I went to a lecture at the Patten Free Library recently, and the speaker, Christopher Timm of Maine Maritime Museum, told an amusing story about a sea captain of the Sewell fleet who tried to bring a fancy bookshelf on board the ship. The Sewells supposedly ordered that it be chopped into firewood. They wanted their captain to be on deck reading the weather, not in his cabin reading fairy tales.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

If books were too distracting for a sea captain, apparently a wife and kids were not. During his talk entitled “Bath’s Ship-Owning Princes,” Timm said unlike regular sailors, a captain was allowed to bring his family along on a voyage. While these trips were dangerous, wives sometimes preferred to be on ship rather than wait at home alone for several months. This was especially common for newlyweds. Sea captains generally did not socialize with the crew, so their wives gave them somebody to talk to.

One such captain was 24-year-old Joshua Patten from Rockland. He married a beautiful 16-year-old named Mary in 1853. Two years later she accompanied him aboard the clipper ship “Neptune’s Car.” Mary proved popular with the crew, and assisted the ship’s doctor and sometimes the cook. As her husband noted, “Mrs. Patten is uncommon handy about the ship, even in weather, and would doubtless be of service if a man.” Mary talked her husband into teaching her navigation and soon mastered it.

This knowledge came in handy on their next voyage, which was a 15,000-mile journey around “The Horn” to San Francisco. Many of the best sailors had already joined the Gold Rush in California and ship’s crews left a lot to be desired. Tarker, the first mate, proved to be a lazy troublemaker who was soon relieved of duty and sent to the brig. Capt. Patten had to take on the first mate’s duties and rarely slept. Soon he fell sick with “brain fever,” which left him partially blind, deaf and raving. Rather than release Tarker and give him command of the ship, Mary took command herself during a blinding gale.

The crew (other than Tarker) accepted this development, and Mary was soon laying the course and doing all the other captain’s duties. At the same time, she was taking care of her sick husband. She never managed to undress for 50 straight days, and once stayed on deck for 48 straight hours. Incredibly, she was secretly pregnant at the time. At one point her husband regained some strength and decided to give Tarker another chance. Stupidly, Tarker made a sexual advance on Mary. When the crew heard her screams and came running, they found Tarker lying on the deck with a large lump on his head. Messing with Mary had been a bad idea and he spent the rest of the voyage in chains.

Mary successfully guided the ship to San Francisco and quickly became a nationwide celebrity. Her story was told in newspapers all over the country. A fund drive was held to send the Pattens back to the east coast via steamship, and they were mobbed by the press when they arrived. Joshua Patten never recovered from brain fever and soon passed away. Mary only lived another four years, apparently having contracted typhus and tuberculosis. Their son, Joshua Adams Patten, was taken to Rockland and raised by relatives.

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