Skip to main content

Famous cats of American History

Famous cats of American History

Posted by Armarkat on 1st Jul 2024

Happy 4th of July! Did you know that cats have their own role in American history? From protecting food storage for settlers to serving as loyal friends of military personnel, cats have aided and inspired generations of Americans.

Cats throughout American history

The history of domesticated cats in the United States actually goes back thousands of years. According to Live Science, the contents of a burial ground from two thousand years ago reveal that some Native Americans of the Hopewell culture may have domesticated bobcats. This historical breakthrough came when the remains of a young bobcat with a collar around its neck were discovered in the burial ground in present-day Illinois. The style of respectful burial and the use of a collar on the animal suggest that the bobcat was kept as a beloved pet.

Thousands of years later in the late 1400s when European colonists began settling in the US, cats arrived alongside the immigrants. During that era, cats were often viewed with contempt in Europe, seen as evil servants of witches. However, American settlers held a much more positive opinion of felines. They were eager to enlist cats’ help in their own survival. According to “cat historian” Paul Koudounaris who spoke with NPR Milwaukee, “Known as shipcats, they were used to get rid of rodents and protect the boat's food supply. It was a one-way trip. So those cats also got off those boats at the same time as those people and they founded their own feline states of America."

Koudounaris notes that European-Americans first considered cats as working animals and it took centuries for cats to be viewed as pets. As settlers expanded their reach across the country, cats became popular companions in the West “particularly among cowboys who would use cats to watch their rations.”

It wasn’t until Americans moved to urban areas that cats took on the role of pets. According to the World History Encyclopedia, in the 1700s “the cat became the pampered house pet one is familiar with in the present day. Family portraits as well as single-figure pieces frequently featured the person’s or family’s cat, and they began to appear in poetry and literature.”

Novelist Mark Twain, who lived from 1835 to 1910, was one of the first public figures to share that his cats lived indoors with him and he was not shy about declaring his love of cats, according to NPR Milwaukee. Mark Twain is known for many quotes adoring cats, and his most popular cat quote is “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

Just a generation later, another famous author became known for his love of felines. In the early-to-mid 1900s, writer Ernest Hemingway had a polydactyl (six-toed cat) named Snow White. Many of the cats around Hemingway’s historical home in Key West are related to Snow White, and today there are over 60 cats living on the grounds who have six toes. The website of the Hemingway Home comments that “sometimes it looks as if they are wearing mittens because they appear to have a thumb on their paw.” After Snow White, Hemingway acquired more cats over the course of his stay at Key West and named many after famous individuals. The caretakers of the Hemingway Home continue that practice today, naming all cats born on their property after famous people.

Cats and the military

According to cat historian Paul Koudounaris, “The United States Army had hired cats long before they had hired dogs." Cats were valued as protectors of the most valuable supplies–food–and their help was enlisted repeatedly throughout many wars. The 1800s were no exception, although that decade stands out in cat history because at that time the efforts of cats assisting the military were publicly acknowledged.

The role of cats in the American military became even more acclaimed during the US involvement in World War II (December 1941 through September 1945). According to the National World War II Museum, “cats were often welcomed aboard ships to help with rodent control and similarly in barracks and military field offices. A good ratter could help preserve often precious food stores, help in preventing the spread of diseases, and keep rats or mice from chewing through ropes and wiring.”

While the initial reason for bringing cats into military locations was their usefulness as mousers, felines soon took on a second duty: lifting the morale of their soldier companions. Photos and news articles from national archives show how beloved these cats were to the units they served. Many were known as “mascots” of their respective divisions. Images show personnel on a Navy aircraft carrier playing with their ship’s cat. Archives state that the cat was a passenger during the battle that ensued later. One of the best known cats of the time was Honorable Kodiak Kat, the 73rd Bombardment Wing mascot. The National World War II Museum records that cats who assisted the military were later adopted by soldiers, becoming household pets after the war’s end.

Presidential cats

While many famous American cats served their country as protectors of food stores and beloved military assistants, some cats played a more diplomatic role. At least nine US presidents have kept cats as official residents of the White House. The most common types of cats to have lived on White House grounds are Siamese cats and tabbies.

Below is a summary of presidential cats from the 1800s through present day. Information is provided by the White House Historical Association.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865):

Cats: Tabby and Dixie

Roles: Intelligent assistants, friends to spend time with

Anecdotes from people close to Lincoln share that his wife said that cats were her husband’s “hobby” and that “Lincoln allegedly remarked that Dixie was smarter than members of his cabinet.”

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881):

Cat: Siam, Siamese cat

Role: International relations

Siam was the first Siamese cat to ever enter the US. Diplomats from Siam (now known as Thailand) presented the cat to a US representative. The diplomat gave the cat to First Lady Lucy Hayes, who was known for her love of cats. The famous pet sparked an international interest in breeding Siamese cats.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909):

Cat: Slippers, a polydactyl (six-toed) tabby cat

Role: Manager of the animal menagerie

Roosevelt owned many pets that he kept around the White House, but he only had one cat. We imagine that a feline was needed to keep the rest of the pets in line.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929):

Cats: Tiger (also known as “Tige”) and Blacky

Roles: Mascot, explorer

Tige was fond of laying on Coolidge’s shoulders as the president walked around the White House. Blacky was known for roaming the White House grounds. He also frequently visited the kitchen where he would receive treats.

Gerald Ford (1974-1977):

Cat: Shan, miniature seal point Siamese

Role: Historian

Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan brought her cat with her when the family moved into the White House. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Shan “was known to be fond of hiding under furniture in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981):

Cat: Misty Malarky Ying Yang, Siamese cat

Role: Pop culture icon

Owned by Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy, Misty Malarky Ying Yang received a lot of positive attention from news outlets. Jazz artist Gabor Szabo even wrote a song named after the cat.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001):

Cat: Socks, tuxedo cat

Role: Spokesperson

Bill Clinton’s daughter Chelsea adopted Socks, who had been a stray. Socks “was often photographed at the White House, including behind the podium of the press room. Several books were written about him, he had his own fan club.”

George W. Bush (2001-2009):

Cat: India, black shorthair

Role: White House pet

George W. Bush and his wife Laura brought their household cat India to the White House with them. India continued to be a beloved family cat well into Bush’s years as president.

Joe Biden (2021-present):

Cat: Willow, gray shorthair tabby

Role: Local representative

Willow is named for Biden’s hometown of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.

Cats have many talents to offer, from being helpful hunters to friends who lift our spirits. Their remarkable contributions to American history will not be forgotten. As times change, we’re certain cats will remain an important influence in the lives of Americans and the future of the US.


“A Colorful History of Cats in the White House,” Smithsonian Magazine

“Ancient Native Americans May Have Had Pet Bobcat,” Live Science

“Cats? In the Military?!”, The National WWII Museum

“Here Kitty Kitty: A Brief History of White House Cats,” The White House Historical Association

“Our Cats,” The Hemingway Home

“Pets in Colonial America,” World History Encyclopedia

“The 'Feline States of America': How Cats Helped Shape The US,” NPR Wilkaukee