Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Taking Command

I recently read The Great Clippers by Jane D. Lyon, who mentions a young wife who took command of a sailing ship as it rounded the Horn in a storm. Of course, I had to learn more! I give you Mary Patten, a true nineteenth century heroine!

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1837, Mary Ann Brown married at the tender age of 15 to a dashing sailing ship captain named Joshua Patten who was nine years her senior. He was a rising star among captains, so it wasn’t surprising for him to be offered command of an extreme clipper, a more than 1,600-ton sailing ship with massive amounts of canvas, within two years of their marriage. Neptune’s Car was built by Page and Allen of Portsmouth, Virginia, for the line of Foster and Nickerson in New York. Under Patten’s command, she had broke records for the time from Boston around the Horn to San Francisco.

And Mary came along. In her first 17-month journey, she saw the coasts of South America, San Francisco, China, England, and New York. But she was no idle passenger. She used the time to learn navigation and the role of a captain aboard a sailing ship.

In 1856, they started out on another long voyage to San Francisco, racing several other clipper ships. Mary was 19 years old and pregnant with her first child. The trip began much like the previous, with more than some $300,000 of cargo in the hold and a valiant crew, but things began to worsen fairly quickly. For one thing, the first mate proved inept, sleeping through his watches and failing to let down the sails to catch the wind. There was some speculation he had bet on one of the other ships reaching California first. After attempting to reason with him, Joshua relived him of duty and clapped him in irons, then took on the duties of the first mate himself.

Tragedy struck just as they reached Cape Horn. Joshua came down with brain fever and was insensible. (Some accounts say it was tuberculosis.) With the first mate unreliable and the second mate unable to navigate, Mary Patten assumed command. She is credited with being the first female captain of a sailing ship.

It couldn’t have been easy. The Horn is notorious for its gales. Besides ordering the work of the crew, Mary had to devote herself to caring for her sick husband. She studied the medical books aboard to gain ideas of how to ease his suffering. When the first mate tried to instigate a mutiny, she stood up to the crew and rallied them to her cause. They reached San Francisco ahead of all but one of their competitors, and Mary herself piloted the ship into port.

She and Joshua returned home to Boston via another ship, a steamer, but her beloved husband never recovered. It’s likely he didn’t know Mary had given birth, to a son she named Joshua. Having heard of her heroism, the New York Daily Tribune tried to interview her, but she was too humble. The reporter said she was “of medium height, with black hair, large, dark, lustrous eyes, and very pleasing features.”

Sadly, Mary caught consumption and died four years later. She was 23. She has been the inspiration for a novel, and the U.S. Merchant Marine academy named its hospital after her.

One of the most touching things I learned about Mary, however, was the stone she put on Joshua’s grave. It reads, “Are there seas in heaven, Joshua? And is there such a vessel as our Neptune’s Car? If there is, wait for me. And we shall explore the vast and boundless reaches of eternity.”

Now, there’s a nineteenth century heroine.

And I will be so bold as to draw your attention to another nineteenth century heroine, this one fictional. The Unflappable Miss Fairchild, the first book in my Uncommon Courtships series, is available for free through June 16. The ever-practical Anne Fairchild knows the proper way to seek a husband. So why is it one moment in the presence of the dashing Chas Prestwick, and she’s ready to throw propriety to the wind? Chas excels at shocking Society with his wild wagers and reckless carriage racing. But his bravado masks a bruised and lonely heart. Can the sweet-natured Anne convince him to take the greatest risk of all—on love?

You can find her at fine online retailers such as



Barnes and Noble  


Apple Books 

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