The Maine Coon cat is one of the most famous cat breeds in New England and most of the United States. They are the hardiest, furriest and largest cats of all the domesticated cat breeds kept in homes around the Western world. Apart from their good looks and gentle personality, their history is also quite mysterious! Their origins are more folk tale and theory than real proven facts. Some might even say that they are the Maine Coon myths.
As one of the “original native cat-breeds” of the United States, the Maine Coon cat is known for having adapted to the harsh winters and natural wild environment of the state of Maine. The cold and the distances between human settlements in Maine helped the Maine Coon cat breed stay unmixed for hundreds of years. This is mainly due to a small number of other cats in the area and a first-hand experience of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Unfortunately though, not much is known about how they got there in the first place.
There are a few theories, some more fairy tale than fact. Others more like science fiction due to genetic improbability. Still, none of the theories have been proven and their mysterious origins have become part of the Maine Coon’s uncanny feline charm.
Here are some of the well-known theories as to the origins of the Maine Coon cat. Which story you tell about your cat, is up to you. Nonetheless, an undeniable fact about the Maine Coon cat is that it’s the state animal of Maine and that’s pretty impressive in it itself.
One of the most common theories about the Maine Coon cats’ origin is that it is a hybrid. There are two general strains to this origin theory. The first is that a domesticated cat cross-bred with a raccoon. The other is that a domesticated cat cross-bred with a bobcat.
Of the first theory (cat+raccoon) there is little possibility since cats and raccoons are completely different species and cannot breed with each other. The second theory of a cat breeding with a bobcat might sound more probable but actually isn’t. Cats and bobcats are both from the Felidae family but are not the same species. Bobcats are a lynx species, meaning they cannot breed with normal cats.
Even if the hybrid theory is genetically and scientifically impossible, when it comes to looks and personality, things can get confusing. People from Maine will tell you that the theory of the Maine Coon being half raccoon or half bobcat is an old wives tale. Similarities in fur color and thickness, the love of water, the lynx-like ears, it all makes one wonder.
The cat + raccoon theory also has a bit of influence in the name of the Maine Coon. Before it was called the Maine Coon, it was simply called “Maine cat.” The addition of the second word, Coon, could be from the abbreviation for raccoon, coon, or as we will see further on, from Captain Charles Coon.
This improbable theory has been around for hundreds of years but has no proof whatsoever.
The strongest theory about the Maine Coon cats’ origin is that they are descendants of European ship cats. Ship captains would usually keep cats onboard to keep control of the mice and rats that could wreak havoc on the cargo and the inner workings of the ship. Some captains were so close to their long-haired cats that the kittens were very well taken care of and looked after. Some seafaring families kept close watch over their cat families, usually maintaining the color strain for generations.
Two hundred years ago, the state of Maine was a common harbor for ships to anchor and get repairs, and for sailors to take a break on land. Not only that, Maine was also very popular with ship-building companies. Many sea-faring families settled in the coastal towns of Maine, bringing along their precious cats. Some captains also retired in the area, bringing along their loved feline families.
These cats might have been one of a few long-haired breeds of European cats. The most mentioned in relation to this theory are the long-haired Angora breeds. It is believed that these sailor cats would then become the much loved Maine Coon. People always say that Maine Coons are great mousers, giving even more weight to this theory.
Of the ship cat theories, a particular story seems to stand out from the rest. Back in the 1800’s, there was a ship Captain by the name of Charles Coon. Even if his name is an extremely convenient match for the Maine Coon cat origin story, there is no proof that it’s not just another folk tale. The story of Captain’s Charles Coon and his long-haired cats could be the story of any sea captain but this is a memorable one.
When Captain Charles Coon would come to anchor in the ports along the New England coast, including Maine, his cats would come on land as well. As the story goes, they bred with the local feral cats and when long haired kittens started showing up in litters all over the coast, they were called Coon’s Cats because they looked so much like the Captain’s own cats.
Is the Captain’s name a coincidence or did it really give the cat breed its name? Nobody is completely sure.
There is another variable to the ship cats theory of British and French boats bringing long-haired cats aboard for mouse control and then leaving them behind in Maine. Some Maine Coon theorists believe that these furry creatures are descendants of the Norwegian Forest Cats. These would have made their way to the United States aboard Scandinavian ships for company and mouse control. Nordic explorers arrived in the US long before other Europeans did and so if this theory were true, Maine Coon cats would be a much older native species.
Even if all the ship cat theories sound highly probable, there is no concrete proof of any of them and the stories have become more folk tales than ‘real origin’ stories. It really depends on what part of New England you are in. Each town will have their own Maine Coon cat origin story, most probably a version of one of the ones we mention here.
The most colorful and interesting of all the Maine Coon cat origin myths is the one that has to do with guillotines, huge wigs and a bit of cake.
In the time of French royalty, and Marie Antoinette’s extravagant tenure at Versailles, the Turkish and Persian Angora cats were a common house pet. Sometimes they were even considered a pest, due to how fast they reproduced and took over the homes. King Louis XVI is said to have used the cats as hunting targets for fun with his friends.
The tale that connects Angora cats to Maine Coon cats is the story of Marie Antoinette’s near escape to the United States. When Marie Antoinette and her family were arrested at Versailles in 1793, her ship captain Samuel Clough, and some of her sympathizers planned an escape to the state of Maine. At the docks, there was an anchored ship which regularly traveled the merchant route between France and Maine. The plan was to get the family on the ship and take them to Maine, and safety.
While Marie Antoinette and her family were kept incarcerated, the ship’s captain and his sailors loaded the ship with royal furniture, royal wallpaper, the fanciest of clothing and according to theorists, quite probably a family of Angora cats. All rescue attempts failed, resulting in the decapitation of Louis XVI and then Marie Antoinette.
When the royal family was executed and dissolved, the ship captained by Samuel Clough, left France in a hurry and sailed to the planned destination in Maine. There, on the coastal town of Wiscasset, the captain’s wife awaited with a large house ready for her royal guests. The huge manor was furnished with all of Marie Antoinette’s regal possessions and opulent decorations. This house still stands and is known as “The Marie-Antoinette House.” It was once a museum but is not a private residence and cannot be visited.
This story of the almost survival of Marie Antoinette and her family is a real proven fact, but what remains a mystery is the presence of the Angora cats on Samuel Clough’s ship. If the Maine Coon cats are descendants of Marie Antoinette’s royal Angora cats, it would make for a nice story, but there is no real documented proof, only speculation.
A large part of the history of the Maine Coon cat is the polydactyly genetic trait. A polydactyl cat is one that has more than the regular amount of toes on any of their paws. This is a trait that dates back to the first known Maine Coon cats. The trait is also hereditary. Most polydactyl Maine Coon cats will have polydactyl kittens and it can continue for generations.
Having polydactyl paws are not harmful to the cats and are fully functional. Historians believe that this is a trait inherited from ship cats that needed more balance and grip than land cats. This theory goes hand in hand with the origin theory of Maine Coon cats being descendants of ship cats.
The polydactyl trait in Maine Coons is particularly notorious as part of their history because it influenced their appearance and participation in cat shows. Not only that, it has greatly influenced the way in which they are carefully bred by the Maine Coon community.
The history of fancy Maine Coon cats participating in cat shows was extensively documented by a Mrs. E. R. Pearce, herself an owner of a Maine Coon cat named Captain-Jinks of the Horse-Marines. In fact, this black and white Maine Coon is the first recorded in written literature and is a household name inside Maine Coon communities.
Mrs. Pearce’s detailed records show that in 1878, a dozen Maine Coon cats were entered to compete in a cat show in Boston but did not win. In 1895, a brown tabby Maine Coon owned by a Mrs. E. N. Barker and named Cosey won first place at the large cat show in New York’s Madison-Square Garden. Maine Coons kept making regular appearances at cat shows in Boston and New York and even Chicago, until the more exotic Persian long-haired cats started capturing more attention.
For around 60 years, the Maine Coon breed was kept close to home. Cat owners inherited Maine Coon families and some breeders took care to keep the breed intact. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the Maine Coon cat re-entered the show circuit. It was at this time that the polydactyl gene started to weigh on the preference of the Main Coons at shows. At first, the cats that carried the trait were not allowed on shows simply due to the aesthetic factor of having extra toes.
It was later, around the 1970’s that polydactyl Maine Coon cats were accepted in shows, protected by the Maine Coon Polydactyl Standard but it was still not widely seen. It was unfortunate, but since cat show breeders were trying to breed Maine Coons without the polydactyl gene, it started to fade out. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s, that Maine Coon cat breeders who had been trying to keep the polydactyl gene intact came to light. Other breeders from around the world have joined them in maintaining the gene for future Maine Coon cat generations.
If you own a Maine Coon cat, then you must know by now, that your cat is very special. The history and origins of the Maine Coon cats are so full of mystery and speculation that it makes them that much more intriguing. With lynx-like ears, wide paws and banded tails, these gentle giants can be the real royalty of a human home.
When someone admires your Maine Coon, tell them one of the improbable stories of their origin. Start with the Scandinavian Vikings and the Norwegian forest cats, then finish with Marie Antoinette and her royal Angora cats.
How a native cat breed can carry so much interesting folklore, along with their incomparable charm, is not something to simply brush off their fur when grooming. Maine Coon cats will always carry the secret of their origins to the state of Maine in their extra toes and gentle demeanour.