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Mary Ann Patten: A Case Study


Mary Ann Brown Patten, Wikimedia Commons 

Mary Ann Brown Patten. She was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on 6 April 1837. She married Joshua Patten in Boston on 1 April 1853 at the age of 16 years. She would have one son, named after his father and she would be dead by the age of 23 years on 18 March 1861.

FS marriages for Boston

"Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 13 July 2016), Suffolk > Boston > Marriages 1853-1854 > image 48 of 491; citing Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Boston.


If we just focus on the “genealogically relevant” facts we understand that she was a young woman who lived a very short life. So that automatically makes us think, as genealogy researchers, that very few records exist about her. Those few records might include vital records for her birth, marriage, death and the birth of her son. She would be a tick mark in the 1840 US Federal Census but listed by name in 1850 and 1860. Other than that there wouldn’t be too much else available to document her life.

But Mary Ann was so much more than a few vital record documents and census mentions. Her husband Joshua Patten was a master mariner and in 1855 he was in command of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car. Joshua was hesitant to leave his new, young bride behind so she joined him on his sea voyage. She assisted on board ship with his duties and even studied navigation as they traveled the world.

Idyllic? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be for long. As they sailed from New York to Cape Horn in 1856, Joshua developed tuberculosis and fell into a coma. The first mate had been confined to his cabin earlier in the voyage because of his negligence and the second mate didn’t know how to navigate. Guess, who was the only person on the ship who knew how to navigate? Mary Ann.

Despite the first mate's attempt at a mutiny and a very sick husband, Mary Ann, who was both 19 years old and pregnant, safely got the ship, its crew, and cargo to San Francisco, California. In her “downtime” during this voyage, she read medical books so she could keep her husband alive.[1]

Mary Ann is much more than her combined genealogical facts. She has an amazing story. We know the bare bones of this story but how can we learn more? We could try to find original documents that might reveal more about the actual ship and its voyage. We could search for possible first-hand accounts from the sailors or from those who knew Mary Ann. But we also should consider learning more about what her life was like. What are the everyday, social history details that will help us understand what she went through? I don’t know about you but some of the questions I have include what was it like to be a woman on a clipper ship with a bunch of sailors and you’re the only woman. Or to take command when one of the people who should be in command wants to mutiny. And all this is happening while you are pregnant and your husband appears to be dying.

I want to write Mary Ann’s story and it needs to include more than her genealogical facts. To do this, I need to see what is available for me to learn more. I’m going to start with a brief online survey, then move towards a WorldCat search, and then finally search periodicals via JSTOR.

An Online Survey

For the online survey, I wasn’t interested in finding more information about Mary Ann per se, I wanted to learn more about what life would have been like for a woman during her time and in her circumstances.

I decided to start by conducting online searches for information that might be helpful. So I did a Google search on the keyword phrase women on clipper ships since I really wasn’t sure what the best search keyword phrase would be. That search returned 2 million results. Far too many results to be useful. I then changed the search slightly to women on “clipper ships” (enclosing the words clipper ships in quotes to indicate an exact phrase search). This helped narrow my search to 144,000 results. Still too many search results but I figured I would look at a few pages of results and then decide how to proceed from there.

My goal in this search was twofold. I wanted to see what websites might help me learn more about the topic but also I wanted to find websites that would provide me additional sources to look at including books, periodical articles, and other sources and websites.

One of the results I found was a blog post about Eleanor Creesy who like Mary Ann was a Massachusetts woman who joined her husband on a clipper ship and navigated. I was surprised to learn there was another woman who had a similar experience to Mary Ann. Her story is fascinating. Eleanor died at a more advanced age so I might be able to discover writings about her life that I wouldn’t find with Mary Ann’s, such as her experience on a clipper ship.

Other results included clipper ship history which is important for my research to help me better explain what a clipper ship was, what it looked like, and what life was life on it.

Google search

As I looked over my results I made sure to click on More at the top of Google and then chose Books so I could view the book results. This helps me build a bibliography of resources that will assist me in learning more about Mary Ann and her life. And yes, I also Googled Mary Ann’s name and noted websites and books mentioning her.

So now that I have done an online survey and found some websites, blog posts, and books that can help me I need to enlarge my scope and use other resources to identify books and periodicals that might be of help. My next stops are the websites WorldCat and JSTOR.



[1] “Mary Ann Brown Patten, Wikipedia ( accessed 24 April 2020).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


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Thank you for this article I love to read the process on how you get the whole story. I know there is much more out there to fill in a life history. but never quite sure how to go about it. Your step by step process was very helpful.

Thanks Gena. Excellent advice on following up with her whole story. How very interesting too. It would never occur to me that wives joined their husbands on clipper ships or other vessels, especially when they’re pregnant.

How did you first get the clue about her clipper ship experience? Her navigation, etc.? By following her husband?


Wow! That was a fantastic story about a courageous young woman. It just shows that we all need to dig deeper than those superficial records.

This is so interesting! Each time I have prepared a powerpoint presentation and had to learn more about the period, the people around the focus person, and the details such as you have zeroed in on,; I learned so much more about that person's life. I did one on my husband's ancestor who went with a group from central Pennsylvania to Iowa, and had to research who was in the group (and who was in some other groups who made the same trip; canalboats and the Pennsylvania canal system, steamboats (which they took from Pittsburgh to Cairo, IL and from Cairo to Muscatine, IA; the landrush to Iowa and Nebraska at the time, the Blackhawk War (the treaty after this event opened up Iowa, etc. to settlement); how he and his group bought land at the land office near the Mississippi River and went by covered wagons to Benton County, IA; the land these settlers and later settlers bought through censuses and maps. I was able to put together five different groups and I knew who was in each group since the state census in 1855 told when each person arrived there. I could write a book and I think I will. I also found out that Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois militia which chased Blackhawk and his group, and that when the railroad built the bridge to bring the trains from Illinois to Iowa, a steamboat ran into one of the pylons supporting the bridge. Abraham LIncoln was the lawyer for the railroad when the steamboat company brought suit and said it "hindered navigation". I always wish I could take the time to do such extensive research and focus for all of my ancestors! Bobbie Leamer

I enjoyed reading your story about Mary Ann and how you approached your research.
I am awaiting your next update!

What an amazing story (and it follows a wonderful playback of her webinar "50 Records Docmenting Female Ancestors") so my first reaction was "How was this remarkable woman related to Gena?"

Wow, what a fascinating introduction to research as well as to such an interesting individual that we find in Mary Ann Patten. I really enjoyed Ms. Ortega's descriptions of steps that she undertook and the rational behind them. It was a true pleasure to both learn a bit more about good genealogy research steps as well as history. I will certainly look forward to her additional articles. Thank You!

Wow. This is the first time I've come upon this post. Fascinating info! I can see how I could really learn so much more about history, too, while researching these lines. Thank you for such an interesting presentation of the process!

I just searched under "Neptune's Car" in and found some very interesting articles of the time, including obituaries. "A Wife Worth Having" and "An Heroic Woman" are some of the titles. The newspaper repositories online are some of my favorite "go to's".

Really interesting and useful article.. hope you've inspired at least a few to find the time to research, write and share more family stories!

Hi Gena!
Wow this was amazing! You never cease to amaze me. Can't wait for a follow up!
Maria Capaldi

Thank you so much for this post! It reminded me to look a little deeper on the short-lived lives on my tree. What an interesting story!

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