Of Cats and Queens

by Mary L. Daniels
(From "Coastal Connections," the weekly guide to the Wiscasset, Booth, Damariscotta, and Pemaquid, Maine regions. Week of July 22, 1994)

It is fairly usual for a governor to name an official state tree, flower, or bird. In Maine these are respectively the white pine, the white pine cone and tassel, and the chickadee. But how many states have an official cat? Probably not many, and surely none that are named after their state. It's hard to imagine something called a North Dakota Prairie Dog Cat.

In 1985, had the governor proclaimed any feline except the Maine Coon Cat the official one, it would have been catastrophic; the breeders, owners, and simply lovers of this noble animal would have led him a cat and dog life until the Coon was accorded the rightful place that a legislative committee had tried to deny it.

Surprisingly, since the Maine Coon is accepted as a distinct and legitimate breed, the general public other than cat fanciers and Mainers are unacquainted with it. It was accepted as a definite breed as early as 1870 and even won best of show in one exhibit in 1911. Gradually the foreign breeds pawed their way to the top and the Coon was forgotten for 40 years except in Maine. Then slowly the Coon was reinstated through much hard work on the part of local breeders. By 1976, the Coon could be shown in all cat shows as its own breed, not simply an AOV (any other variety).

On first hearing of such a cat, the usual reaction of the initiated is to ask if it is really part raccoon. Despite this biological impossibility, there is a great curiosity to see a true Maine Coon cat. In that the inquirers are smart, for this breed, to my eye, is among the most beautiful in the cat family.

You can't tell a Maine Coon by its color. They come in almost every hue. One of the most common is tabby, a striped animal that may also have patches of white; the calico is a patchwork of colors; there are the orangey cats, orange and white with stripes, solid colored cats, and gray ones. Breeders and judges have more exact descriptions, but the point is that no breed has more varieties than the Maine Coon.

The Coon is a fairly large cat appearing even larger because of its long fur. It has a ruff around its neck and chest, a gorgeous plumed tail that it waves like a flag in the wind, and britches that hang down in the rear. (I have been calling them pantalettes in my female feline that I brag about being part Coon (only a part Coon as a pedigreed breeder cat can begin at $200 and show quality goes far beyond that price.)

Its ears have tufts inside and also often on the ear tips thus giving it the marks of a wildcat. Its feet are large; some even have extra toes, but this is not looked upon with favor by breeders, and there is considerable fur on the feet. But best of all, the Maine Coon Cat is decideably strokeable, like liquid silk to the touch. The sensuous pleasure of petting a Coon reinforces a recent poll taken of British cat owners, 65% of whom said they would rather cuddle their pets than their mates and, furthermore, the cats were better looking. If they had been stroking a Maine Coon Cat, no doubt the percentage would have been even higher.

Affectionate yet not flatterers, dignified yet playful, they are truly a superior breed.

In tracking the origins of the Maine Coon, I found a connection to a story that I had always thought to be half true at best. Again this tale is hardly known beyond the Boothbay region.

According to the account in A Royal Tragedy, by Nat Wilder, Jr., a certain Captain Nathaniel Cloud of Wiscasset took his schooner, Sally, on a voyage to Europe. At that time Wiscasset was an important commercial port, possibly the most important east of Boston. From Europe came manufactured goods; rum, molasses, sugar and salt came from the West Indies; lumber, fur, and tobacco left from Maine. The well-known triangular trade.

The French Revolution was raging at that time, and Captain Cloud's ship was overtaken by a French man-o-war and impounded. His daughter Sally appealed to the American ambassador for release of the ship. While in Paris she met Tom Paine, Tallyrand, and the Chevalier de Rougeville. Young Sally ended up in the same prison that confined Marie Antoinette and had access to the queen's cell.

Meanwhile the Chevalier bargained with Captain Cloud. The ship would be released if he would take a small party to America. Furniture and some personal items were put aboard the Sally which now awaited the rescue of the queen. The king had already been guillotined, and the Dauphin was held in another prison.

The plotters had everything worked out except for one thing: when they broke into her cell, the queen refused to go without her son. The note carried to her by Sally, the distraction outside the prison, the bribes to the guards, the careful plans were for naught. Marie Antoinette would not leave France.

But her six cats did.

The Sally sailed for home. Marie's goods were taken to the large colonial style house prepared for her on Squam Island (now Westport). In 1838, Captain Gardiner Gore moved it to its present sight in Edgecomb on the Eddy Road, and the furnishings became scattered. Two Sevres vases reportedly are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

And the cats? It is speculated that the royal Angoras and Persians, long-haired felines, went ashore and mated with local cats or possibly bobcats.

The story is more than a legend. Marilis Hornidge in her book, That Yankee Cat, the last word on the Maine Coon and replete with pictures, cites it as a possible origin of the Coon cat, though she names the good captain "Samuel Clough." Given the orthography of the time, there is no problem of identification. And the Wilder book states, "The Scenes and Incidents of this Historic Romance are taken from letters and manuscripts found in an old trunk in the Garret of the Capt. Cloud Homestead at Wiscasset, Maine."

The Learning Channel in a program about cats on Sunday, May 29, 1995, retold the story of the queen and her cats as being absolute fact. In any event, it is a romantic background for the official Maine cat. Perhaps calling the Maine Coon Cat a noble beast is not too far off the mark.

[The house in Edgecomb, Maine]

The house in Edgecomb, Maine, which 
Captain Cloud prepared for Marie Antoinette.

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