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First Female Merchant Vessel Commander

The Ship Neptune’s Car launched in 1853 and by 1855, the vessel had already developed a reputation for speed. It was 216 feet long, 40 feet wide, over 23 feet tall, and weighed 1,617 tons. The ship left New York of San Francisco on July 1 1846 along with two other clipper ships, the Intrepid and Romance of the Seas. Since the three clippers left at the same time, they prioritized speed even more than usual, as individuals would wager on which vessel would arrive first. There was money to be made! 

This is where the story gets really interesting. The Caption of Neptune’s Car was Joshua Patten, who married a young woman from Chelsea, Massachusetts, Mary Ann Brown, on April 1,1853, just before her sixteenth birthday. He was twenty-five. When they offered him the command of Neptune’s Car, from New York to San Francisco through Cape Horn, known to be one of the most dangerous straits in the Western Hemisphere, he was going to turn it down because he didn’t want to leave his new wife. Patten was a last-minute replacement because the previous captain had broken his leg shortly before the vessel was to set sail. The owners of the vessel needed a captain and granted John permission to take his young wife along with him. 

Mary Ann Brown Patten was slender and petite, with long brown hair and dark eyes. A small crowd gathered along the wharf to watch as the harbor pilot boarded Neptune’s Car as it was towed down the East River past Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The few women standing on the wharf waved goodbye to the girl who stood on the ship’s deck. The New York Herald reported that the young couple were on board Neptune’s Car and ready to leave the dock only twelve hours after they had received the offer. For the next seventeen months they sailed the world; San Francisco, China, London, and back to New York. Mary was bright and very keen to learn navigation, which she did by assisting her husband, Joshua, with his duties as captain. She spent much time in the ship’s small library and learned how to navigate using sextants, compasses, and charts. 

Now the story gets even more interesting: Neptune’s Car was at the foot of Cape Horn when Joshua developed tuberculosis, then called brain fever, and fell into a coma. Under ordinary circumstances, the first mate would take command of the vessel. However, these were not ordinary circumstances! Before he took ill, Captain Patten caught him sleeping on duty and costing them precious time. He also left the sales “reefed,” thus reducing the area of the sail by rolling one edge of the canvas in on itself, and the vessel’s stability in strong winds, reducing speed. Caption Patten suspected he had placed a bet with one of the competing vessels and confined him to his cabin. Furthermore, the second mate was illiterate and completely unable to navigate. This left Mary Patten the most qualified person on board to bring that ship safely into port. 

When he learned of the dire situation, the former first mate of the ship wrote Mary a letter warning her of the enormous challenges ahead and begging her to reinstate the first mate. To which she promptly replied that if her husband had not trusted him as a mate, she certainly could not trust him as a captain. Seeing that his plea had fallen on deaf ears, he then attempted to incite a mutiny by trying to convince the crew that they must put into the nearby port of Valparaiso rather than going on to their final destination of San Francisco.  

The New York Times reported:“Mrs. Patten assembled the sailors upon the quarter-deck and explained to them the helpless condition of her husband, at the same time appealing to them to stand by her and the second mate. To this appeal each man responded by a promise to obey her in every command. … Mrs. P., without a rival, directed every movement on board.” Mary understood full well that putting into a port in South America would not only mean a loss of crew, but quite possibly of cargo worth $300,000. 


As Neptune’s Care approached San Francisco Harbor, Mary rejected an offer to wait for a pilot to navigate the ship into port. She took the helm herself and docked without incident. Despite all the trials, Neptune’s Care arrived in San Francisco, second, beating the Intrepid. The ship’s insurers knew the Mary Patten had saved them thousand of dollars and was rewarded for her bravery and skill with a thousand dollar bonus in February 1857. She responded to the gift in a letter saying that she had performed “only the plain duty of a wife.” 

Mary Ann Patten accomplished her “plain duty of a wife”, while eight months pregnant. In San Francisco, on March 10th, less than a month after arriving in port, Mary gave birth to a healthy son, whom she named Joshua. 

Young men and women training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York are reminded of Mary Patten’s courage at sea when they pass Patten Hospital, named in honor of America’s first female merchant vessel commander.  


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