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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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