|A Maine Coon cat. Note ear |
tufts and bushy tail.
Photo by uzhursky, via Adobe Stock.
No one knows for certain the origins of the large, thick-coated American cat called the Maine Coon. But an absence of certainty can always be filled in with a great story, however implausible, and the lore of the Maine Coon is crazy with stories. We’ll get to those, but first let’s meet the breed.
Think big, hardy, and friendly
The Maine Coon is a large, sturdy cat with a shaggy coat, tufted ears and paws, and a bushy tail. Males can weigh in at 13–18 pounds, and females are typically 9–12 pounds. A Maine Coon named Stewie, recognized as the world’s longest cat until his death in 2013, measured 48.5 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. That’s a four-foot-long cat, folks.
Good thing Maine Coons are known for their gentle, playful personalities. They’re also adventurous and independent, though they’re known for forming loyal bonds with their people. The Maine Coon has been Maine’s state cat since 1985.
And now to the stories, starting with the two that seem the most crazy:
|Maine Coon Cats are not|
related to raccoons. No.
Photo by Ken Thomas, via
• A domestic cat bred with a raccoon, producing what came to be known as the Maine Coon.
• A domestic cat bred with a bobcat and voila! Maine Coon.
[Perhaps physically possible (at least they’re both cats), but highly improbable. Again, no.]
Now we move into the stories that include human intervention:
• They’re descended from Viking cats. You’ve heard of Norwegian Forest Cats? Big, thick-coated, built for hard northern winters? So let’s say that some of the Viking explorers who landed in North America in AD 1000 or thereabouts had cats on their ships, and some of those cats stuck around long after the explorers were gone. Over the generations, and possibly after breeding with other cats that arrived later, the Viking cats gave rise to today’s Maine Coons.
[This is more plausible than we might have thought (see “And now…reality” below).]
• They are descended from the Persian and Angora cats who sailed as ship’s cats with a certain captain in the 1700s. The name of the captain? Coon. At some point (or perhaps many points) in his travels along North America’s east coast, Captain Coon stopped in Maine, and one or more of his cats went ashore and bred with a local female. The resulting long-haired kittens were called “Coon’s cats.”
|Did they come from Marie Antoinette's|
cats? Probably not.
Portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée
Le Brun, 1785.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
[This is plausible.]
• They have royal blood and are descended from Marie Antoinette’s Persians and Angoras. This romantic tale has its origins in the French Revolution. The ill-fated queen was supposedly going to be rescued by an American sea captain before she could be guillotined. The captain, named Clough, managed to get many of the queen’s things, including six cats, onto his ship, the Sally. He could not save the queen, though. He brought the royal cats with him back home to Wiscasset, Maine, where they “got involved” with the local cats and voila! Maine Coons.
[Plausible? We think the Marie Antoinette part is a bit of a stretch, but we can’t entirely rule out a French connection in the Maine Coon’s background.]
What’s the real story behind the Maine Coon? Well, it certainly has to do with humans bringing domestic cats from Europe to America. That much we know. The open questions are:
- Who brought the cats?
- What kind of cats were they?
It seems likely that some seafaring longhaired cats came ashore in North America and, perhaps along with short-haired local cats, set up shop, so to speak. Over the generations, these cats developed into the breed now recognized as the Maine Coon. That’s the working theory.
|Hello. Did someone say Handsome|
Photo by seregraff, via Adobe Stock.
It also seems like the issue could be at least partly settled with some genetic testing. Are Maine Coons closely related to Norwegian Forest Cats? To Angoras or Persians? To all three?
A phylogenetic tree in Lipinski et al.’s study (p. 16) shows the Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest cats on close branches on the Western European part of the tree, with the Angora much farther away on the Mediterranean portion. This suggests that the Viking story is more plausible than we thought at first. Though it also seems possible that some later ships’ captains got hold of some Norwegian Forest Cats and carried them on their vessels for rodent control. So those cats could have arrived in North America several centuries later than the Viking legend would suggest. This is just our guess though.
One thing is certain: The Maine Coon is a handsome breed with a rich, fascinating history. Even if they didn’t come from Vikings or Marie Antoinette’s cats.
Cat Fanciers’ Association. Maine Coon Cat. http://www.cfa.org/Breeds/BreedsKthruR/MaineCoon.aspx
Lipinski, M. J., et al. (2008). The ascent of cat breeds: Genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide random-bred populations. Genomics 91, pp. 12–21.
Pickeral, T. (2013). The Elegance of the Cat: An Illustrated History. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.