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Canadian Folklore: Oak Island

Updated: Mar 11

Today we are again headed to the east coast of Canada this time we are going to be looking at the Oak Island mystery. The Oak Island mystery is a series of stories of buried treasure and unexplained objects found on or near Oak Island in Nova Scotia. Attempts have been made to find treasure and artifacts since the 18th century. There are many theories about what artifacts are present on the island. They range from pirate treasure to Shakespearean manuscripts to the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, with the Grail and the Ark being buried there by the Knights Templar. Various items have surfaced over the years, some of which have since been carbon-dated and found to be hundreds of years old. While these items can be considered treasures in their own right, no significant main treasure site has ever been found. The site consists of digs by numerous individuals and groups of people. In an unknown location today, the original shaft was dug by early explorers and is known as "the money pit". A "curse" on the treasure is said to have originated more than a century ago and states that 7 men will die in the search for the treasure before it will be found.



Unpublished Era (1790s-1857)

There is very little verified information about early treasure-related activities on Oak Island; because of this, the following are word-of-mouth stories going back to the late 18th century. It wasn't until decades later that publishers began to pay attention to the activity and investigated the stories involved. The earliest known story of a treasure found was found by a settler named Daniel McGinnis, it appeared in print in 1857. It then took another 5 years before one of the alleged original diggers gave a statement regarding the original story, along with the subsequent Onslow and Truro Company activities.

The original story by early settlers involves a dying sailor from the crew of Captain Kidd (who died in 1701), in which he states that a treasure worth £2 million had been buried on the island. According to the most widely believed story, In 1795 at age 16, Daniel McGinnis made his way across to Oak Island on a fishing expedition. Once on the island, he found himself standing in a clearing in front of an old oak tree bearing the marks of unnatural scarring. This, he supposed to be caused by a rope and tackle system used to lower material down into a shaft below, indicated by a depression beneath the tree, about 4.8 meters in diameter. This completed the scene as one Daniel immediately recognized from childhood tales of swashbuckling pirates. The very next day, Daniel McGinnis returned to Oak Island accompanied by two friends, Anthony Vaughan, and John Smith. Equipped with picks and shovels they began the task of recovering the treasure – but it was to take significantly more digging equipment than first anticipated. As the three boys began to dig, they found the earth still bore pick marks on its smooth, clay sides. Their excitement rose when, at a depth of 1.2 metres they hit a layer of flagstones. These were removed only to reveal packed logs at 3 metre, 6 metre, and 9 metre intervals. On removing these layers of logs, the boys quickly realized that they were going to need more substantial tools if they were going to recover the treasure of Oak Island. They reluctantly returned to the mainland, making a pledge to return and recover the treasure. Although nine years were to pass until Daniel, Anthony, and John were to return to Oak Island, they found the treasure digging site just as they had left it. Returning with Simeon Lynds, a local businessman, the project now had financial backing and significant support from the local labour force. The treasure excavation had now begun in earnest, with everyone in the syndicate working in return for a share of the gold if and when they found it. As the treasure seekers dug deeper, more oak platforms were recovered at depths of 12 metres, 15.2 metres, and 18.2 metres, with the addition of coconut fibre and putty. At 21.3 metres, they hit a platform of plain oak, followed by more oak but sealed with putty at 24.4 metres. Much to the syndicate’s excitement, at 27.4 metres, a stone, not native to Nova Scotia was recovered bearing an inscription. They believed they were about to recover a hoard of pirate treasure.

Sadly, the significance of the illegible cypher on this stone was lost on Smith and the other treasure hunters as Smith, who owned the island at that time fitted the stone in his fireplace. The inscription was translated to read:

Forty Feet Below Two Million Pounds Are Buried

Believing the pirate treasure to lie beneath the mysterious stone, it was hastily removed from the pit to uncover another layer of wood, rather than the bounty of treasure the prospectors believed would surely lie beneath. As nightfall descended, the party disbanded due to poor visibility and water becoming an increasing problem, the deeper they dug. All digging was aborted until daylight as it was thought the pirate riches could wait one more night in the ground, having been buried for any number of years already. They must have left the island with the thoughts of pirates and vast treasures filling their minds. Sunday, being the next day, no work took place on the pit due to religious commitments. The group returned to Oak Island on Monday eager to recover treasure only to find the shaft flooded with seawater, all but 10 metres from the surface. All excavation attempts to pump and bail out the water failed, resulting in the pit containing water at a constant level of 10 metres from the top. Digging became impossible in this situation and the project was abandoned for one year. All workers returned to their farms and looked forward to continuing the search in the springtime. It was decided that a separate treasure shaft be dug next to the original in order to allow the flood water to pass into this new chamber. At a depth of 33.5 metres, the original shaft was tunneled into but to no avail. The diggers were lucky to escape with their lives as the walls of the new shaft caved in, leaving the original shaft flooded up to a level of 10m below the surface again. Smith began to despair in the syndicate’s misfortunes, believing they had been beaten by nature. He gave up, accepting the treasure to be out of their grasp, a feeling many were to experience in the future, even with the use of metal detectors and radar.

In about 1802, a group known as the Onslow Company allegedly sailed from central Nova Scotia to Oak Island to recover what they believed to be hidden treasure. They continued the excavation left behind down to about 90 feet, with layers of logs (what the earliest accounts described as "marks") found about every 10 feet, and they also discovered layers of charcoal, putty, and coconut fibre along with a large stone inscribed with symbols. The diggers then faced a dilemma when the pit flooded with 60 feet of water for unknown reasons. The alleged excavation was eventually abandoned after workers attempted to recover the treasure from below by digging a tunnel from a second shaft that flooded as well. No original documents relating to the Onslow Company have been found to date, but the above accounts were told by John Smith and Anthony Vaughn Jr. in 1848 to Robert Creelman of the Truro Company.

The last major company of the "unpublished era" was called The Truro Company, which was allegedly formed in 1849 by investors. The pit was re-excavated back down to 86 feet but ended up flooding again. It was then decided to drill 5 boreholes using a pod auger into the original shaft. In the 1st hole, they lost a core sampler. In the second hole, they struck the platform which the previous Onslow Company had found at 98 feet with the crowbar. The drilling auger went through this upper platform, which was made of 5 inches of spruce wood, then a 12-inch gap, 4 inches of oak wood, 22 inches of loose metal, and 8 inches of oak wood. This was thought to be the bottom of two “treasure chests” or barrel containers, one stacked on top of the next between two platforms. Then the drill went through 22 inches of loose metal, 4 inches of oak wood, and 6 inches of spruce wood, then into 7 feet of clay without striking anything else. With the third hole, the same platform was struck again at 98 feet. Passing through, the auger fell 18 inches and then came into contact with the side of a cask or barrel. On withdrawing the auger, oak splinters such as those from the side of a barrel stave, and coconut fiber were brought up. The reported distance between these two upper and lower platforms was within 6 feet of each other. Three links of metal resembling an ancient gold watch chain were also brought up by the auger. The final two holes were drilled near the inside walls of the pit. Three pieces of copper wire were also brought up from the 5th hole.

The Truro Company sunk another shaft (#3), about 10 feet northwest of the original shaft. No water was encountered in this new shaft down to 109 feet through red clay. A tunnel was driven from the bottom in the direction of the original shaft; in an attempt the intersect the treasure when water burst in and the men barely escaped with their lives. In twenty minutes, 45 feet of water flooded this new shaft. Water bailing was used in these old and new shafts for about a week, day and night, but this barely made a noticeable difference in the water level. It was discovered then that the water filling the pit was salt water and that this water level rose and fell 18 inches with the tides. This gave searchers the idea that the water source must somehow be connected to the sea. A search for an inlet began at Smith’s Cove, 495 feet away from the original shaft on the eastern end of the island. Smith’s Cove was also suspected as the source of the water as water had been observed as curiously running out of the sand at the center of this cove at times. After shoveling and removing a layer of sand and gravel covering the beach, it was discovered that a bed of brown coconut fiber 2 to 3 inches in thickness had been reached, covering an area 145 feet wide along the shoreline just above the low tide mark and extending to the high tide mark. This was the same kind that had been found in the original shaft with the pod auger drilling the year before. Underlying this, and to the same extent, was about 4 or 5 inches of decayed eel grass. Under this was a compact mass of beach rocks free from sand or gravel.

A “cofferdam” was constructed to hold back the tide and allow for further examination

After removing the rocks nearest the low water, it was found that the clay (which, with the sand and gravel, originally formed the beach) had been dug out and removed and replaced by beach rocks. Resting on the bottom of this excavation were five well-constructed drains formed by laying parallel lines of rocks about 8 inches apart and covering the same with flat stones. These drains at the starting point were a considerable distance apart but converged towards a common center at the back of the excavation. Work went on until half of the rocks had been removed where the clay banks at the extreme sides showed a depth of 5 ft, at which depth a partially burned piece of oak wood was found. About this time an unusually high tide overflowed the top of the dam; and as it had not been constructed to resist pressure from the inside, when the tide receded, it was carried away. To rebuild the dam would have been too costly. It was decided to abandon the work on the shore and to sink a shaft a short distance inland from Smith’s Cove and directly over the suspected convergence point which was suspected to be 25 feet down from the surface to the water. The plan was to drive spiles through, and thereby stop the further passage of the water. A spot was selected and a shaft (#4) was put down, to a depth of 75 feet. Realizing the fact that they must have passed the tunnel, work was stopped on this pit. Another and more careful survey was made and work was begun on another shaft (#5) about 12 ft to the south of the one just abandoned. When a depth of 35 feet had been reached, a large boulder laying in the bottom of the shaft was pried up. A rush of water immediately followed and in a few minutes, the shaft was full to the tide level. An effort was made to carry out the original program of driving spiles, but as the appliances at command were of the most crude description the effort was a failure. A short time after, another shaft (#6) was sunk on the south side of the original shaft and to a depth of 118 ft. This made the fourth one (including the original shaft) that had been put down at this place and in such close proximity to each other that a circle 50 ft. in diameter would include the hole. The conditions found in sinking this fourth shaft were precisely the same as in the other shafts. As already stated, this new shaft was 118 feet deep, a greater depth of 8 ft than had previously been reached. A tunnel was driven towards and reached a point directly under a part, at least, of the bottom of the original shaft It was now the dinner hour, and the workmen had left the tunnel. Before they had finished dinner, a great crash was heard in the direction of the works. Rushing back to the pit, they found that the bottom of the original pit had fallen into the tunnel that they had a short time before vacated and that the new shaft was fast filling with water. Subsequently, it was found that 12 ft of mud had been driven by the force of water from the old to the new shaft. The funds of the company were exhausted and this company was dissolved sometime in 1851.

The first published account took place in 1857 when The Liverpool Transcript mentioned a group digging for Captain Kidd's treasure on Oak Island. This would be followed by a more complete account by a justice of the peace in Chester, Nova Scotia, in 1861, which was also published in The Liverpool Transcript. However, the first published account of what had taken place on the Island did not appear until October 16, 1862, when Anthony Vaughan's memories were recorded by The Liverpool Transcript for posterity. Activities regarding the Onslow and Truro Companies were also included that mention the mysterious stone and the Truro-owned auger hitting wooden platforms along with the "metal in pieces". The accounts based on The Liverpool Transcript articles also ran in the Novascotian, the British Colonist, and are mentioned in an 1895 book called A History of Lunenburg County.



10 years would pass before there was another excavation attempt made; in 1861 by a company called "The Oak Island Association". They set about restrengthening the original shaft, which had caved in. The water was bailed out easily and the pit reopened to a depth of 88 feet, where the muddy clay below seemed to be effectively blocking any heavy flooding from Smith’s Cove. A new shaft (#7) was dug to a depth of 25 feet east of the original shaft with the intention of intercepting the water tunnel, but it was abandoned at 120 feet after it had missed the tunnel. The workers began another shaft (#8) about 18 feet west of the original shaft and 118 feet deep. (This is a shaft often credited to the 1850 Truro group). A tunnel 4 feet high by 3 feet wide was driven from the bottom to the original shaft in the hope of striking the treasure vault. This tunnel entered the original shaft a little below the lower platform [the one bored through at about 105 feet in 1849] where soft clay was found. The tunnel was unwisely driven through the original shaft until it nearly reached the east pipe when the water started coming above the east side. Three days of continuous bailing with a horse-operated pumping gin failed to reduce the water in shaft #8, and water was again seeping up through the original shaft. A larger water bailing operation was set up by George Mitchell. They drove a tunnel from shaft #7 on the East of the Money Pit until this shaft also began filling with water. Then, with a total of 63 men, and 33 horses working in shifts, pumping gins were erected over shafts #7 and #8, and the original shaft. The bailing system in each of the three holes consisted of four 70-gallon casks that were continually lowered, filled, raised and dumped. This succeeded in almost draining the pits.

A tunnel leading from the west of shaft #8 to the original shaft which was 17 feet long, 4 feet high, and 3 feet wide was blocked with clay, two men were sent in to clear it halfway through the tunnel, when they heard a tremendous crash in the original shaft, and barely escaped being caught by a rush of mud which followed them into the West pit and filled up with 7 feet of mud in less than three minutes. The resulting crash was the upper platform of the original shaft at 98 feet dropping to a lower level, and the bottom platform dropping from 88 to about 102 feet or a total of 14 feet. This would suggest that the lower platform on which the chests rested was now down around 119 feet, along with an estimated 10,000 feet of lumber which also fell with some of the cribbing of the original shaft. The resulting crash expelled a black old Oak timber of considerable girth and 3 and ½ feet in length which was ejected with the mud and showed evidence of being cut, hewed, chamfered, sawn, or bored, and a part of a bottom of a Yellow Keg was also recovered from the original shaft, along with a piece of juniper with bark on and cut at each end, and a spruce slab with mining auger hole in it. The Oak Island Association Raises an additional $2,000 to continue their work.

In the fall of 1861, a cast Iron Pump and Steam Engine were purchased from Halifax, and set up to be driven by steam power at the original shaft. The Boiler exploded and caused the 1st death on Oak Island of a man who was scalded to death, with others injured. The name of this man is unknown due to the fact that official government death records started in 1864, and the failure of J.B. McCully to record it in the company records. The boiler explosion was mentioned in Author Andrew Learmont Spedon’s book “Rambles Among The Blue Noses” about his visit to the island in 1861, but the death was not. The note of death came from an essay by E.H. Owens of Lunenburg had written about the history of the county in 1868. The accident occurs sometime in the fall after September 30th, 1861, for which the work was stopped for the winter. In the spring of 1862 work resumes on the island, and another shaft is sunk (#9), 107 feet in depth alongside and connected to the original shaft. This was to serve as a pumping shaft for the steam-powered pump. The original shaft was then cleared out and restrengthened down to 103 feet, at which point the water seeping up from below exceeded the capacity of the pump.

McNutt said that while the mud was being cleared out of the original shaft, the workers came across some of the tools left by the 1849 Truro group at 90 feet, as well as tools belonging to the 1803 Onslow company at 100 feet.

An attempt was made to cut off the water source near Smith’s Cove by sinking shaft #10, about 25 feet northeast of shaft #5, which had been excavated to 35 feet in 1850. This shaft was dug to 50 feet and tunnels were driven from various levels until the diggers were eventually flooded out. The Oak Island Association was now broke, but still determined. After raising a little money. They planned another assault on the drains of Smith’s Cove. Because of limited funds, a proper cofferdam couldn’t be built, so work in the early spring of 1863 was limited to uncovering a section of the drains nearest the shore at low tide. Israel Longworth wrote in 1866:

About thirty or forty feet of the drain was uncovered and removed, but as it did not tend to lower the water in West, or pumping pit in SHAFT #9, about thirty rods distant from Smith’s Cove the superintendent directed that the opened drain should be filled up with packed clay, and he thought this would stop the concourse of the water to The Money Pit. Before the claying process commenced,
The water in The Money Pit and West pits was nearly as clear and quite as salt as that in the Bay, but while it was in progress, it became very muddy. After the drain was sufficiently packed, three or four weeks were allowed for the clay to settle and pack before the pumps were started at The West Pit, when it was ascertained that the operation had been instrumental in diminishing the water by one half. However this proved to be only temporary relief as the tides soon washed the clay away.

On the theory that the shaft #9 pumping shaft wasn’t deep enough (at 107 feet) to efficiently drain the original shaft. The workers selected a spot 100 feet southeast of the original where they dug shaft #11 (120 feet deep). The intakes for the pumps were placed on the bottom and a tunnel was driven from a higher level toward Smith’s Cove in the hope of intersecting the water network and diverting it into the new shaft. They missed it and gave up, and instead began driving another tunnel toward the original shaft itself. But work was soon suspended for about three months while the Association endeavored to raise more money. On August 24, 1863, the Nova Scotian reported that operations had resumed and that “men and machinery are now at work pumping the water from the pits previously sunk and it is said they are sanguine that before the laps of one month, they will strike the treasure.” The tunnel from shaft #11 struck The Money Pit at a depth of 108 feet, just above the water level that was being held down by pumps in various other connected shafts. The workers strengthened the area of the original shaft between 103 and 108 feet. They then dug a circular tunnel around the outside of the pit at about 95 feet, intersecting a couple of the earlier searchers shafts in the process. It appears that one or two other lateral tunnels were dug, but their direction and depth were unrecorded. This labor continued sporadically into the following year, but it was generally found impossible to do any work below 110 feet in the immediate area of the original shaft without being flooded out. And the treasure they believed was below that. Sometime in 1864, the flood tunnel was struck at about this point where it entered the east side of the original shaft.

Samuel Fraser in his letter to A.S. Lowden in 1895 recalled that:

“ As we entered he old place of the treasure [via a lateral tunnel at 110 feet] we cut off the mouth of the [flood] tunnel. As we opened it, the water hurled around rocks about twice the size of a man’s head with many smaller, and drove the men back for protection… The [Flood] tunnel was found near the top our tunnel.”

They had found the man-made watercourse, but they were powerless to shut it off. The Association was now even deeper in the red and its backers were thoroughly discouraged. The constant erosion of the seawater was undermining the walls of the original shaft, and some of the workers were refusing to enter it. The shaft was inspected by mining engineers who declared it unsafe and advised that it be condemned. That was it, The Oak Island Association was finished.

In 1866, a group known as The Oak Island Eldorado Company was formed to find the treasure. By this time there were many shafts, bore holes, and tunnels under Oak Island made by previous treasure hunters. When a plan to shut off the alleged flood tunnels from Smith's Cove didn't work, the company decided to shift focus to the original main shaft. Exploratory holes that were drilled turned up bits of wood, more coconut fibre, soft clay, and blue mud. Having found nothing of interest, the group gave up the search in 1867.

In 1896, an unknown group arrived on the island with steam pumps and boring equipment. Although the pumps were unable to keep water out of the flooded side shaft, boring samples were taken. It was claimed that one of the samples brought a tiny piece of sheepskin parchment to the surface. The parchment had two letters, "vi" or "wi", written in India ink. (this is all a claim I didn't find any definitive proof). The second accidental death occurred on March 26, 1897, when a worker named Maynard Kaiser fell down a shaft and died, his body was never recovered. In 1898, red paint was poured into the flooded pit by the group, this reportedly revealed three exit holes around the island.



Captain Henry L. Bowdoin arrived on Oak Island in August 1909 representing the Old Gold Salvage group, one of those members was Franklin D. Roosevelt. By this time, the area now known as the "money pit" was cleared out to 113 feet and divers were sent down to investigate. Although multiple borings were taken in and around the pit, none of the cores revealed anything of interest. Bowdoin also examined Smith's Cove, where drain tunnels and a ring bolt in a rock had reportedly been seen. Although the group found the remains of an 1850 cofferdam, no evidence of anything else was found. Bowdoin later examined the "stone cipher" in Halifax and found it a basalt rock with no symbols. He was doubtful that symbols could have worn off the rock, given its hardness. The group left the island in November 1909.



In 1928, a New York newspaper published a feature story about Oak Island. William Chappell became interested and excavated the pit in 1931 by sinking a 12-by-14-foot 163-foot shaft southwest of what he believed was the site of the 1897 shaft (which was thought, without evidence, to be near the original pit). At 127 feet, a number of artifacts, including an axe, a fluke anchor, and a pick, were found. The pick was identified as a Cornish miner's pick, but by this time the area around the pit was littered with debris from previous excavation attempts, and finding the owner was impossible. Gilbert Hedden, an operator of a steel fabricating company, saw the 1928 article and was fascinated by the engineering problems involved in recovering the reported treasure. Hedden made six trips to Oak Island and collected books and articles about the island. He went to England to consult Harold T. Wilkins, author of Captain Kidd and His Skeleton Island, about a link he found between Oak Island and a map in Wilkins' book. After Chappell's excavations, Hedden began digging in the summer of 1935, after he purchased the southeastern end of the island. In 1939, he informed King George VI about developments on the island. Further excavations were made in 1935 and 1936, none of which was successful.



Robert Restall, his 18-year-old son, and work partner Karle Graeser, came to Oak Island in 1959 after signing a contract with one of the property owners. In 1965, they tried to seal what was thought to be a storm drain in Smith's Cove and dug a shaft down to 27 feet. An account of an excavation of the pit was published in the January 1965 issue of Reader's Digest. On August 17, Restall was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes. His son then went down the shaft and also lost consciousness. Graeser and two others, Cyril Hiltz and Andy DeMont, then attempted to save the two men. A visitor to the site, Edward White, had himself lowered on a rope into the shaft but was able to bring out only DeMont. Restall, his son, Graeser, and Hiltz all died. That year, Robert Dunfield leased portions of the island. Dunfield dug the pit area to a depth of 134 feet and a width of 100 feet by using a 70-ton digging crane with a clam bucket. Transportation of the crane to the island required the construction of a causeway (which still exists) from the western end of the island to Crandall's Point on the mainland, two hundred meters away. Dunfield's lease ended in August 1966.



In January 1967, Daniel C. Blankenship, David Tobias, Robert Dunfield, and Fred Nolan formed a syndicate for exploration on Oak Island. Two years later, Blankenship and Tobias formed Triton Alliance after purchasing most of the island. Several former landowners, including Mel Chappell, became shareholders in Triton. Triton workers excavated a 235 feet shaft, known as Borehole 10-X and supported by a steel caisson to bedrock, in 1971. According to Blankenship and Tobias, cameras lowered down the shaft into a cave and recorded possible chests, human remains, wooden cribbing, and tools; however, the images were unclear and none of the claims have been independently confirmed. The shaft later collapsed, and the excavation was again abandoned. The shaft was later re-dug to 181 feet, reaching bedrock, but work was halted due to a lack of funds and the collapse of the partnership. The island was the subject of an episode of In Search of... which was first broadcast on January 18, 1979. In 1983, Triton Alliance sued Frederick Nolan over the ownership of seven lots on the island and its causeway access. Two years later, Nolan's ownership of the lots was confirmed, but he was ordered to pay damages for interfering with Triton's tourist business. On appeal, Triton lost again in 1989 and Nolan's damages were reduced. During the 1990s, further exploration stalled because of legal battles between the Triton partners and a lack of financing. In 2005, a portion of the island was for sale for US$7 million. Although the Oak Island Tourism Society had hoped that the government of Canada would purchase the island, a group of American drillers did so instead.



In June 1996, Robert S. Young of Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, purchased 4 acres of the island known as Lot Five from Fred Nolan. This property is the only untouched land left on Oak Island. Young died on October 28, 2020, and the land passed to his estate. His finds, including a solid-silver 1781 Spanish half-real, are documented on his website.



It was announced in April 2006 that brothers Rick and Marty Lagina of Michigan had purchased 50 percent of Oak Island Tours from David Tobias for an undisclosed sum. The rest of the company is owned by Blankenship. Center Road Developments, in conjunction with Allan Kostrzewa and Brian Urbach (members of the Michigan group), had purchased Lot 25 from David Tobias for a reported $230,000 one year before Tobias sold the rest of his share. The Michigan group, working with Blankenship, said that it would resume operations on Oak Island in the hope of discovering buried treasure and solving the island's mystery. In July 2010, Blankenship and the other stakeholders in Oak Island Tours announced on their website that the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Department of Tourism, Culture, and Heritage had granted them a treasure-trove license which allowed them to resume activities until December 31, 2010. After December 2010, the departments repealed the treasure-trove license and replaced it with an Oak Island Treasure Act. The act, which became effective on January 1, 2011, allows treasure hunting to continue on the island under the terms of a license issued by the Minister of Natural Resources. Since 2014 exploration by the Lagina brothers has been documented in a reality television show airing on the History Channel.


Water in the Money Pit

According to an account written in 1862, after the Onslow Company had excavated to 80–90 feet, the pit flooded with seawater up to the 33-foot level; attempts to remove the water were unsuccessful. Explorers have made claims about an elaborate drainage system extending from the ocean beaches to the pit. Later treasure hunters claimed that coconut fibres were discovered beneath the surface of a beach, Smith's Cove, in 1851. This led to the theory that the beach had been converted into a siphon, feeding seawater into the pit through a man-made tunnel. A sample of this material was reportedly sent to the Smithsonian Institution during the early 20th century, where it was concluded that the material was coconut fibre. Although one expedition claimed to have found a flood tunnel lined with flat stones at 90 feet, geologist Robert Dunfield wrote that he carefully examined the walls of the re-excavated pit and was unable to locate any evidence of a tunnel. At the invitation of Boston-area businessman David Mugar, a two-week survey was conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1995 (the only known scientific study conducted on the site). After running dye tests in the bore hole, the institution concluded that the flooding was caused by a natural interaction between the island's freshwater lens and tidal pressures in the underlying geology (refuting the man-made tunnel theory). The Woods Hole scientists who viewed the 1971 videos reported that nothing conclusive could be determined from the murky images. The reported five-finger (or box) drains at Smith's Cove have recently been thought to be the remains of early salt works, with no connection between the drains and any flooding of the pit. Oak Island lies on a glacial tumulus system and is underlain by a series of water-filled anhydrite cavities which may be responsible for the repeated flooding of the pit. This type of limestone easily dissolves when exposed to water, forming caves and natural voids. Bedrock lies at a depth of 38 to 45 metres in the pit area.


Stone with Alleged Markings

A stone found 90 feet below the surface was said to have been inscribed with "mysterious markings". It was first reported in July 2, 1862, Halifax Sun and Advisor article, which mentioned a June 2, 1862, letter by J. B. McCully which retold the story of the stone. Offering a secondhand description of its discovery during the early 1800s excavation, McCully wrote: "Some [layers] were charcoal, some putty, and one at 80 feet was a stone cut square, two feet long and about a foot thick, with several characters cut on it." In an 1863 newspaper article, the stone was said to have been built into the "chimney of an old house near the pit". Another article, a year later, claimed that the stone was held by the Smith family. On January 2, 1864, Historical Society of Nova Scotia secretary John Hunter-Duvar contacted treasure hunter George Cooke. In a January 27 letter to Hunter-Duvar, Cooke claimed that Smith built the stone into his chimney in 1824 and said that he was shown the stone by Smith in the chimney around 1850, when "there were some crudely cut letters, figures or characters upon it. I cannot recollect which, but they appear as if they had been scraped out by a blunt instrument, rather than cut with a sharp one". According to Cooke, when he made inquiries in 1864, he discovered that the chimney had been enclosed in wood and surrounded by a staircase; the stone was no longer visible.

An undated post-1893 letter by William Blair read, "Jefferson W. McDonald, who first mentioned Oak Island to me in 1893, worked under George Mitchell. Mr. McDonald, who was a carpenter by trade, also told of taking down a partition in Smith's house, in order that he with others might examine the characters cut on the stone used in the fireplace in the house. The characters were there all right, but no person present could decipher them." Mitchell was the superintendent of works for the Oak Island Association, which was formed on April 3, 1861, and ceased operation by March 29, 1865. In his 1872 novel, The Treasure of the Seas, James DeMille describes being a summer resident of Chester Basin during the later 1860s. DeMille lived on Oak Island for a summer and had firsthand knowledge of the area. The characters in the novel find that the stone had been removed from the chimney when they arrived on the island; until then, no one had been able to decode the mysterious symbols reportedly on the stone, which an inn landlord describes as 'rather faint, and irregular' – he also says that 'men who don't believe in Kidd's treasure ... say that it isn't an inscription at all ... it's only some accidental scratches'. Reginald Vanderbilt Harris (1881–1968) wrote in his 1958 book, The Oak Island Mystery, "About 1865–1866 the stone was removed and taken to Halifax. Among those who worked to remove the stone was Jefferson W. MacDonald." The Blair letter mentioned above states that MacDonald took down the partition in order to examine the stone, not to remove it. Harris provides no source for the claim that the stone was removed in 1865 or 1866. The next mention of the stone is in an 1893 Oak Island Treasure Company prospectus. According to the prospectus, the stone was taken out of the chimney and moved to Halifax; there, James Liechti was said to have deciphered the stone as reading: "Ten feet below are two million pounds buried".

On August 19, 1911, Collier's magazine published a firsthand account by Captain H. L. Bowdoin of the stone (which was then in use at Creighton's bookbindery in Halifax). Bowdoin described the rock as "of a basalt type hard and fine-grained". The stone he saw had no symbols on it. Although Bowdoin was told that they had worn off, he was skeptical because of the stone's hardness. According to Charles B. Driscoll's 1929 book, The Oak Island Treasure (based on secondhand accounts),

The stone was shown to everyone who visited the Island in those days. Smith built this stone into his fireplace, with the strange characters outermost, so that visitors might see and admire it. Many years after his death, the stone was removed from the fireplace and taken to Halifax, where the local savants were unable to translate the inscription. It was then taken to the home of J.B. McCulley in Truro, where it was exhibited to hundreds of friends of the McCulleys who became interested in a later treasure company. Somehow the stone fell into the hands of a bookbinder, which used it as a base upon which to beat leather for many years. A generation later, with the inscription nearly worn away, the stone found its way to a bookstore in Halifax, and what happened to it after that I was unable to learn. But there are plenty of people living who have seen the stone. Nobody, however, ever seriously pretended to translate the inscription."

The stone was reportedly brought by A. O. Creighton (of the 1866 expedition) from the Smith home to Creighton's bookbindery in Halifax. Harry W. Marshall (born 1879), the son of an owner of the bookbindery, wrote in 1935 that:

1. He well remembered seeing the stone as a boy.

2. "While in Creighton's possession, some lad had cut his initials 'J.M.' on one corner, but apart from this there was no evidence of any inscription either cut or painted on the stone."

3. Creighton used the stone for a beating stone and weight.

4. When the business was closed in 1919, the stone was left behind.

One researcher claimed that the cipher translated as "Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried". The symbols associated with the "Forty feet below" translation first appeared in 1949's True Tales of Buried Treasure by explorer and historian Edward Rowe Snow. In his book, Snow said that he received the set of symbols from Rev. A. T. Kempton of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but no information was provided as to how or where Kempton obtained them. It was found that Kempton had stated in a letter dated April 1949 that he had obtained his information from "a school teacher long since dead".


Investors and Explorers

Franklin D. Roosevelt, stirred by family stories originating from his sailing and trading grandfather (and Oak Island financier) Warren Delano Jr., began following the mystery in late 1909 and early 1910. Roosevelt continued to follow it until his death in 1945. Throughout his political career, he monitored the island's recovery attempts and development. Although the president secretly planned to visit Oak Island in 1939 while he was in Halifax, fog and the international situation prevented him from doing so. Australian-American actor Errol Flynn invested in an Oak Island treasure dig. Actor John Wayne also invested in the drilling equipment used on the island and offered his equipment to be used to help solve the mystery. William Vincent Astor, heir to the Astor family fortune after his father died on the Titanic, was a passive investor in digging for treasure on the island. Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd Jr. was also a passive investor in Oak Island exploration and treasure hunting, and monitored their status. Byrd advised Franklin D. Roosevelt about the island; the men forged a relationship, forming the United States Antarctic Service (USAS, a federal-government program) with Byrd nominally in command.



Natural sinkholes

Wide-ranging speculation exists about how the pit was formed and what it might contain. According to Joe Nickell, there is no treasure; the pit is a natural phenomenon, probably a sinkhole connected to limestone passages or caverns. Suggestions that the pit is a natural phenomenon (accumulated debris in a sinkhole or geological fault) date to at least 1911. A number of sinkholes and caves, to which the "booby traps" are attributed, exist on the mainland near the island. Its resemblance to a human-made pit has been suggested as partly due to the texture of natural, accumulated debris in sinkholes: "This filling would be softer than the surrounding ground, and give the impression that it had been dug up before". The "platforms" of rotten logs have been attributed to trees, damaged by "blowdowns" (derechos) or wildfires, periodically falling (or washing into) the hollow.

Another pit, similar to the early description of the "money pit", was discovered in the area in 1949 when workmen were digging a well on the shore of Mahone Bay. At a point where the earth was soft, "At about two feet down a layer of fieldstone was struck. Then logs of spruce and oak were unearthed at irregular intervals, and some of the wood was charred. The immediate suspicion was that another money pit had been found."

Treasure trove

According to the earliest theory, the pit held a pirate treasure buried by Captain Kidd; Kidd and Henry Avery reportedly took treasure together, and Oak Island was their community bank. Another pirate theory involved Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who said that he buried his treasure "where none but Satan and myself can find it.' Templars, Masons, or Incas seeking to squirrel their treasure away from European persecutors or Spanish conquistadors may have created the money pit, according to William S. Crooker. But Crooker stated it was more likely that British engineers and sailors dug the pit to store loot acquired in the British invasion of Cuba, during the Seven Years' War, valued at about £1,000,000 pounds. Other possible explanations include the pit being dug by Spanish sailors to hold treasure from a wrecked galleon or by British troops stationed there during the American Revolution. John Godwin wrote that given the apparent size and complexity of the pit, it was probably dug by French Army engineers hiding the treasury of the Fortress of Louisbourg after British forces captured the fortress during the Seven Years' War.


Many other legends have been invented to putatively link various historical persons with Oak Island, none of them proven.

Marie Antoinette's jewels

Some unproven stories allege that Marie Antoinette's jewels, missing except for specimens in museum collections, may have been hidden on the island. On October 5, 1789, revolutionaries incited an angry mob of Parisian working women to march on the Palace of Versailles. According to an undocumented story, Marie Antoinette instructed her maid (or a lady-in-waiting) to flee with her jewels. The maid fled to London with the jewels, and perhaps artwork, documents and other treasures, secreted on her person and/or in her luggage. The woman then fled from London to Nova Scotia.

Bacon-Shakespeare authorship

In his 1953 book, The Oak Island Enigma: A History and Inquiry into the Origin of the Money Pit, Penn Leary wrote that the pit was used to hide manuscripts indicating that Francis Bacon was the author of William Shakespeare's works and a leader of the Rosicrucians. Leary's The Second Cryptographic Shakespeare, published in 1990, identified ciphers in Shakespeare's plays and poems which pointed to Bacon's authorship. Author and researcher Mark Finnan elaborated on Leary's Oak Island theory, which was also used in the Norwegian book Organisten (The Seven Steps to Mercy) by Erlend Loe and Petter Amundsen and the TV series Sweet Swan of Avon.

Masonic and other artifacts

In his book, Oak Island Secrets, Mark Finnan noted that many Masonic markings were found on Oak Island, and the shaft (or pit) and its mysterious contents seemed to replicate aspects of a Masonic initiation rite involving a hidden vault with a sacred treasure. Joe Nickell identifies parallels between Oak Island accounts, the "Secret Vault" allegory in York Rite Freemasonry and the Chase Vault on Barbados. Freemason Dennis King examines the Masonic aspects of the Oak Island legend in his article, "The Oak Island Legend: The Masonic Angle". Steven Sora speculated that the pit could have been dug by exiled Knights Templar and might be the final resting place of the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. Another theory holds that the Rosicrucians and their reported leader, Francis Bacon, organized a secret project to make Oak Island the home of its legendary vault with ingenious means to conceal ancient manuscripts and artifacts. Researchers and cryptographers such as Petter Amundsen and Daniel Ronnstam claim to have found codes hidden in Shakespeare, rock formations on the island, and clues hidden in other 16th- and 17th-century art and historical documents. According to Daniel Ronnstam, the stone found at 90 feet contains a dual cipher created by Bacon.

Other theories

Author Joy Steele suggests that the money pit is actually a tar kiln dating to the historical period when "Oak Island served as a tar-making location as part of the British naval stores industry". When marine biologist Barry Fell attempted to have the symbols on the stone translated during the late 1970s, he said that the symbols resembled the Coptic alphabet and read: "To escape contagion of plague and winter hardships, he is to pray for an end or mitigation the Arif: The people will perish in misery if they forget the Lord, alas". According to Fell's theory, Coptic migrants sailed from North Africa to Oak Island and constructed the pit. Fell is not considered to be credible by most mainstream academics.


If the legend is to be believed "states that 7 men will die in the search for the treasure before it will be found." then one more person will die before the treasure is found (if it actually exists). 6 people total have died in search of the treasure, the last deaths being in 1965 when Robert Restall, his 18-year-old son, work partner Karle Graeser, and Cyril Hiltz all died after being overcome with hydrogen sulfide fumes. Graeser and Hiltz had attempted to save the two men and died themselves.

What do you believe? Do you think that there is a treasure to be found? Is it all a big story that has been going on for generations?


Resources I Used

*Tried to remember all of them, I might have missed 1 or 2*


Want to Know More?

Check out The Curse of Oak Island on the History Channel.


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