Maine Coon cats have a somewhat mysterious history, which just adds to their intrigue and popularity. They look a lot like Norwegian and Siberian forest cats, but they have a personality all their own.
Where do Maine Coon cats come from? Can we trace this breed back to a source in the misty past? And how do we sort the stories from the truth?
Short answer: It’s generally thought that the breed originated in the US state of Maine (hence the name) and is the state’s official cat and one of the oldest natural breeds in North America. But how they got there is shrouded in mystery and folklore.
The Likely History of the Maine Coon Cat
Before we delve into the wilder theories of where Maine Coon cats come from, let’s take a look at the most likely story. It is mostly accepted that Maine Coon cats originated in Wiscasset, Maine in the United States.
However, where they came from before settling into the breed standard is still a mystery. Let’s take a look at a few of the popular ones and why they may, or may not, be true.
Half Racoon, or Half Bobcat?
One of the wildest theories out there is that Maine Coon cats are the result of a breeding between raccoons or bobcats and feral or semi-feral cats. Where does this story come from?
This story started circulating because of the Maine Coon’s appearance and size. With their long busy tails, coloring, love of water, semi-prehensile paws, climbing prowess, tail coloring, and size, it was thought that perhaps Maine Coons and raccoons were related or that they were related to bobcats or lynx.
However, this has been roundly smashed as a theory. The fact is that raccoons, bobcats, and domestic or even feral cats, are all separate species and cannot interbreed.
So, while there are similarities between these animals, there is no actual link between them. Probably just as well – you wouldn’t want to have a part bobcat or raccoon in your house!
Still, you will hear many people adamantly argue that there is a link between them, even if the idea is fairly comical.
Viking Ship Cats
Cats were quite popular on ships. They hunted rats, mice, and other vermin, and sometimes were thought to bring good luck to sailors. And this was also a case where black cats were no longer considered bad luck! Sailors would adopt black cats because no one else wanted them and the sailors didn’t care.
For this reason, many cats can trace their heritage back in time to sailors. Cats would sail with their crew and then disembark and wander off to form new cat colonies and find new homes.
It’s thought that this is how Egyptian cats spread their DNA, for example. The ship theory could also explain why certain breeds of cats are completely unruffled by water.
Maine Coon cats may be able to trace their lineage back to this heritage. The strongest theory behind where Maine Coons came from is that they are descendants of ship cats from Europe, particularly Norwegian Forest and Siberian Forest cats, though there are theories supporting the idea that they descended from Angora breeds as well.
The state of Maine was a common harbor, popular with shipbuilders, and had seen centuries of sailors coming in and out. Sailors brought their cats and sometimes settled with them, or the cats were dart off once they hit land.
While this theory is pretty sturdy, the timeline is unknown. Did Maine Coon cat ancestors come with the early Scandinavian sailors and thus are descended from other Forest cats, or did they come much later with British sailors? It’s not really known and depending on who you ask, you’ll get compelling evidence either way.
For example, the story of Captain Charles Coon and his cats, who would hop off his ship when they docked and breed with local cats. Long-haired kittens popped up wherever they went, and they were called ‘Coon’s cats’ in recognition of their similarity to the captain’s cats.
On the other hand, Maine Coons look a lot like the Forest cats from the northern parts of Europe and are considered to be an old breed. Furthermore, the polydactyl trait that most of them carry (an extra toe) is thought to lend weight to the idea that they were ship cats.
The extra toe would have helped their balance. This genetic trait has been steadily bred into these cats, largely for showing now, but back then, it would have happened since cats with these extra toes would have done better on water.
So, you could go either way and have a good argument.
The Royal Maine Coon Cat
Another theory is that Maine Coon cats actually came from Marie Antoinette’s household. The story goes that the wealthy royal family kept a family of Turkish and Persian Angora cats.
When the Queen and her family were incarcerated, there was a plan made to smuggle them out and ship them to Maine. Their furniture, clothing, and possibly a family of Angora cats were loaded aboard a ship to prepare to flee.
The family didn’t make it (obviously), but their things were still shipped overseas, including the cats who then hopped off and bred with the local cat population. However, there really is no proof of this story.
Any of these stories are more credible than Maine Coon cats being the result of a breeding between raccoons and cats though! But we don’t know for certain which of their journeys to America actually happened.
We also don’t know when – was it fairly early with the Nordic sailors or much later with French or British sailors? There’s really no way of knowing now.
Regardless of how it happened, Maine Coon cats are now one of the most popular breeds in the world and one of the most striking.
With their large size, gentle demeanor, bright colors, and playful, loyal temperament, most people won’t really care where they came from – we are just happy they are here now.
Do you have a Maine Coon? Could it be descended from royalty or hardworking ship cats? (I imagine most cats would say royalty!)
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.