A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

November 10, 1849:
Gold Rush ships choke Yerba Buena Harbor

san francisco harbor 1851 san francisco harbor 1849

In the closing days of 1848, President Polk sent a message to Congress confirming the discovery of gold in California. This marked the beginning of the gold rush from the east coast.

By June of 1849 there were already about 200 ships floating deserted in the harbor, abandoned by gold-seeking crews. On this date — November 10, 1849 — the Collector of the Port of San Francisco filed an official report stating that since April 1st, 697 ships had already arrived. For the record, 401 of these were American vessels and the remaining 296 had sailed in from foreign shores.

This brings to mind the famous daguerreotypes of Yerba Buena Harbor looking like a burned-out forest of ship masts, but searching for that little item led me serendipitously to another. This next piece is a far more interesting story, and one that took place just seven years later.

November 15, 1856:
Mary Ann Patten, Heroine of Cape Horn

It was the era of the tall-masted clipper ship, an era of speed, adventure and danger, with every trip around the Horn a race against time, other ships, and the odds. In late June of 1856, three clippers cleared New York Harbour and set off for the race to San Francisco Bay.

One of these — Neptune’s Car — was captained by Joshua Patten. This was to be Captain Patten’s second voyage on this vessel, the first having been a memorable one.

It had been his maiden command, and he’d made the 15,000-mile trip from New York Harbour round the Horn to the Golden Gate in a mere 100 days, 23 1/2 hours — a time as good or better than the fastest clippers on the water. Even more interesting, the promising young sailor had refused to accept the command until the shipping company allowed him to sail with his new wife, Mary.

Though no one yet knew it, this was to be Mary’s story.

Mary Ann Patten was a slim, dark-haired young woman of nineteen, the daughter of a Boston shipbuilder. Despite what’s been described as her “delicate femininity”, Mary hadn’t hesitated in joining her husband on that first grueling year-long voyage, which charted a course not only to the Golden Gate, but across the Pacific on to Hong Kong, to London, then back across the Atlantic to New England, all the way around the world.


california gold rush - cape horn route

The couple took a few months off, but soon it was time again to sail. This time, Captain Patten was planning to set a speed record to San Francisco — and so was the shipping company. In fact, they’d given Patten strict orders that “under no circumstances was the ship to be taken into any other port than San Francisco.” This emphasis on speed was more than a matter of bragging rights; if your ship was the fastest, you ended up with the fattest contracts — this was a simple economic fact.

Captain Patten’s personal lust for speed was such that he’d already developed a reputation for running up maximum sail no matter what the weather, described as “prone to keep as much sail aloft as he could right up to the point of disaster”

The first mate on this voyage disagreed with this daring strategy. In fact, he disagreed with just about every order the young Captain gave. On the night watch, as Patten slept, the first mate arbitrarily pulled down the sails, talked trash to the rest of the crew, and even began sleeping on the job.

Reports later characterized his behaviour as “sullenness and neglect of duty”, and the Captain was forced to toss the man into the brig. The timing could not have been worse. The ship had just entered the cold, violent waters near Cape Horn, and the second mate was no navigator.

Under the circumstances, sleep became a luxury that Captain Patten could no longer grant himself, so he propped his eyelids open and piloted the clipper around the clock.

A Doomed Voyage

flying cloud clipper

Fatigue gradually ground away the already-weary man’s strength, and as Neptune’s Car passed through the Straits of Le Maire, Patten collapsed, struck down by the Victorian period’s favourite all-purpose malady — “brain fever“.

With the first mate locked away, and the second mate incompetent to navigate, Neptune’s Car was doomed.

Or was it?

On Joshua and Mary Patten’s first round-the-world voyage, the stretch across the Pacific to Hong Kong had been mind-numbingly slow. In San Francisco, Neptune’s Car had been challenged to another race, but with virtually no wind in the sails, the contest had become more of “a drifting match”.

The ship was becalmed for weeks at a time, and the intelligent and curious Mary was bored out of her mind. At her wit’s end, she began to pass the time by learning her husband’s trade. Boxing the compass. Using a sextant to determine latitude. Understanding maps and navigational tables, interpreting charts of wind patterns and currents. By the time they returned to New England, the girl knew just about as much about sailing as her husband.

Captain Mary

around Cape Horn

And so it came to pass, in the midst of howling winds, creaking masts and with 60-foot waves crashing over the freezing decks, 19-year-old Mary Ann Patten took sole command of the massive clipper.

From the brig, the first mate began to incite mutiny, demanding that the crew steer the ship as best they could to the nearest port. Mary assembled the men on the quarter-deck and made her case. She informed them of the seriousness of her husband’s condition, of her own recent mastery of the art of navigation, and of the shipping company’s orders to sail on to San Francisco.

We’ll never know precisely how she pulled this off, how this petticoat-wearing slip of a girl gained the confidence of a hard-bitten group of professional sailors — but to a man, they swore to stand by her, all the way to the Golden Gate.

For the next month and a half, Mary didn’t sleep, barely ate, and hadn’t even time to change her clothes. As waves battered the ship, she divided her days and nights between giving orders and making nautical observations up on deck, making meticulous navigational calculations in her cabin, and tending to her delirious husband. By this point, despite Mary’s frantic examination of the ship’s medical library, Captain Patten had lost his sight and hearing.

A month and a half, fifty long, incredibly difficult days on the roughest seas on the planet. And have I mentioned that she was six months pregnant?

Though this story still seems amazing, the crew supported Mary’s command completely, following every order to the letter and trusting her judgement unconditionally — and their trust was finally proven to be well-placed.

Imperishable Fame

san francisco harbor 1857

On November 15th, 1856, Neptune’s Car arrived safely in the waters outside of San Francisco Bay. Mary Ann Patten had not only charted a perfect course, but in the race from New York Harbour — remember that? — she’d actually come in second place, beating the third ship by weeks.

The act of actually sailing through the Golden Gate was a notoriously tricky business, but Mary was now a confident woman of the sea; as San Francisco newspapers told it, with a steady hand “she took the helm herself and steered the vessel safely into port.”

Gold Rush San Francisco went wild with excitement over Mary’s heroic achievement, with newspapers naming her the “Heroine of Cape Horn,” and the “Florence Nightingale of the Ocean.” News of her exploits made it back to New England, and the New York Daily Tribune described her as being “among the noble band of women who, by their heroic bearing, under great trial and suffering, have won for themselves imperishable fame”

Storybook Ending

I’d love to give you a Hollywood happy ending to this stirring tale, but it just can’t be done. The mutinous first mate escaped into the wilds of frontier San Francisco. Captain Patten died of his illness. And Mary — the woman who had defied the expectations of her gender, of Victorian culture, and challenged the ocean itself, died alone and — despite that “imperishable fame” — destitute, just a few years later.

I’m feeling a little sentimental, now, so let me propose a toast to her memory; “To Mary, the Heroine of Cape Horn”.

For further edification:

“The Era of the Clipper Ships” by Donald Ross, a special-edition work detailing not only Mary Patten’s story, but the entire fabulous era of the Clippers. Great stuff!

“The Captain’s Wife”, a fictionalized account of Mary Ann Patten’s story by Douglas Kelley — I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews are terrific.