-coast carried the story.
Joshua, a Mason, received assistance from the California Masonic Temple, which sent someone to accompany him back to New York and from there to Boston. Mary faded into quiet domestic life. She received a $1,000 bonus from the shipping line for her heroics, and a Boston newspaper set up a fund to help defray the costs of caring for her husband. She said she had performed, “only the plain duty of a wife towards a good husband.”
Joshua, unfortunately, would never recover. He died in July of 1857 at age 30 in the Somerville, Mass. asylum. It’s not recorded exactly what killed him, though the disease was likely tuberculosis. His disease rendered him blind, deaf and incoherent. He never knew that Mary had given birth to a son.
Mary Patten herself would not live much longer. She already suffered from fevers when Joshua died, and lost her life by age 24.
This story about Mary Patten was updated in 2020.