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Lesson Plans
Mary Ann Patten:
Clipper Ship Heroine

Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Mary Ann Patten was the first woman in history to take full command of a merchant sailing ship. In 1856 Mary Ann Patten was sailing from New York to San Francisco on the clipper ship NEPTUNE'S CAR. Her husband, Captain Joshua Patten, became very ill and was unable to perform his duties. Mary Patten, nineteen years old and six months pregnant at the time, successfully navigated the ship around Cape Horn and into San Francisco.

In the late 1840s the China tea trade was in full swing. The ships that brought back the tea most quickly commanded the highest prices for their cargo. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 created a new and demanding market for consumer goods. Prices skyrocketed: a five-dollar barrel of flour was now selling for fifty dollars. A four-month-old penny newspaper sold for a dollar.

Most of the ships during this time period were English. The ships were extremely slow and difficult to maneuver. There had been relatively little innovation in hull or sail design in sailing vessels for thousands of years. Britain dominated the shipping industry and had very little incentive to make any changes. It would take an emerging nation and the collaboration of four young men to create the clipper ship. The clipper ship gave New England merchants what they needed: a fast ship that would reduce the delivery time of the tea; the ability to make the trip around Cape Horn and up the California coast to San Francisco to get their goods to the gold fields; and the chance to challenge Britain's sea power.

Grade Level:


Curricular Uses:

To support and enrich social studies; U.S. history; supplementary reading and writing activities.

Learning Objectives


Students will:
  •  conduct Internet research;
  •  learn about the history of clipper ships;
  •  learn about the historical time frame and contextual factors surrounding the origin of clipper ships;
  •  read historical accounts of voyages;
  •  write letters describing the conditions of Mary Patten's voyage.

    This lesson was developed by Maureen Carroll and Laurel Blaine of Baybreeze Educational Services.