Mary Ann Brown Patten - The Pregnant Sea Captain

Mary Ann Brown Patten – The Pregnant Sea Captain

One of the last places you’d expect to find a pregnant woman is upon a sailing ship between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But in 1856, that’s just where 19-year-old Mary Ann Brown Patten found herself. This is the story of how she came to command the clipper ship Neptune’s Car.

A photograph of Mary Ann Brown Patten
A photograph of Mary Ann Brown Patten

The early life of Mary Ann Brown Patten

Mary Ann’s mother, Elizabeth Brown, gave birth to her on the sixth of April 1837 in Massachusetts. As was customary back then, Mary Ann married young, a few days before she turned 16. Her husband’s name was Joshua Adams Patten, and Marry Ann added his family name to her own. A sailor, Joshua was offered command of Neptune’s Car in 1854, the year after the wedding. Neptune’s Car was a clipper, a narrow merchant sailing vessel designed for speed. Accepting the position, Joshua took on the responsibilities of its previous captain. These included a one- and a half-year mercantile voyage. Unable to get enough of his young bride, Joshua brought her along with him. Leaving from New York, they sailed to San Francisco, China, London, and then home again. It’s safe to say that Mary Ann acquired her sea legs in this time, learning much about sailing from her beloved husband.

On your marks, get set…

When the lovebirds got back from their 17-month oceanic honeymoon, they made good use of their privacy. Wink wink nudge nudge. By the first of July 1856, Joshua and Mary Ann were preparing to depart New York for San Francisco, a 24,000-kilometre or 15,000-mile voyage around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. Two other clippers, Intrepid and Romance of the Seas, were to complete the same voyage. As you do, all the sailors placed bets on which vessel would make it to their destination first. Mary Ann told Joshua some good news in the lead-up to the voyage: she was brewing a little Joshua in her belly. Naturally, big Joshua thought it was a grand idea to bring his pregnant wife on a race through two oceans.

The amazing race

In the end, Joshua was lucky he’d brought his young wife with him. Just before they were set to leave, his first mate broke his leg, so Joshua had to rake the port for a replacement. What he dredged up was a man named Mr Keeler. Departing, Joshua soon learned that Keeler was a total slacker. He’d caught him sleeping on the job several times and slowing Neptune’s Car by leaving the sails down. It was possible that Keeler had waged his bet on another one of the ships. Confining Keeler below deck, Joshua took on all of his first mate’s roles, on top of his regular ones. This wore him down, and he soon contracted a cheeky bit of tuberculosis and collapsed on the deck. Now the most qualified person on board Neptune’s Car was Mary Ann Brown Patten, who we’ll henceforth refer to as Captain Patten.

A painting of Neptune's Car in the waters off Hong Kong
A painting of Neptune’s Car in the waters off Hong Kong

Captain Mary Ann Brown Batten

Using the experience gained on her honeymoon, Captain Patten commanded Neptune’s Car for 50 days. Captain Patten got every spare moment; she read books on medicine and tended to her feverish husband, who must have been having a seriously rough time. Throughout these 50 days, Captain Patten didn’t change her salty, soiled clothes once. She braved 15-metre (50-foot) waves, and 160-kilometre-per-hour (100-mile-per-hour) winds and navigated between Cape Horn and Antarctica treacherous icebergs. She even crushed an attempted mutiny by Keeler, winning over her crew with her charisma and prowess—even with her belly beginning to show. If Captain Patten hadn’t tended to her husband, he would almost certainly have perished during the voyage. Captain Patten navigated Neptune’s Car into the port at San Francisco on the fifteenth of November 1856, a journey of 136 days. She even managed to beat one of the other ships, Intrepid, to the destination but fell a little shy of the win. Upon her arrival, Captain Patten was about six months pregnant. She became the first female commander of an American merchant vessel in history. The Neptune’s Car’s insurers awarded Captain Patten $1,000 dollars for securing its $300,000 cargo. The New York Daily Tribune covered her story.

Despite her best efforts, her husband succumbed to tuberculosis on the twenty-fifth of June 1857 at the young age of 30. The disease left him blind and deaf before he died, and he never got to meet his son. Captain Patten joined her husband in 1861, succumbing to the same disease.

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