The Enigmatic History of the Maine Coon

The domestic cat, a species of flesh-eating mammal belonging to family Felidae, order Carnivora, is a small, lithe, intelligent, soft-furred animal........ AKA a clumsy, affectionate, mischievous, puppy-cat,in the case of the Maine Coon

I've always been fascinated in where things come from. So let me share the mysterious history of the magnificent Maine Coon. 

There doesn't seem to be any official record of where or why they came to be. 

From what I've read, the Maine Coon is classed as a "natural" breed. This means that they were born and found in their natural habitat from a "landrace", then domesticated, and then developed into a formal breed which is then recognised by a feline association. 

Landrace is a technical word to describe the natural species that has used evolutionary adaptation to survive within it's local/natural environment. It is isolated from other species/breeds. It is thought of as more genetically stable {untouched / diverse, perhaps?} than those of specialised/established breeds. It can withstand the local environment, disease, predators and pests. A classic representation of "survival of the fittest".

I think for me, I see it as a traditional/original/pure animal that has been subject to natural selection. You can see even in early times, the traditional MC has large tall ears which can rotate to pick up sounds of predators, it has long, uneven, brush-type hair & tail with an undercoat which is water repellent to keep it warm and dry from the snow, and the long tail also serves as "scarf" when sleeping to keep warm. It has a large muscular frame and strong legs enabling it to navigate snow, tree branches, and other obstacles with ease. The paws are very large, sometimes referred to as "snowshoe" which make it easier to get around in the snow (or perhaps for balance on the viking ships). They're also quite dextrous with their paws, often scooping up food and water (and toys). Despite the bulk, they are avid climbers. They are extremely stealthy, agile and fast to evade predators and to catch prey. 

These days, our beloved domestic MCs are often seen as endearingly clumsy, and most of them still love water. Perhaps the agility has been lost in translation somewhere; most pedigree MCs don't have the opportunity to hone this skill being exclusively indoor cats (or confined to cat runs). Perhaps the love of water comes from their water-repellent coat, and maybe, by some magic where the raccoon really did pass on a water-loving trait ;)

Side note: a common myth is that the Maine Coon came from a domestic short hair mating with a raccoon... genetically impossible, but I still like the whimsical idea.

A natural breed differs from an established breed, where selective breeding has been used over and over to get to a certain standard. Perhaps it is more of a scale, genetically, rather than a true division. I feel both terms technically describe a MC on different ends of the spectrum. A traditional MC is a closer representation to it's natural heritage. While a heavily line-bred / show-type / extreme-type that we're seeing (particularly in Europe) would lean towards the established breed type, or manipulated for certain traits/looks. But I guess that is up for interpretation. 

So the stories say, in the 18th or 19th Centuries, cats were introduced to North America mostly by vikings, sailors, and travelers. Perhaps from Scandinavia. They began to mix with native wild cats local to Northern America. But what type of cats were on those ships, and where did they come from?? I searched for ages on this matter and there are a few folk tales... 

One story tells of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France from 1774 to 1792. When the French Revolution broke out, she attempted to escape, loading her six beloved Turkish Angoras on the ship of Captain Samuel Clough. She never made it to America herself as she was reportedly taken prisoner and beheaded, before she could physically escape from France. Apparently the cats remained on board, and sailed to the USA landing in Wiscasset, Maine. It was here that her Turkish Angoras were set free and went off to mate with the local cat population. 

It got me thinking, so where did Marie get her TA's to begin with? The tale of Turkish Angoras tells of how these cats were introduced to Europe by the Viking/Norse/German ships in the 10th Century. Although, only officially recognised later in written records during the 16th Century. The term "Angora" was also more so generally used to describe any cat with long hair. 

There are also plenty of accounts which say that the Vikings thought of cats as very good omens on their ships. They kept the rat population down, and they would travel frequently and come and go through various ports. There's also similar tales of Norwegian Forest Cats travelling the same way. 

So then, is the Maine Coon technically a variation of the Turkish Angora or the Norwegian Forest Cat? They certainly share some common traits, particularly when looking at ancient pictures of early cats. Indeed, when you go back to the very beginning, all lineage points to a much smaller family tree. I have also read that the first ever domestication of a cat occurred in the "Near East" 9,000-12,000 years ago, and that the origin of almost all domesticated cats can be traced back to Asia, Mediterranean basin, Western Europe and East Africa. 

Getting back to the MC. In North America during the 1860s there are tales of farmers getting together to present their farm cats to other farmers and prospective buyers (for barn vermin control perhaps?). Basically, showing them off, as humans tend to do! Cat shows, official and unofficial, started becoming more popular over these years. Pictured above, Cosey, a Maine Coon owned by Mrs. E. N. Barker, was shown in 1895 in Madison Square Gardens, New York. 

Decades on, there are some personal accounts in the Maine Coon historic section on the Pawpeds website which describe breeders sourcing their foundation cats. Plus a heap of other historical articles. 

So that's just some things I've read about the Maine Coon (and the origin of the domestic cat in general). I like to know the roots of things, and I'm sure there's a lot more to read on all of that, especially as I get more into the genetics etc. There's heaps of online articles around, if you're interested.... I'll link some below.

Cat. By John M Bodner
The Ascent of Cat Breeds: Genetic Evaluations of Breeds and Worldwide Random Bred Populations
Maine Coon specific links in PawPeds
America's First Show Cat - The Maine Coon Cat

Have fun, 
Rosie xx


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