In the U.S., the pre-Civil War era became a boom time, particularly way out west. With the discovery of huge veins of gold in the California territory, everyone's eyes turned to the Pacific coast. Not only did men (and women) flock in their thousands toward the magnet of possible fortune, but East coast industry made room for providing the necessaries of life and work 5,000 miles away. This was the era of the great clipper ships (like the inimitable Cutty Sark above, painted by Jack Spurling) that went around the horn with supplies for the golden coast of California.
The trips were arduous at best and they were frequently made more so by the need for speed. Captains had deals with ships' owners and insurance companies that they would stop in no other port but their destination (usually San Francisco) and they would race one another to see who could shave off the most time. Trips from the Hudson River to the mouth of San Francisco Bay could take as little as 140 days. 120 days was not unheard of.
Into this environment, and aboard a clipper much like Cutty Sark named Neptune's Car, came the very young Mary Ann Patten. Married at 16 to 26 year old clipper captain Joshua Patten, Mary spent the first year of their marriage at home in Boston. When Joshua was given the coveted command of Neptune's Car, the couple decided that Mary would join him on his voyages. She seems to have jumped in with both feet. On their first cruise, which included not only the stop at San Francisco but also a race to China and a circumnavigation of the globe, Mary learned sailing and the intricacies of navigation.
It was the couple's second voyage, however, that would distinguish Mary from all her sex once and for all. And so the papers all around the world would say.
Neptune's Car left Hudson Bay July 1, 1856 with a cargo of machinery for the gold mines as well as iron and sheet metal. Her owners had made it clear that the ship was not to be taken into any port aside from San Francisco. Captain Patten set an enormous press of sail almost immediately and the long trip was begun.
Unfortunate trouble with the First Lieutenant began almost immediately as well. Mr. Keeler was found sleeping on duty more than once and he had the infuriating habit of taking in sail the Captain had ordered set while Patten was sleeping or in his cabin. Reprimands only increased the mutinous behavior and Patten finally had Keeler demoted and put the Second Lieutenant, Mr. Hare, in his place. The problem with that was Hare's ignorance of navigation. As the ship came into the dangerous waters at the southern tip of South America, Captain Patten's responsibilities doubled.
He was on deck watch after watch in the cold, icy waters south of Tierra del Fuego. He became feverish, delirious and eventually he collapsed on deck as Neptune's Car ran into one of the almost unnavigable gales in the southern latitude.
Mary had her husband rushed to his cot and strapped in. While she was tending to him, the word was passed that Mr. Keeler was inciting the crew to run for a South American port to save their ship and themselves. Mary left the Captain's side and went up on deck where she bravely faced the old salts down and exhorted them to their duty to ship, cargo and Captain. Slender Mary Ann Patten, with her dark hair, "...large ... luminous eyes and very pleasing features" took command of Neptune's Car that night near Cape Horn. She was nineteen years old and a few weeks pregnant.
The journey north was harrowing for all involved. Men were soaked to the bone with freezing water as they faced 60 foot waves that plowed up from Antarctica. Pack ice was sighted and double watches were posted to keep an eye out for icebergs. The wind shifted east and Neptune's Car had to tack into it despite the 18 day gale that tore at her sails. All the while Mary tended to charts, logs, and her fading husband. Over the course of the voyage he would return to the deck one more time, collapse again and finally loose both his sight and his hearing.
Mr. Keeler attempted one last rebellion, trying to get the men to take the ship into Valparaiso, Chile. The crew rallied around Mary and continued north where they were becalmed near the equator. Mary spent 50 days without changing her clothes, sleeping when she could and navigating Neptune's Car toward safety.
On November 15, after laying off the San Francisco headland in another calm for ten days, Neptune's Car finally sailed into the bay. Mary, now four months pregnant, took the helm and eased her ship into port. The vessel, though ragged and in need of a refit, was in tact. The valuable cargo was safe.
Neither Joshua nor Mary Ann Patten ever really recovered from their ordeal. They returned to New York via Panama. Mary found herself an object of public adulation, and the insurer of Neptune's Car even sent her money - $1,000 - for her unprecedented efforts. She insisted that she only did her duty as a wife, and kept to same by nursing her husband at the Battery Hotel.
The Pattens returned to their native Boston in the spring of 1857 where Mary gave birth to a son, Joshua, in March. Captain Patten died the following July, a little over a year after Neptune's Car set out for San Francisco. Mary contracted tuberculosis at some point during her famous act of heroism. She convalesced quietly in Boston with her son until her own death. From the Boston Daily Courier March 19, 1861:
Mrs. Mary Ann Patten, widow of Capt. Joshua Patten, died yesterday of consumption. She had nearly completed her 24th year.
Mary saw a lot in her short life and probably more than she ever imagined or wanted to. She did not go looking for a hero's adulation, but when circumstances presented themselves she took action and didn't look back. I think it's unfortunate that so many people - especially young women - today know nothing of Mary Ann Patten. Her story is certainly well worth repeating.
(Painting by John Gordon: Mary Patten On the Deck of Neptune's Car)