Phenomenal Feminist Friday

The First American Woman to Command a Ship


One hundred years after her death she was called the “Florence Nightingale of the Ocean,” and honored by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Pregnant, nursing an incapacitated husband, Captain Joshua Patten, and fighting a mutiny at the tender age of 19 Mary Ann Patten (nee Brown) commanded a merchant vessel for 53 days.

Early Life & Proving Her Salt

Little is known about Mary’s life prior to her marriage and later command. Given her take-charge attitude, it is likely that Mary was quite the spitfire as a young woman.

She married a young captain named Joshua Adams Patten in Boston on April 1, 1853; 5 days before her 16th birthday.

In 1855 the ship she would command needed a new Captain; Joshua was offered the post. He did not want to leave Mary; they had barely been married for two years.

Photo Credit: Image: A Squall off Cape Horn
By Currier and Ives

Shortly before the ship was due to leave the owners granted permission for Mary to join her husband. The two had less than 17 hours to get their affairs in order before the Car was due to leave.

For the next 17 months, they sailed to San Francisco, China, London, and back to New York. Mary spent the time studying, teaching herself medicine and how to navigate using sextants, compasses, and charts and assisting Joshua.

That first voyage was not smooth, they faced murder, freak accidents, incapacitated crew, pirates, hurricanes, and endless run-ins with the law.

The skills she developed on her first voyage would help her complete the second.

An Unfortunate Start

Neptune’s Car left New York in July 1856 with two other clippers, Intrepid and Romance of the Seas, all owned by the Foster and Nickerson Company. The three were bound from New York to California to supply the growing gold Rush population.

Captain Patten boasted that his ship could complete the trip in less than one hundred days. He had nearly done it before, arriving in San Francisco 100 days and 23 hours after he left New York.

But he did not count on a mutinous substitute first mate, Keeler. The man was…



Alexandra Henning The Hysterical Historian

I write about politics, science, among other topics as the mood strikes through a historical lense.