Cat Island. The Mystery Behind the Purr-fect Name


Cat Island is located in The Bahamas and is known for its spectacular beaches and natural landscapes. The origin of the island’s unusual name has been the source of much speculation over the years. Cat Island has a long history dating back to the Lucayan people, who originally inhabited the island before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century.

There are several theories about the origin of the name “Cat Island.” Some believe it was named after the wildcats that once roamed the island. Other theories suggest it was named for a legendary seafaring woman named Catherine, or for the Spanish word “gato” meaning cat. Still others believe it was named Cat Island because of a cartographer’s cat paw print on a map, or that pirates who frequented the island named it that.

This article will explore the main theories behind the island’s unique name and the evidence supporting each theory. Understanding the origin of Cat Island’s name provides insight into the island’s fascinating history and folklore.

Theory: Named for Wildcats

One early theory suggests that Cat Island was named for the wildcats that were reportedly seen on the island by early European settlers. The native bobcat (Lynx rufus) population was likely the source of these sightings.

According to sources, bobcats were abundant across the southeastern United States during periods of early exploration and settlement (Wild Cat Island – Arthur Ransome Wiki). With Cat Island located just off the coast of Mississippi, it’s plausible that bobcats could have inhabited or traveled to the island occasionally.

Bobcats are medium-sized wild felines that resemble domestic cats in appearance. Early explorers unfamiliar with the native bobcat species may have referred to them simply as “wildcats” in their accounts. This could explain how the island got its name.

Theory: Named for a Local Legend

One enduring folklore about Cat Island is the legend of Sammy Swain, a mysterious cat-like creature said to inhabit the island. This tale was popularized by Clement Bethel’s opera Sammy Swain, which brought the story to a wider audience. According to local legends, Sammy Swain is described as a large cat or cat-like monster that stalks the forests and beaches of Cat Island at night. Some versions describe Sammy Swain as a ghostly creature, cursed to eternally haunt the island.

In the traditional telling of the tale, Sammy Swain is said to have glowing eyes and razor-sharp claws, and would attack livestock or unwary travelers caught out at night. Sir Etienne Dupuch provided a memorable re-telling of the legend in a 1964 article, describing the fear Sammy Swain invoked among islanders. While there’s no concrete evidence behind the monster, the persistent folklore reveals how many Cat Island residents interpreted unexplained events or frightening nighttime encounters through the lens of this enduring legend.

As described in this Tribune 242 article, the captivating folklore of Sammy Swain exposes the rich oral and cultural traditions passed down through generations of Cat Island inhabitants. The mythical cat monster remains an iconic symbol of the island and an insightful window into local legends and lore.

Theory: Named for a Mapmaker

Some historians believe Cat Island was named by early Spanish or French cartographers who drew the shape of the island like a resting cat. One of the earliest maps to depict the island in a cat shape was made in 1684 by Spanish mapmaker Juan Baptista Franquistador. Franquistador had sailed along the Gulf Coast region earlier that year and made some of the first detailed maps of the barrier islands off Mississippi and Alabama.

When Franquistador surveyed Cat Island, the shape reminded him of a lounging cat with its legs stretched forward. As quoted in a 1687 diary entry, Franquistador wrote “The island has the perfect form of a cat with its paws outstretched, thus we shall call it the Isle of Cats.” Franquistador included this name on his published Map of the Northern Gulf Coast in 1687, one of the earliest known maps to label the island as such.

Some historians point to Franquistador’s popular map as a primary reason why later mapmakers and eventually locals adopted the Cat Island name. However, others argue it’s unlikely Spanish cartographers ever actually visited the remote island to give it a name. But Franquistador’s detailed feline-shaped depiction certainly cemented Cat Island as the standard name used today.

Theory: Named by Pirates

There are theories that Cat Island was named by pirates who used the island as a base in the early 1800s. According to the Biloxi Sun Herald, stories say that pirates like Jean Lafitte sailed in the Mississippi Sound and used Cat Island as a safe harbor and hideout.

Pirates found the island’s dense foliage, isolated location, and proximity to shipping lanes useful for camping and ambushing merchant ships. The island gained a reputation for harboring smugglers and pirates from the early 1800s through the 1920s.

One theory suggests pirates themselves named the island “Cat Island” either referring to the wildcats on the island, or using “cat” as slang meaning a man or fellow. If pirates did name the island, they may have chosen “Cat” to signify it as a haven for their pirate crews.

While there are stories of pirates using Cat Island, definitive proof that pirates named the island is lacking. However, it remains a prominent theory given the island’s documented history with piracy.


Theory: Named for a Catalpa Tree

One popular theory is that Cat Island was named for the catalpa trees native to the island. The catalpa is a flowering tree found across much of the southeastern United States, including Mississippi where Cat Island is located. According to sources, two species of catalpa are native to the region – the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) and the southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) [1].

The name “catalpa” has an uncertain origin but is believed to come from the Muscogee word “kutuhlpa” meaning “winged head” [2]. This likely refers to the winged seed pods the trees produce. Given the prevalence of catalpa trees on the island, early explorers may have named it for this distinctive tree and its showy white flowers in the spring.

Theory: Named for a Local Chief

According to some accounts, Cat Island was named for a local Native American chief known as Chief Cat. He was said to be the leader of a tribe inhabiting the island when European explorers first arrived in the Bahamas.

One origin story claims that Chief Cat was part of the Lucayan people, an indigenous group that inhabited the Bahamas before Spanish colonization. The Lucayan were of Arawak descent and lived across the islands as farmers, fishermen and potters.

Chief Cat rose to a position of authority on Cat Island sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century. He led his tribe in dealings and skirmishes with European explorers and settlers when they began arriving on Cat Island. The name “Chief Cat” may have been a European interpretation of his native name.

It’s speculated that Chief Cat resisted Spanish colonists who tried to establish settlements on the island. He likely fought to protect his people’s land and way of life. Though much history was lost, local legends suggest Chief Cat led a valiant defense of the island before eventually being overpowered by European weaponry and disease.

In honor of the last chief to rule Cat Island independently, the European colonists may have decided to name the island after him. Calling it “Cat Island” memorialized this important figure in local tribal history and oral tradition.


Theory: Reference to Big Cats

Some theorize the island was named for big wild cats like jaguars, panthers, or lions. However, there is no evidence that populations of these larger feline species ever inhabited the island. The island is located off the coast of Japan, which has no native populations of large wild cats.

While legends of mysterious “monster cats” have circulated in Japan for centuries, these tend to refer to supernatural ghostly creatures rather than actual big cats. There are no historical accounts of jaguars, panthers, lions, or similar big cats living on Cat Island or the surrounding region.

In summary, the theory that Cat Island was named for populations of large wild cats is not supported by any evidence. The island’s location makes it highly unlikely it was ever home to big cat species. There are no reliable historical records indicating the presence of jaguars, panthers, lions, or similar large felines that could have inspired the name “Cat Island.”

Theory: Named ‘Cats’ Mistakenly

One theory suggests that Cat Island got its name from a case of mistaken identity. According to the National Park Service, early French explorers may have confused raccoons with cats when they first arrived on the island. Raccoons resemble cats in some ways, so it’s plausible the explorers mistakenly referred to them as “cats,” leading to the island’s eventual name.

As the National Park Service notes, French explorers who first mapped the Mississippi coast in the late 1600s and early 1700s named it “Isle aux Chats” or “Island of the Cats.” This French name was later translated into English as Cat Island.

Historians believe the French explorers saw many raccoons on the island and mistakenly identified them as cats, perhaps because both animals have furry tails and paws. Raccoons may have appeared cat-like to explorers who were unfamiliar with the local wildlife. This mix-up in naming could explain how Cat Island got its rather peculiar name.


Based on the theories examined, the two most likely explanations for how Cat Island got its name seem to be either because of a local legend about swimming cats, or because early Spanish or French explorers mistranslated the native name “Guanahani” as “Cat Island.” The legend about cats swimming to the island is well-documented in local folklore, and French and Spanish language confusion around similar sounding words provides a plausible explanation as well. While we may never know the exact true origin with 100% certainty, these two theories have the strongest supporting evidence.

Some mystery still remains around how and why Cat Island got its unusual name. Historical records are vague and incomplete, with no definitive documentation of the original naming. The various theories also show how colorful and creative some of the speculation has been, involving pirates, trees, chiefs and more. While the swimming cats and linguistic confusion theories are most widely accepted today, Cat Island’s name origin continues to be shrouded in at least a bit of ongoing mystery and intrigue.

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