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.
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.
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.
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.
 “Mary Ann Brown Patten, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ann_Brown_Patten: accessed 24 April 2020).