Women Pioneers of the Sea

Mary Anne Brown Patten
Mary Ann Brown Patten (Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian)

“The Plain Duty of a Wife” 

Mary Ann Brown Patten (1837-1861)

Little is known about Mary Ann Brown Patten before her marriage to Captain Joshua Adams Patten just before her 16th birthday in 1853.  After the marriage, Patten immediately joined her husband on a 17-month voyage, where she passed the time learning navigation.  This skill came in handy during their next voyage in 1856 on Neptune’s Car, when Captain Patten took ill. 

Not being able to trust the first mate, Mary Ann took control of the vessel at just 19 years of age, while pregnant with her first child and nursing the sick captain.  She successfully captained Neptune’s Car for 59 days, safely bringing the vessel and its cargo into San Francisco on November 15, 1856.  Though Mary Ann is thought to be the first woman to command a cargo vessel, according to a newspaper article she claimed that she was just doing “the plain duty of a wife.”

1913 Flying Cloud illustration
1913 Flying Cloud illustration (via Wikipedia Commons)

Eleanor Creesy (1814-1900)

Being the only child of Captain John Prentiss provided Eleanor a unique opportunity.  Captain Prentiss wanted to pass on his knowledge of sailing and navigation to his child, and Eleanor was eager to learn.  Given her unusual upbringing, Eleanor knew she wanted to go to sea, so she waited until the right ship’s captain asked for her hand in marriage. 

Eleanor wed Captain Josiah Creesy in 1841, and joined him on his voyages not just as his wife – but also his navigator.  When Captain Creesy became the commander of the clipper Flying Cloud on its maiden voyage in 1851, Eleanor was by his side again, and this time they had a challenge – to beat a rival clipper, the Challenge, to San Francisco going around Cape Horn. 

The goal was to arrive in San Francisco in less than 100 days.  Due to Eleanor’s navigation, the Flying Cloud pulled into San Francisco Harbor in just 89 days, 21 hours – not only beating the Challenge, but also setting the record for the fastest time from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn on a sailing vessel.  Not one to rest on her laurels, Eleanor beat her own record just two years later by 13 hours.  Her record of 89 days, 8 hours stood until 1989.