Mary Ann Brown Patten – through highly unexpected and unique circumstances – became the first female commander of a U.S. merchant vessel. Her husband Joshua Patten was a sea captain who, in 1856, was given command of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car for a voyage from New York to San Francisco to transport cargo. Mary, who was only 19 at the time and pregnant with their first child, accompanied her husband on this trip.
The voyage became all the more difficult when Joshua caught the first mate sleeping on his watch, and had him confined. The problems with the voyage continued, however, when the second mate proved to be an incompetent navigator. As Neptune’s Car approached Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America, Joshua found himself performing both his duties as captain and those of a first mate.
Joshua had not been feeling well even before setting sail from New York, and his extra responsibilities further wore him down. He ultimately developed a high-grade fever and Mary, along with tending to his medical needs, took over as the ship’s captain. As a captain’s wife, she had already read extensively about navigation and helped out her husband on previous voyages. She was therefore able to set the course for Neptune’s Car and navigate the ship towards San Francisco. When the still-confined first mate tried to get other members of the crew to turn against her, Mary managed to persuade them not to mutiny.
After Joshua started feeling a little better, he resumed his duties as captain and released the first mate. Joshua and Mary soon realized, however, that the first mate was conspiring to take the ship to Valparaíso, Chile, instead of San Francisco. To prevent this potential threat to the ship and her cargo, Joshua again had the first mate confined. When Joshua once more ended up bedridden with fever, Mary again assumed his responsibilities as captain and safely navigated Neptune’s Car to San Francisco approximately 130 days after the ship left New York. Mary, who eventually gave birth to a son, achieved legendary status for her great success in filling in as captain of a ship under incredibly demanding conditions.