Maine Coon Cats Maine Origin Authenticated
By Beth Kus
Two hundred years ago, Maine Coon cats were called Maine cats and one hundred years later, in 1900, they were still simply, Maine cats. Where and when the word "coon" was added to their name is no longer known for sure, but it is a twentieth century addition.
The earliest writer to describe Maine cats was F. R. Pierce. Mrs. Pierce, an American from the State of Maine, wrote the chapter titled "Maine Cats" for "The Book of the Cat." This classic cat book published in England in 1903, was primarily written by English author Frances Simpson. Mrs. Pierce wrote the chapter on the Maine cats from her extensive personal knowledge and experience. She included comments from her correspondence with other nineteenth century Maine cat owners. This account and description of Maine cats is a guide to breeders and cat lovers still, in its correct assessment of the historical origin of the cats we now know as Maine Coon Cats.
According to Mrs. Pierce, Maine cats were plentiful well before "The Book of the Cat" was published. In fact, they were present in Maine generations before the Civil War, and according to her, by the 1880's, had become plentiful in certain areas of Maine.
Mrs. Pierce' first cat owned in 1861 by her brother and herself was a Maine cat named "Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines." This cat she describes as one of the "long-haired cats of that variety often called Maine cats.......... their advent reaches far back beyond the memory of the oldest inhabitant." It is clear from this comment that Mrs. Pierce had questioned elderly relatives and friends about their Maine cats, and had listened to tales of Maine cats in her girlhood years.
Her comment "....I have been writing of the cats of long, long ago," authenticates historically the presence of a recognizable type of cat, known as Maine cats, as present in Maine well before the Civil War era in 1861; well before her own cat "Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines."
Maine cats in shows -brown tabbies plentiful
She writes of an acquaintance, Mr. Robinson, whose Maine cat "Richelieu" won best in class in an 1884 cat show held in Bangor, Maine. This sets the date that she refers to in the following paragraph describing the plenitude of Maine cats in the time and era of the 1880's.
"At that time [of the 1884 cat show] Maine, near the coast, was rich in fine specimens of the long-haired cats. That was before they began to sell. I have in mind their brown tabbies." "...They have had some extremely fine brown tabbies in Maine. ....It is one of nature's own secrets how they keep bringing forth--now and then, not always, these fine types." " ......tabbies also being well ...distributed along the coast, and for quite a distance back, perhaps sixty miles or more; but I have not known of their appearing to any extent in the northern portion of the State, which is less thickly settled."
These observations provide absolute certainty that Maine cats were established in the Maine coastal areas in the early part of the 1800's and that they were a recognized type of cat even then.
The Native Maine Coon Cat Association Newsletter; # 2, 1998
Pages 13, 14, & 15:
By the later decades of the 1800's, Maine cats had become plentiful, and they often won recognition in cat shows. The brown tabby color probably dominated the breed at that time.
Maine cats of Maritime origin
That the early ancestors of the Maine Coon cat came to Maine via the sea was clear to Mrs. Pierce. While still a young girl in 1869, she keenly recalled seeing for the first time the pair of blue-eyed white little kittens peeking out of a sailmaker's pocket. Mrs. Pierce later owned personally one of their white offspring. "From that time on long-haired blue-eyed white kittens sprang up in most unexpected places." Mrs. Pierce is careful to explain "that Maine at that time was one of the largest ship-building States in the Union, residents of the seaport towns and cities being often masters of their own floating palaces, taking their families with them to foreign countries, ..."
She carefully explains that "pets of every variety were bought in foreign ports to amuse the children on shipboard; otherwise, as in one case I call to mind, the children would make pets of the live stock...." " Therefore ....cats....found their way to nearly all the coast towns---many more in the past than at this time [prior to printing in 1903], when sailing vessels have passed their usefulness as money-making institutions, ...."...."those [cats] we find there now can safely be called natives."
This comment shows that the genetic base of the Maine cat was established from the maritime families' love of cats, and that it changed little after the demise of the shipping industry.
Sea Captains Nurtured Cats
To Mrs. Pierce, that arrival of a pair of long-hair white kittens given to the sailmaker by the ship's cook was remarkable, and memorable. Her personal witness and observations capture and prove the careful nurturing that the early Maine cats received. This is how this cat breed has survived the two centuries of its heritage. She notes that these kittens "grew and were nursed with tenderest care." When their owners obtained a perfect male to keep, the original pair were sent to a relative. These two kittens would grow to become part of the original gene pool of the early white Maine cats. A second source of white Maine cats was identified as coming to Maine also by way of the sea. The ancestry of a cat named Swampscott, a white Maine cat, was described in a letter to Mrs. Pierce. ..."My cat's ... great-grandfather was brought to Rockport, Maine, from France, he was a blue-eyed white."
Two other sea captains are mentioned by Mrs. Pierce, solidifying the maritime influence on both the development and cherishment of the Maine cat. In the era of 1885, Captain Condon had a fine cream whose kittens were known for " all showing great strength, form, bone, and sinew." Captain Ryan was personally mentioned by Mrs. Pierce as having had at one time four generations of his line of blacks, and was particular about the homes for their kittens. "They loved their cats like babies," she writes of Captain Ryan and his family, "and for years looked for people suitable to give their kittens to." The preferred location for retired or active sea captains to live was the coastal towns and small cities along the coast of Maine. Because so many mariners loved their ship's cats and treasured their kittens, there is a distinct sea-salt flavor to the history and development of the Maine cat.
The educated expertise regarding the Maine cat is clear from the detail Mrs. Pierce has passed down to us. Clearly Mrs. Pierce recognized that the Maine cat was a product of seagoing Maine mariners' pets. She explains for us that the Maine cat was developed primarily along the coastal areas of Maine, and spread inland to farms only slowly as the kittens were given to relatives and friends.
"For a long time the long-haired cats seemed to be confined mostly to the coast towns and cities; but the giving of their best to 'their sisters and their cousins and their aunts' have spread them inland," she writes.
Even noting colors was among her facts depicting the development of the Maine cat. She clearly describes prevalence of color being the dominant ...."The strong colors predominate, whites, blacks, blues, orange, and creams, tabbies also being well-divided and distributed..." Rare colors such as smoke were located in only one out of two hundred kittens according to an agent's reply to her letter. "Silvers and chinchillas are not common" she writes, and these colors still are not common in the Maine Coon Cat to this present day.
Who was Mrs. Pierce? She describes herself very briefly as keenly interested in Maine cats from youth. "Having had this fancy from my infancy and before it became a fashion, I took kindly to all new developments." She describes her family as cat lovers: "Our own family circle was never complete without one or more cats--not always long-haired, but that variety always held the place of honour." She entered her Maine cats in shows and owned noted winners. She visited and corresponded with fellow cat fanciers of her day. Her accurate descriptions and assessments of various cats makes obvious her native expertise of knowledge of the Maine cat. When describing one of "the fine brown tabbies in Maine," she is careful with detail. "
'Leo,' brown tabby, born 1884, died 1901; ...noting "colour of muzzle, length of nose, size and shape of eyes, length of hair in the ears, and on the head."
Those carefully analyzing Ms. Pierce' insights, easily conclude that the Maine cat was initially well developed in the earliest decades of the 1800's; and that the early and definitive growth of the breed took place in the first part of the 1800's. Later in that century, the additions to the breed brought diverse color and larger size. The source of this distinct breed was clearly the shipboard cats of the seafaring days and mariner families' pets. As the pets were brought to the houses of the captain's families, they naturally bred and multiplied in the coastal towns. The genetic base of the Maine cat was well established and changed little after the demise of the shipping industry; "Those we find there now can safely be called natives,"
Mrs. Pierce noted characteristics of the cat, a long-haired, good-natured variety, fashioned by "the cool climate and long winters, with clean air full of ozone, is what is needed to develop their best qualities, ..." Looking forward to the future, she writes "with a few years of careful breeding for types, they would be able to compete quite successfully in an international show."
The Maine cat has become popular. With popularity, its origins have become blurred and sometimes forgotten. It is now called the Maine Coon Cat and it has become recognized internationally as a show cat and pet of the finest type. The Maine Coon Cat of today has distinct and recognizable heritage, and its ancestry are pedigree traceable to cats from the State of Maine.
Copyright April 18, 1998 Beth E. Kus
All quotations are from:
The Book of the Cat, Simpson, Chapter xxviii, by F. R. Pierce,
Published Cassell and Company Limited 1903