The First Woman To Command An American Merchant Ship

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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When I was nineteen and a freshman in college, I took a job at the university call center. Every day, from 5 pm to 8 pm, I would head to a tiny cubicle, put on a headset, and make calls to unwitting alumni, asking for donations. They would invariably either scream at me to take them off the call list or hang up before I finished saying hello, so I spent most of my time hoping to luck out and get their voicemail.

I had been at the job for months before I finally had my first success. When the woman picked up, I began my recitation:

“Hi! Is this Mrs. So-and-So from Worcester, Massachusetts?”

On this particular phone call, the woman on the other end was so thrilled that I, a good-for-nothing telemarketer, actually knew how to pronounce “Worcester” that she promptly donated $250 to the university’s alumni fund. I made the call center’s leaderboard for that night and was filled with a sense of accomplishment that lasted months.

What’s the point of this story, you ask? Well, it’s that, at nineteen, my greatest accomplishment was correctly pronouncing the name of a town I had known my entire life and securing a couple hundred bucks to help pay a football player’s tuition.

Mary Ann Brown Patten, on the other hand, had accomplished quite a lot by the age of nineteen. Before she hit her 20s, Mary had become the first American woman to command a merchant ship. She had also faced down a mutiny, successfully led her crew out of gale force winds, and delivered her first child.1

Something tells me she definitely would have made the call center’s leaderboard.

“See The Line Where The Sky Meets The Sea?”

We don’t know too much about Mary’s early life, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she spent most of her days singing “How Far I’ll Go.” What I mean by that is, like Moana, the sea was in Mary’s blood.

Mary’s father was a mariner and her brother the foreman of shipyard, so it’s no surprise, really, that Mary ended up marrying a young captain a few days shy of her sixteenth birthday. On April 1, 1853, Mary Brown became Mary Patten after saying “I do” to Joshua Patten. Despite both parties’ nautical affiliation, the ceremony was conducted on land in Boston.

Soon after their wedding, Joshua received a commission to command a speedy clipper ship called Neptune’s Car. Not wanting to leave his new wife behind (what a good dude!), Josh received permission for Mary to join him on the vessel, and the couple’s real adventure began.

Sailing Straight to Hell

Mary Ann Brown Patten

It seems as though Joshua and Mary didn’t think twice about accepting the opportunity to command Neptune’s Car. Joshua was a young man, after all, and it was rare for someone of his age to get the chance to lead a ship. Rarer still was finding owners who were okay with their young captain’s wife joining her new hubby on board.2

I’ll chalk it up to the fact that Joshua and Mary were really, super young at the time, but they probably should have taken a second to stop and ask themselves just why the owners of Neptune’s Car were so incredibly trusting and chill.

Because, as it turns out, the owners of the ship weren’t exactly just laidback fans of young love. They really, really needed a captain who didn’t ask a lot of questions, and the young Pattens fit that bill.

You see, the Neptune’s Car was “cursed as hell.”3 And not cursed in the fun, Captain Jack Sparrow kind of way. Cursed in the “everyone aboard is going to die a gruesome, shocking death” kind of way.

Here’s just a brief sampling of what had gone down on the Neptune’s Car before Joshua and Mary came aboard:

  • On the previous voyage, the third mate killed another sailor before the ship even set sail.
  • A cargo of munitions had spilled aboard the ship, knocking the entire crew unconscoius.
  • One sailor died in a freak-boat-loading-accident (the unhappy cousin of the freak-gasoline-fight-accident).
  • The previous captain had threatened to kill his entire crew when they mutinied against him.

Basically, the Neptune’s Car was not the ship you wanted to be on if you were a sailor. The only thing that could have made it worse is if Violet Jessop had volunteered to serve as a stewardess on board.

The Pattens either knew nothing about the ship’s tortured past or didn’t really care, because they signed on the dotted line and climbed aboard the demon vessel in 1853. According to the New York Herald, the Pattens signed on to the ship just twelve hours before it was set to sail.

And unfortunately for Mary and Joshua, the Car’s string of bad luck was just getting started.

Trouble on the High Seas

Mary and Joshua’s first voyage on the Neptune’s Car passed by relatively uneventfully, lulling the pair into a false sense of security. They spent seventeen months traveling from New York to London to China, which sounds like a pretty amazing honeymoon to me. During the trip, Mary spent time studying navigation and reading up on the books in the ship’s library, which would turn out to be a really good decision, because, on their next trip, all hell broke loose.4

The Neptune’s Car began its second voyage with Joshua at the helm on July 1, 1856. From the beginning, the trip was destined for trouble.

During the loading process, the ship’s first mate broke his leg and had to be replaced. Eager to start making money, the ship’s owners found a random dude named William Keeler, who, in addition to knowing no one on the Neptune’s Car, turned out to be really bad news. Joshua was also feeling ill before the ship set sail, but the owners, eager to start making money, didn’t really give a shit. So he sucked it up and the journey began.

From the beginning, it was clear that William Keeler was not fit to do anything, much less serve as first mate of a merchant vessel. In addition to sleeping through his shifts, Keeler did things like lead the Car through reefs. In case you didn’t know, coral reefs aren’t great places for ships to travel. After about a month, Joshua was totally fed up with Keeler and had the man confined to his cabin in chains.

The ship might have been able to continue on without further incident, except that Joshua fell extremely, seriously ill a few days later. Turns out, the “under the weather’ feeling Joshua had during packing was actually pneumonia. And, left untreated, that pneumonia had turned into tuberculosis.

Down one first mate and stuck on a ship, Joshua’s health got bad, fast. He collapsed, leaving the ship captain-less and first mate-less.

The ship wasn’t, however, Mary Patten-less.

Immediately stepping up, Mary took control of the vessel and parked it, so she could see to her husband’s health. Things weren’t good: Joshua could barely string a sentence together and was blind and partially deaf. To make matters worse, the Neptune’s Car was caught in a series of storms that had kept the ship rocking for days and good ole Keeler had decided that the best thing he could do in this situation was mansplain to Mary how to lead a ship.5

“Celebrated and Favorite” is a bit of stretch.

Mary, of course, was having none of it. While Keeler had been sleeping on his shifts and resting in chains in his cabins, Mary had actually been doing the calculations and navigating the Car. Even though Joshua was out of commission, Mary knew she had the skills to stay the course.

Keeler, of course, had other ideas.

Mutiny! Mutiny! Mutiny!

From his bunk, Keeler began writing letters to Mary, explaining to her just how hard it was to steer ship, especially in the dangerous waters around Cape Horn. Mary basically responded, “Yeah, you unbelievable idiot, I know. Unlike you, I actually stay awake on my shifts,” shutting Keeler down and wounding his fragile male ego.6

Like millions of wounded men before him, Keeler decided the next move wasn’t to acknowledge that Mary was, actually, right, but to double down on his own erroneous and offensive claims. The tone of Keeler’s letters switched – instead of imploring Mary to take his advice, he began imploring the other men on the ship to take up arms against her and relieve her of command.

Luckily, the other men on the ship knew that Keeler was an idiot and Mary was a veritable badass. To the man, they denied Keeler’s mutiny and put their faith in Mary.

Having won the support of the crew, Mary stepped up to the wheel and set the Car’s course for San Francisco.

In Sickness and In Health

A clipper ship, like the Neptune’s Car.

For the next fifty days, Mary did nothing else but chart the Car’s course and tend to her husband. And when I say nothing else, I mean it – Mary didn’t even change clothes for the duration of the trip. She spent all of her time either steering the ship or reading up on medical practices to try to help Joshua.

Her efforts worked – against all odds, Joshua stayed alive until the Car docked in San Francisco. Mary became an instant sensation, with people from around the world praising both her leadership of the crew and her dedication to her husband.

The only people not enamored with Mary, unfortunately, were the ship’s owners. In a complete dick move, they refused to pay Joshua for his work, stating that because he was sick, he hadn’t actually fulfilled any of his duties. And in a doubly dick move, they refused to pay Mary, too, since she hadn’t actually been a part of the crew.

When the public got word of this injustice, the outrage was real. Eventually, the ship’s owners gave Mary a $1,000 stipend in thanks for her service.

The value of the cargo she had saved through her efforts?

$350,000.7

Buried at Sea

Unfortunately for Mary and Joshua, life didn’t get much easier after their docking in San Francisco. Though Joshua was still alive, his health never really improved, and he passed away in July 1857, just a few months after Mary gave birth to their son. (Oh, yeah, remember? She was pregnant for this entire ordeal).

A few months after that, Mary’s father was lost at sea, and in 1860, Mary herself contracted tuberculosis, dying in March 1861.

She was just a few months shy of 24 years old.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
  2. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
  3. Rejected Princesses. “Mary Patten.” Retrieved from https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/mary-patten
  4. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
  5. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
  6. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
  7. “Mary Patten: A Heroine of the Seas”. The Mariners’ Museum. Retrieved from http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm

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