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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Serving California by Sea

In the Age of Sail, not everyone who entered California’s harbors came to settle. In the early 1820s, the ships of many nations began plying California’s coastal settlements, to trade manufactured goods for the products California ranchers had to export—beef hides and tallow. Soon, merchant ships from New England so dominated this trade that Californians called all of these trading vessels “Bostons.”

The ships served as floating retail outlets, bringing necessities and luxuries from all over the world: coffee, tea, sugar, nutmeg and pepper; silk and cotton fabrics, hardware, fish hooks and tableware; distilled liquors and cigars; cloaks, shawls, and satin slippers; guns and powder; furniture—including the occasional piano—and even Chinese fireworks. Hawaii, which had developed as the international commercial crossroads of the Pacific, was an important connection. Many ships departing California ports with cargoes of hides and tallow went directly home to the eastern seaboard, but many others sailed to Hawaii to transfer the hides to Boston-bound vessels, and either replenish their hulls with new merchandise for the California trade from the island’s marketplace, or go on to other ports across the globe.

Over the years a number of Boston merchant mariners made Hawaii their base of operations, among them Captain (later Commodore) John Paty. Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1807, he was an experienced ship master by 1831, having gone to sea with an uncle when he was fifteen. In 1833 John’s brother, an established Honolulu merchant, returned home from the Islands and convinced John to buy an interest in the brig Avon and sail it to Hawaii. John Paty and his bride Mary Ann Jefferson, said to be a woman of refinement and charm, arrived in Honolulu later that year. The couple established a home in the Nuuanu Valley.

For the first few years Paty captained trading vessels, sailing between Hawaii and California, Mexico, South America, the Philippines, and other ports. Mrs. Paty frequently accompanied her husband, possibly holding the record for a seafaring wife. She made two voyages in 1834 on the Avon, then sailed back to Boston on it with John in 1836, their ship loaded with sperm oil from the wreck of an American whale ship. The next year, from Hawaii, Mary Ann accompanied John for another two-month voyage on the Don Quixote.

Mary Ann went to sea with Captain Paty in 1842 accompanied by their young son, landing in Monterey, California, in June. The family was still aboard when the Don Quixote again landed at Monterey in October 1842, astonished to hear that since their last visit the port had recently been “captured” and then freed by American naval forces. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, mistakenly believing Mexico and the United States were at war, had seized Monterey and held it for one day before returning control to the local government, with profuse apologies.

When Mrs. Paty joined her husband at sea during 1843-45, she had two children in tow. She went along on two short voyages in 1846, and again in later years, with three children, their son and two daughters.

Over his long career at sea John Paty commanded several trading ships, but the greatest contribution he made was as master of passenger vessels sailing between Honolulu and the West Coast. Four months before his death from cancer on November 11, 1868, he was still sailing, and still maintaining his enviable reputation for reliable, safe transportation between Hawaii and California.

Mrs. Paty continued to live in Hawaii. Twenty-odd years after her husband’s death, she crossed the Pacific Ocean to San Diego for an extended visit with her oldest daughter Francesca, Mrs. Henry Benson; and perhaps from that visit took a train east. Mary Ann Paty died March 22, 1891, at the home of her youngest daughter Emma, Mrs. Isaac Yates, in Schenectady, New York. She is buried at Oahu Cemetery, Honolulu, next to her husband.

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