Have you seen the American Man? Something else to watch for on the landscape as you tour Newfoundland and Labrador
Perched high atop Spectacle Head in Cupids, NL is a tall, solitary figure. Locals, who have kept an eye on him for ages, call him the American Man. He is motionless, a guardian of sorts, looking out towards the waters of Conception Bay. He towers there, day and night, year-round. He is silent, with a stony gaze - an apt description, really, for a figure made entirely of rocks.
The Spectacle Head American Man is a circular tower of stone, built at some point in the distant past. He has stood there for about 100 years, making him a well-known landmark on the Baccalieu Trail. Yet while his lofty perch might be lonely, he does not stand alone on the Newfoundland landscape.
All over Newfoundland and Labrador, often on hilltops close to the sea, you can find similar cairns of locally gathered rock. In Placentia Bay these stone piles were called “Man of Rocks” and, spread out over a few miles, they could be lined up as guides to navigation for local fishermen. At Burnt Islands, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland just west of Rose Blanche, two such cairns were used together in the 1800s to aid in marine navigation.
Often, these rocky piles are called American Men, sometimes lending their name to the ridges they surmount. There is a hill just north of Ferryland called American Man on some maps, and another hill with the same name in the Humber Valley. On the Great Northern Peninsula, there is both an American Man Lookout near Raleigh and an inland American Man hill northwest of Great Harbour Deep.
In Notre Dame Bay and St. Mary’s Bay these stone markers were sometimes called “The Naked Man.” Other communities in Newfoundland referred to them as “Nascopies” - perhaps in reference to the indigenous peoples of Labrador and their own tradition of making stone markers - or they are called “Carrins,” a variant of the word cairn.
Oral tradition claims that many of these stone piles were erected by surveyors. Several places in Newfoundland are home to cairns attributed to the famous British explorer, navigator, cartographer Captain James Cook. While Cook did, in fact, survey sections of the coast in the early 1700s, it’s likely that many of these rock columns were erected a century or more later.
Captain Orlebar’s Cairn, northeast of Bay Bulls, is named after Captain John Orlebar, commander of the steamship Lady Le Marchant. Orlebar was in charge of the Newfoundland Survey in 1877. Sailing directions for Newfoundland published by the Hydrographic Center for the US Defense Mapping Agency in 1970 include the spot as a navigation point, noting: “American Man (Captain Orlebar’s Cairn), a twin summit, the southern peak of which is 816 feet high, rises about ¾ mile northward of Heretic Hill.”
The practice of building stone landmarks was also common among American fishermen on the Labrador, and it is possible that some of the Conception Bay American Men were inspired by Labrador examples. In 2009, Gerald Crane, then a member of the Spaniard’s Bay Heritage Society, explained the origin of three American Men near Spider Pond in this way, in an article he wrote for a local newspaper:
“The Americans were good friends of Newfoundland back in the early 1900s, particularly during the days
of Responsible Government. They fished during those days along the coast of Labrador. While fishing they would erect piles of rocks in different areas along the coastline to mark the good fishing grounds. When our ancestors began fishing the Labrador coast, they noticed the large piles of rocks and later found out they were erected by the Americans, and why they erected them. When the fishermen came home in the late fall after fishing all summer, they decided to build the three piles of rocks to guide them up and down over Long Pond and Spider Pond during stormy conditions. Taking into consideration the fact the piles of rocks they saw on the Labrador Coast were built by the Americans, they decided that a good name for them would be The American Man. That name remains today, more especially with the older generation who travelled back and forth over the ponds in earlier years.” (The Compass, March 17, 2009)
Crane wrote that brothers Edward and David Brown were paid the grand sum of $50 to build those three stone navigation aids. One stood on the south side of Long Pond, Tilton, in an area where the slide path went up over the pond; another stood at the southeast corner of Spider Pond. Only the third, constructed at the northwest bight of Spider Pond, remains.
There are other theories about the origin of the term American Man. Residents of Cupids say that their American (or “Merican”) Man is a corruption of the phrase “Marking Man” - tying it to that tradition of using it as an aid to sailors. Others say it got its name from American fishermen who once cast their lines in local waters. One colourful local legend claims it was built as a memorial for a gentleman from the South who tumbled from the top of the hill to his untimely death, a story more tall tale than fact.
There is something about these piles of rocks perched high on the headlands that invites tales of mystery. One intriguing bit of Conception Bay lore was published by folklorist John Widdowson in his 1973 thesis, Aspects of Traditional Verbal Control: Threats and threatening figures in Newfoundland folklore. A resident of Bay Roberts reported a strange light haunting the rock tower that once stood at the top of Big Island (now known as Fergus Island) close to the entrance to the bay.
“When father was a boy his mother used to warn him of Jack O’ Lantern. Jack O’ Lantern was supposed to live on top of the American Man (the name given to the cairn on top of Big Island in Bay Roberts). The island was not visible from the house as the view was blocked by Big Head… Jack O’ Lantern was, of course, marsh gas and was really visible. I have seen him. Father was scared and believed in the tale attached to what he saw. However, he did not always obey when threatened. Grandmother would say, ‘There’s a light on Big Head; it’s after you.’ Jack O’ Lantern just appeared on Big Head. He then progressed down the harbour, being very noticeable over the bogs at Running Brook. He then went to the bogs in French’s Cove and from there crossed to his home on top of the American Man on Big Island.”
Others have suggested ancient origins for these stone piles: the late Canadian writer Farley Mowat argued that some were erected by wandering Norsemen a millennium ago, an argument with little to no archaeological evidence to support it. Some have suggested the Spectacle Head American Man was in place before pioneering settler John Guy landed in Cuper’s Cove in 1610, but the marker was most likely constructed in the very early years of the 20th century. That cairn, which has been rebuilt several times since the 1930s, is much taller today, and a second, smaller cairn has been constructed nearby. Around 2012, the seven-foot-high structure was damaged by vandals and rebuilt (in a wider, taller and slightly more symmetrical fashion) by local volunteers and heritage enthusiasts.
While some older fishermen or backcountry snowmobilers might still use the odd American Man to help guide their way home, few people today use these old stone markers for their original purpose. However, the creation of new rock monuments continues; a comparatively young American Man in Ochre Pit Cove bears a sign reading “MAP monument by Mike North 2012.”
If you are in the mood for a bit of exploration and exercise, hike to the top of Spectacle Head in Cupids. But if you want the chance to pose for a photo by one of the next generation of American Men, follow the old Conception Bay Highway a little bit farther along to Harbour Grace. There, at the end of Stone’s Road on the Southside of Harbour Grace you will find a steep path winding upwards. Ascend that trail, and at the top of the ridge you will find the Stone Cairn commanding the view out over the town below. This cairn was erected a few years ago by the appropriately named Stone family, and hopefully it will be generating stories and its own local folklore for generations to come.
-Story and photos by Dale Jarvis
Dale Jarvis is a folklorist, storyteller, and author. If you know of an American Man he has missed in his travels, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org