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One woman makes history at the helm in 1856

In honor of International Women’s Day 2023, FreightWaves Classics highlights the story of Mary Patten, heralded as the first woman to captain an American merchant ship.

Mary Patten was the first woman to command an American merchant ship in 1856. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Mary Ann Brown married Joshua Adams Patten before she turned 16. He was captain of a ship named Neptune’s Car, owned by Foster & Nickerson, according to an article from the New York Tribune. After their marriage, she joined him on the ship for a journey that lasted 17 months and took them from New York to San Francisco, China, London and back to New York. Mary Patten helped pass the time by studying navigation.

This pastime would become more important than she ever could have predicted.

A history-making journey

Capt. Patten was commissioned to again command Neptune’s Car from New York to San Francisco in 1856. Mary, now 19, was four months pregnant but still joined her husband for the voyage.

The navigational skills she had acquired proved vital when Capt. Patten developed a high fever and fell gravely ill. Mary Patten became the ship’s commander and navigated the vessel on its difficult journey, which included sailing around Cape Horn, according to

The journey was not easy and Mary Patten faced a lot of difficulties. While she was in command of the ship, she also tended to her husband’s illness. And as Mary Patten battled rough seas and her husband’s worsening condition, another problem was brewing.

Early in the voyage, the first mate, whose name has been lost to history, reportedly fell asleep while on watch and was fired by the captain. Yet he remained onboard Neptune’s Car. Said to be angry about his circumstances and distrustful of a woman in command, he began to plan a mutiny.

The former first mate insisted on changing course and abandoning the trip to San Francisco, according to the New York Tribune article, which said Capt. Patten relayed his disagreement from his chambers and continued to put his faith in his wife. The crew reportedly was also confident in Mrs. Patten’s abilities and rallied behind her, successfully quashing any attempted mutiny.

After 120 days, Neptune’s Car made its arrival in San Francisco. The owners of the ship awarded Mary Patten $1,000 for her service in delivering the crew and cargo safely, according to

In an interview with the New York Tribune following the harrowing journey, Mary Patten revealed she had not changed out of her clothes for 50 days in order to maintain her duties. She expressed a desire to be excused from talking about herself and claimed she had only done her duty as a wife. She also disclosed that her husband had lost his sight and hearing to the sickness.

Mary Patten gave birth to her son a few months later, and Capt. Patten passed away from his illness three months after that.