I came across this story while researching Lady Pirates. It's an
incredible tale that I won't have time here to cover in depth. But I
hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did. Especially because it
happened in the year 1856 when women still had few rights.
It happened on board a ship named Neptune's Car,
which was a magnificent clipper ship carrying a valuable cargo of iron,
sheet lead, and mining machinery from New York to the California gold
fields. The captain was Joshua Patten, a 29 year old hardened seamen
with vast experience upon the seas. Tired of being without him for the
first two years of their marriage, Mary Patten convinced her husband to
bring her along on this voyage. Her husband was happy to comply. The
ship set sail from New York on July 1st 1856 and sped southward under
full sail. During the early days of the voyage, at Mary's request,
Joshua was happy to teach his wife the art of Navigation. He taught her
about winds and tides. He showed her how to calculate the ship's
position with a sextant and chronometer, how to work out the correct
course and how to keep a daily log of the ship's progress. She didn't
realize how valuable these skills would be to her very soon.
The storms off Cape Horn during October 1856 were so
ferocious that one experienced sea captain was forced to retreat and
take cover at Rio De Janeiro after his sails were torn to shreds and ten
of his crew had been washed overboard. Soon the Neptune's Car
into the midst of this "perfect" storm. Joshua Patten spent 8 days
without sleep, trying to keep the ship afloat and ice from forming on
the rigging. Exhaustion overtook him and he finally collapsed on the
deck. When Mary, his young wife, was called above, she instructed the
men to bring him below and lash him to his bunk. After several hours, he
seemed to be getting worse and Mary assumed he must be gravely ill.
Now what was she to do?
Usually the first mate takes
over for the captain, but Joshua had removed the first mate due to
negligence and replaced him with a man who had no idea how to navigate.
To make matters worse, when the crew discovered the captain's condition,
the original first mate tried to incite a mutiny! Mary knew she had to
do something quick or she'd lose the ship and its cargo to either a
mutinous crew or the storm. So, ordering all hands to muster on deck,
she came above to address the crew.
Try to picture the scene with me. Mary was only 19, a
petite woman with black hair and what one observer described as "large,
dark, lustrous eyes and very pleasing features" She wore a long gown
that was tossed to and fro in the wind and clasped a shawl about her
shoulders. A few weeks earlier she had learned she was pregnant. The
crowd of men that faced her were rough, hardened sailors who had spent
years at sea and had never taken an order from a woman. The ship bucked
and leapt over massive swells, drenching them all in sea water, as the
wind screamed and howled through the rigging. And through it all, this
little lady climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck, planted her boots on
the heaving deck, gripped the railing, and addressed the mob.
she said exactly we do not know, but her job was to persuade these men
to remain loyal to her husband and to herself and to deliver the cargo
to San Francisco safely. Somewhere in the howl of wind and sting of
rain, she accomplished the impossible and the crew agreed to follow her
orders. She decided to head southeast out of the storm and into colder
waters. Finally when the sun broke through the clouds she was able to
get a good reading on their location and discovered they were 250 miles
south of the Horn. The waters were freezing and they spotted icebergs
in the distance (certain death for any ship!)
double watches at night and put her keenest eyes in the tops during the
day to navigate through the ice. For four long, frightening days, Neptune's Car
eased her way west until finally they were free to head north into
warmer waters. Mary's husband had two brief periods of recovery in
between severe relaspses, one in which he lost his sight and the other
in which he became deaf. Now Mary, at four months pregnant, was in full
command of the ship. For the next 50 days, she did not even undress,
sleeping in her clothes and focusing all her attention on getting to San
In early November, they sighted the bay and
on November 15th, Mary insisted on taking the helm and steering the
salt-stained vessel into port. Below, read a portion of the letter
addressed to her by the Union Mutual Insurance Company, the underwriters
for the voyage.
Nor do we know of an instance on
record where a woman has, from force of circumstances, been called upon ,
or assumed command of, a large and valuable vessel, and exercised a
proper control over a large number of seamen, and by her own skill and
energy, impressing them with a confidence and reliance making all
subordinate and obedient to that command
Pretty cool, huh? And what's even cooler to me is that my maiden name is Patten. Hmm. Wonder if we are related?
For more stories about women's heroic adventures at sea, check out my new release, Forsaken Dreams!! about a group of disgruntled Southerners who flee America after the Civil War and set sail for Brazil to start their own Southern Utopia!
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I never get tired of reading that story, MaryLu, thanks for sharing. Sounds like a tale that you would pen. :)ReplyDelete
Sharing and tweeting!
Oh, and I wouldn't be surprised if you found out that you were related to Mary Patten. Would explain a lot. LOLDelete
What a fascinating story, MaryLu! Thank you for sharing it with us. History contains some of the most interesting stories.ReplyDelete
Like Rhett Butler said when Scarlett drove off in her own carriage, pistol tucked in her skirts: "what a woman!"ReplyDelete
Great post, MaryLu. This made me smile big. I'll bet you are a direct descendant of this dynamic lady.
What a great post, MaryLu! So interesting. So did her husband live? I'm dying to know. And why did he get sick was it because he went 8 days without sleep? Did she ever sail again? LOL I have soooo many questions! Maybe I should just google it. :o)ReplyDelete
Thanks Ladies!!! Her husband did live through this, but died shortly after they arrived home. :-( It's sort of a sad tale. They never said what he had exactly.. some sort of flu I imagine. As far as I know she never sailed again. I have my sister in law trying to find out more information on her (she has a login on Ancestry.com) I have questions too!!! I'm dying to know if I'm related to this fascinating woman.ReplyDelete
What a great story and an amazing woman! Enjoyed it.ReplyDelete
Great post and so interesting! that would be so cool if you were related.ReplyDelete
Wow, MaryLu, what a story! Mary Patten sounds like a character straight from one of your wonderful seafaring novels; The Red Siren leaps to mind. :) So cool that your maiden name is Patten. How neat would it be if your sister-in-law found a family link? Great post! Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
What an incredible story! Would be most interesting to find out if you are distantly related...lol. Thanks for sharing :)ReplyDelete
Fascinating!! Oh MaryLu, I have no doubt you two are related somehow. ;)ReplyDelete
Wow, what an interesting story!ReplyDelete
Thanks everyone! I'll let you know what my Sister in Law discovers... I knew I had seafaring blood in me! LOL. This story would make a great novel, don't you think?ReplyDelete
fabulous info! how exciting..thanks for the new story!ReplyDelete
That is interesting!ReplyDelete
You have a way with words, MaryLu - felt like I was there with Mary for a few minutes! What a strong woman & what an amazing story - I wonder if her baby was delivered safely, considering the stress & physical work she must have endured during her pregnancy.ReplyDelete
Yes.. from what I have discovered, she did have a healthy baby boy!! Amazing, huh?ReplyDelete
I love the letter from the insurance company! Very cool to see that they recognized her good work and were willing to acknowledge it. She obviously came from hearty stock! :)ReplyDelete
Well, I'm going to have to say yes, you're related. That would be quite fitting!ReplyDelete
Thanks for an amazing story, MaryLu!
What an amazing story, Mary Lu. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete