The first American woman to command a ship was a pregnant teenager. She did it while fighting off a mutiny, nursing an incapacitated husband, and braving gale-force winds.
She was 19.
Mary Ann Patten (nee Brown) was the type who would’ve volunteered for the distinction, had that been an option. She came from a family of mariners, and, at 16, married into one too. A year into her marriage, she insisted on joining her captain husband Joshua on his first time captaining the Neptune’s Car. Together, the two went from New York to San Francisco, China, and London, before returning to New York.
Although Western women crewing a ship was rare and generally seen as improper — ah, the Victorian era! — Mary determined to make herself useful. She spent her time plowing through the ship’s small library, teaching herself medicine and how to navigate using sextants, compasses, and charts.
This would come in handy.
The Neptune’s Car, you see, was cursed as hell. It had only made one voyage before Joshua Patten coming on board. Why the quick turnover in captains, you may ask? Well, on its maiden voyage, 23 crew members were worked so hard they mutinied. The commander, one Captain Forbes, then threatened to kill all of them, saying “they’ll either work or face being shot”. Upon returning to port, everyone lawyered up and began suing each other. So there was an opening for a captain.
But that maiden voyage doesn’t even scratch the surface of how screwed this ship was. The voyages after Joshua’s tenure on board would feature such highlights as:
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