The mystery behind Cabot Rock

Susan Flanagan
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Does anyone know where ‘IO Caboto’ signature stone has gone?

Chris Flanagan and Marie Snippa investigate one of the hundreds of rock walls in Grates Cove, on the tip of the Avalon Peninsula. — Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

In the fading light of a cold, damp evening in Grates Cove in the late 1960s, two men approached the vertical cliffs near the public wharf armed with hammers, chisels, adzes, burlap sacks and wooden crates. Once there, shrouded in fog, they methodically pounded, hacked and chiselled off a sizeable chunk of shale. The shale bore an inscription, carved by hand. IO Caboto, it read.

Perhaps the most valuable rock carving in modern Newfoundland anthropology, an original signature crafted by John Cabot himself at the northernmost tip of the Avalon Peninsula after his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1497. And it is gone.

OK, maybe it was a hot summer day, and maybe the thieves used a jackhammer and wheelbarrow. Little is known with certainty about the theft of the Holy Grail of Newfoundland exploration. On a recent trip to this fabulously historical corner of the province, one group purported to know the family name of the thieves. Like the Grinch who conned Cindy Lou Who, the thieves told the locals they were removing the rock here, and taking it there, to validate its authenticity. But apparently their hearts did not grow three times bigger that day, or any day after, and the hunk of rock did not return to its rightful place.  

Another couple we met thought the rock had already been moved from its natural location and was stolen from a monument site 50 feet up from the shore. There is indeed a barren concrete monument, but it seems too small to have housed such a noble rock.

One thing is for certain: locals knew enough details to have erected a permanent brass monument that states emphatically that “Two men from the media” removed the stone.

Those are pretty damning words.

I did contact members of the media who were around back in the day and they say they’d know if the rock was over someone’s fireplace. And they say it’s not.

We did go traipsing around the original site where Giovanni or a member of his crew broke out the chisel many moons ago. No clue as to who removed the rock, but you can see where it was removed.

According to the Beyond Baccalieu website, the Cabot Rock was “first mentioned in historical writings in 1822 by William Epps Cormack in his journal which recorded his trek across Newfoundland. …”

Cormack, unfortunately, doesn’t say what the inscription said, but we learn this from Leo E.F. English, curator of the Newfoundland Museum, when he took pictures of the rock in 1927. “IO Caboto — Sancius — Sainmalia … IO is the Italian word for ‘I,’ therefore simply ‘I Cabot’ … and ‘Sancius’ is Latin for his son’s name. … It is unclear what Sainmalia means except some speculate it is a reference to Santa Maria.”

So, did Cabot or a member of his crew carve these words back in 1497 or 1498? Maybe so, but after a sleuthing afternoon in Grates Cove we were no closer to solving the mystery of the missing Cabot Rock.

The day was not a writeoff, however. Did you know Grates Cove is a National Historic Site (named in 1995  www.historicplaces.ca) for the myriad of stone walls that cover this headland on the northern tip of the Bay de Verde Peninsula?

We hiked a well-marked trail (blue paint on the rocks indicates you’re on the right path). We were given excellent directions to the trailhead by a local named Cindy Broderick. “Drive through Grates Cove until you see the post office. Turn left before it and keep driving until you see a boat. Park and that’s the trail.”

We spent an hour or more marvelling over the hundreds of stone walls built centuries ago to mark off property lines or keep animals out of gardens. There are hundreds of these walls scattered over 150 acres. Now I know why Cindy’s husband laughed when I asked him if we’d see any of the stone walls on our walk. They are everywhere. Turn in any direction and you’ll see a hip-high stone wall sticking out of the grass.

The walls are not uniform squares, but seem rather haphazard. Perfect for a game of hide and seek. The path leads you along a headland overlooking Baccalieu Island, which is home to about seven million birds — Leach’s storm petrels, to be exact. Years ago, when my husband worked for this newspaper, he once took a helicopter to visit the lightkeepers. He took a photo of a sign that said: Welcome to Baccalieu. Population 2.

Other trail highlights include massive blueberries and views of nearby headlands and cliffs. The trail is suitable for young children as it does not go close to cliff edges and, a particular bonus, it ends on the main road near the post office and then it’s just a short walk back to your vehicle.

After a good hike in the fresh (read windy) air, you will surely have built up an appetite and Grates Cove just happens to have a lovely café offering home-cooked Newfoundland, Cajun and Asian-inspired meals for eat-in, takeout or backpack picnics. Owners Terrence and Courtney Howell converted the old schoolhouse in 2011 to a café and naturally lit artists’ studios. They also have a guest home if you’d like to stay the night and explore some of the other boardwalk trails in town. “Land and Sea” aired an episode featuring Terrence called “The 21st Century Bayman.” Go to www.gratescovestudios.com or call 709-587-3881 for more info.

To get to Grates Cove, turn off the Trans-Canada Highway at Exit 31. Then take the Veterans Memorial Highway to Carbonear before veering right on Route 70 towards Salmon Cove and Northern Bay, both excellent sandy beaches. It takes just over an hour from this right-hand turn to reach the turn-off to Grates Cove and Bay de Verde. Be careful if you attempt the road to Grates Cove via Old Perlican and Daniel’s Cove, as that road is more suited to four-wheel-drives.

And if you can shed any light on the removal or whereabouts of the Cabot Stone, email me.

Maybe together we can solve the mystery.

 

Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.

Susan thanks her husband for making the trip to Grates Cove and helping with this column. She also thanks online reader, NewfieChick, who suggested she write about this wonderful community.

Organizations: Newfoundland Museum, National Historic Site, Trans-Canada Highway

Geographic location: Grates Cove, Newfoundland, Atlantic Bay de Verde Baccalieu Island Santa Maria Carbonear Salmon Cove Northern Bay Old Perlican

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Recent comments

  • Suzie Hennessy
    July 17, 2014 - 17:10

    Actually, my sister and brother-in-law also are blessed to call Grates Cove their home and they have taken us to see Cabot Rock. Indeed the front of the rock showing the inscription had been taken away(?) but on examination of the back face of the rock, there still exists markings. More of the front of the rock has fallen away this past winter.

  • Susan Snelgrove
    September 05, 2013 - 22:11

    For me, the best evidence of the validity of the Cabot Rock comes from Cormack's journal of 1822, on his trip around Conception Bay and onward to Trinity Bay in search of the Beothuks, he wrote: "The Point of Grates is the part of North America first discovered by Europeans. Sebastian Cabot landed here in 1497, and took possession of "The Newfoundland". He recorded the event by cutting an inscription, still perfectly legible, on a large block of rock that stands on the shore". He got Sebastien confused with his father John, which was a common misunderstanding at that time, as Sebastien became more well known than his father. But he would have no vested interest in lying about the existence of the rock. Cormack's work and his diary was extremely scientific and detailed, and it is reasonable to assume he was reporting what he saw. To ERAX's point, the inscription in 1822 would be 325 years old, perhaps still deep enough to see. Today, 500+ years later, nothing is left. I am a believer in the validity of the Cabot Rock. Bonavista's claim is based on an inscription on a map by Mason dated 1617 - "land first seen by Cabot". SEEN being the operative word. They may well have headed south and LANDED at the Grates, the next point of land. In one of the few writings about the event at the time, it mentioned there was an island nearby. Of course, beautiful Baccalieu Island is right there. Thanks for writing about our mysterious Cabot Rock, and our very special community of Grates Cove.

  • Lover of the Grates
    September 02, 2013 - 14:16

    There has many different opinions from many that have not been living here all their lives.But those of us who are born and raised in Grates Cove have seen or have listened to our fathers tales of the government in power deciding that a little village which is situated at the beginning and end of 2 bays should not be recognized for its Historic Significance in the Cabot saga. But the village was able to become important through its own natural beauty, walking trails and replica stage and cookhouse.

  • Grateser
    August 28, 2013 - 09:30

    Bonavista like to lay claim as Cabot's first North American landing. Knowing there was proof he was in Grates Cove drove them mad until one of them stole and destroyed the rock. That's where I would look for the culprits. Dirty Bonavistians!

  • scott pynn
    August 27, 2013 - 20:10

    hey susan, ,I remember years ago my grandfather telling me a story of a rock in grates cove that had the words "TuB iN rOcK" carved just like that lower case, capital lowercase capital etc.., i'll ask him again to try to get some details

  • Erax
    August 27, 2013 - 20:05

    This scam comes up here and there every few years. Here's how we know the letters could not have been carved in Cabot's time: rocks erode away at the rate of about 1 millimetre (mm) every 100 years (mountains erode down by about 1 mm a century - it's a given in geology). 4 or 5 centuries of erosion mean the surface of the rock would be 4-5 mm shallower, and all the inscriptions would be eroded away.

    • V Joseph Broderick
      March 02, 2014 - 13:25

      I recall as a boy while growing up in Grates Cove, having on many occasions seen the Rock in question and tracing my fingers in the carved initials. The Rock definitely did exist. It was located underneath the fishing stages of the Meadus's, (Max , Ben & Frank).