Saturday, November 7, 2015

Women At Sea

Ever since reading Beth Powning's wonderful novel,  The Sea Captain's Wife I've been diving into the reference books that Powning listed in the book's Appendix. I just finished one of these books, Seafaring Women by David Cordingly. Though I skimmed some of the chapters, the book is appealing because Cordingly offers a number of tantalizing vignettes that make you want to know more. One story that particularly fascinated me is the saga of heroine Mary Patten.
Mary Patten by Gordon Jackson image via

Mary Ann Brown, born in Boston, married Captain Joshua Adams Patten in 1853 at the age of 16. Mary first sailed with her husband when she was 18. In becalmed waters he taught her the basics of navigation. She must have been a bright and curious woman as she also read medical journals on board and was able to assist the ship's injured men when the vessel was once struck by lightening. In July of 1856, 19 year old Mary and her 29 year old husband set sail on the clipper ship,  Neptune's Car on a voyage from New York City to San Francisco to deliver supplies and valuable equipment for gold mining. Two other ships sailed the same day and bets were made and which would reach their destination first. This journey would test the limits of courage and fortitude.
As the ship sailed south and prepared for the dangerous traverse around Cape Horn, Captain Patten succumbed to brain fever. He became delirious and lapsed into a coma. No doubt his collapse was in part a response to the strain of events which occurred earlier in the voyage. The first mate was found to be dangerously incompetent and confined to quarters. The second mate was illiterate and without navigational skills. Mary had taken up the navigational duties. Now with the her husband dangerously ill, Mary took over command of the ship. The first mate, ever devious, tried to incite a mutiny, but Mary appealed to the men to keep her on and amazingly the crew remained loyal to the captain's wife. By now it was probably apparent that Mary was pregnant with her first child.

image via courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Mary managed to sail the ship around Cape Horn through stormy weather and high seas, all the while caring for her sick husband. They arrived in San Francisco in November, 134 days after their journey began, the second of the three ships that had left New York together. She and her gravely ill husband then took a steamer back to New York City and on to Boston. Mary and Joshua Patten's son was born in March. Sadly, Captain Patten died one year after their fateful voyage began never realizing that he was a father.  What an amazing young woman! (Links are included below to more about Mary Patten)
Three masted bark image via

I am currently in the midst of reading Hen Frigates by Joan Druett and completely loving this book. Druett weaves stories culled from letters, diaries and ships logs into a portrait of life at sea. My only wish is that the photographs were larger. In my search for larger images, I found the fantastic photos below from the Tapley Collection which is in the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park collection. 
Mrs. Agnes Tapley sailed with her husband, Captain Robert Tapley on the ship Saint James, a three masted bark, during the late 19th century. Agnes also learned navigation from her husband while at sea. Below Agnes is with her daughter Della aboard ship in 1898.

I'm sure that I will have more stories to share from the book Hen Frigates.  Especially since the author includes quotes from letters that a sea captain's wife sent home to her family in Sag Harbor. To be continued.

A Heroine of the Sea - New York Daily Tribune February 18, 1857 here
Mary Ann Brown Patten - National Biography online here
Mary Ann Patten Heroine of Cape Hornhere


  1. Good morning!
    I sent you an email a few days let you know I had begun my is done and my neighbor is reading it now..
    I enjoyed it..could never live like she did :(
    Your really felt as if you were on the boat with them..a wooden ship..I could even hear it!

    Mary sounds ever so courageous..


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