The Unsinkable Mary Patten

One hundred and seventy-five years ago a pregnant teenager took command of her husband’s ship and made history.

Nineteen-year-old Mary Patten did it all for 56 days whilst fighting off a mutiny, nursing her seriously ill husband and battling stormy seas.

So who was this determined young woman and what is her story?

Mary Brown

Mary Patten was born Mary Ann Brown in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1837 to George and Elizabeth Brown. She married her sea captain husband, Joshua Adams Patten from Rockland, Maine on April 1, 1853 five days before her 16th birthday.

Two years later, Joshua was offered the command of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car and, reluctant to leave his young wife at their home in Boston, gained permission to take her with him. At 216 feet long and 1,617 tonnes, Neptune’s Car had a reputation for speed and for the next 17 months took the young couple from San Francisco to China, London and then to New York.

As they sailed, Mary learned navigation and helped Joshua with his duties as captain.

On July 1, 1856, the ship left New York bound for San Francisco. They were one of three clippers — the others being the Intrepid and Romance of the Seas — leaving the east coast city.

At the time it was common for people to place bets on which vessel would arrive first which might be the reason why Joshua’s first mate, William Keeler, lost his position. It was suspected that he had placed a bet on one of Neptune’s Car’s rivals and was out to sabotage the voyage. He was found sleeping on watch and had neglected to reef the sails, a failure that would have lost them speed. Captain Patten ordered him confined to his cabin in irons and the ship continued on its journey south.

Cape Horn

Their route took them along the eastern coast of South America and as the vessel got closer to Cape Horn, Joshua became dangerously ill with exhaustion and pneumonia which worsened his tuberculosis and gave him a high fever. He lapsed into unconsciousness leaving the vessel without a captain.

With her husband so sick, Mary, by now five or six months pregnant with their first child, had a dilemma. She didn’t want to reinstate Keeler, believing that if her husband didn’t trust him she shouldn’t either. The second mate was illiterate and couldn’t navigate, so that left only one other person who could get the ship to San Francisco safely…herself.

Mary took charge and set sail for the north-west American port and became the first American woman to command a ship. However it was not all plain sailing.


A week after she took over, Keeler wrote a letter from his cell offering to captain the ship. He was contrite and full of reassurances, but she refused. He then attempted a mutiny by trying to persuade the rest of the crew that they would be safer docking at the port of Valparaiso, Chile rather than continuing on with a woman in charge.

An article in the New York Daily Tribune, published a short time after, takes up the story: “…she called the other mates and sailors aft, and appealed to them to support her in her hour of trial. To a man they resolved to stand by her and the ship, come what might.”

With Mary in charge, the clipper and her crew battled through stormy seas, sleet, snow and icebergs to round Cape Horn. Despite the dangers, Mary successfully navigated her way around and the Neptune’s Car then began her long voyage north.

As they sailed, not only did Mary act as captain, but she also studied medical books on board so that she might best nurse her ailing husband.

By the time the ship was nearing Valparaiso, and thanks to Mary’s constant nursing, Captain Patten appeared to be recovering. However, he was still greatly weakened by his illness and unable to resume his duties. Keeler, meantime, had promised to do better and had been allowed to resume some of his responsibilities on board. However, his reinstatement was not to last; Mary discovered he had been secretly steering the Neptune’s Car off course in the direction of the Chilean port.


“Captain Patten had his cot moved to a part of the cabin from which he could view the ‘tell-tale’ of the compass, and soon found that the mate was still steering for Valparaiso.”

Keeler was formally deposed, the second mate promoted in his place and instructions were given that the clipper was not to dock anywhere but San Francisco.

Over the next 25 days, Captain Patten’s health deteriorated again and the infection moved to his brain. By the time they reached San Francisco he was blind and partially deaf.

The ship, however, arrived safely taking 137 days to do the journey and beating its competitors.

“The safety of the ship and the preservation of her husband’s life were wholly due to the constant care and watchfulness of Mrs Patten.”


On arrival, news of Mary’s bravery and skill travelled fast. She soon became a national sensation, her story appearing in newspapers across the country. Despite her fame, the shy young woman is quoted as downplaying her part: “Mrs Patten begged to be excused from speaking about herself. She said she had done no more than her duty…Few persons would imagine that the woman who behaved so bravely and endured so much for her husband’s sake, is a slender New England girl, scarcely twenty years old.”

However, Mary’s triumph did not bring her anything but infamy. Despite saving the ship, its crew and its cargo, Mary never received her husband’s wages from Foster and Nickerson, the company that owned the clipper. Instead, following a public outcry for their insurance company to award Captain Patten £5000, the couple were finally given £1000.

However, this money could not help the stricken Joshua. His health grew worse and he became incoherent and rambling.

By February 1857, the couple had moved back to Boston where their son, Joshua Jnr, was born. The senior Joshua never got to see his son grow up as shortly afterwards Mary was forced to commit him to an asylum where he died a few months later.

Tragically, Mary’s father was then lost at sea shortly afterwards and Mary herself didn’t live much longer. She had contracted tuberculosis and died on March 18, 1861…a few short weeks shy of her 24th birthday. She is buried next to her husband at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.

Their son did reach adulthood. Joshua Jnr never married and died at the age of 43 in an accidental drowning incident in 1900.


It took 100 years for Mary’s bravery to be recognised, but her deeds were finally celebrated when the US Merchant Marine Academy opened a new hospital at King’s Point, New York. They named it Patten Hospital in her honour. She is also the inspiration for a novel by Douglas Kelly called The Captain’s Wife.


So what happened to the dastardly Keeler? It seems he may have persuaded one of his ship mates to free him from his cabin for he disappeared shortly after the clipper got into harbour and was never heard of again.

If you liked this, you might like my short history of the British seaside article: A short history of the British seaside | by Dawn Nelson | Medium

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