Oak Island is a 57-hectare (140-acre) privately owned island in Lunenburg County on the south shore of Nova Scotia, Canada. The island is located 200 meters (660 feet) from shore and connected to the mainland by a causeway and gate.
The island is best known for various theories about possible buried treasure or historical artifacts, and the associated exploration.
For more than a century and a half, there have been investigations and excavations on Oak Island. There are a large number of theories about what might be buried or concealed on the Island. Areas of interest on the island include a location known as the Money Pit, a formation of boulders called “Nolan’s Cross”, the beach at “Smith’s Cove”, and a triangle-shaped “Swamp”. The Money pit area has been repeatedly excavated. Critics argue that there is no treasure and that the Money Pit is a natural phenomenon.
There are many 19th-century accounts of Oak Island, but some are conflicting or biased. Further, physical evidence from the initial excavations is unavailable. A basic summary of the history of the pit is as follows:
In 1857, there appeared newspaper accounts of a group digging for the treasure of the pirate Captain Kidd on Oak Island. In 1862, treasure hunter J.B. McCully of Truro, Nova Scotia wrote that the early settlers of the Oak Island area had brought with them a story of a dying sailor of Captain Kidd’s crew claiming that 2 million pounds value in treasure had been buried on an island. McCully further claimed that in the early days of settlement, a “Mr. McGinnis” while scouting a location for a farm had happened upon a depression in the earth which was consistent with the “Captain Kidd” story. With the assistance of a “Smith” and “Vaughn”, McCully claimed that McGinnis excavated the depression and discovered a layer of flagstones two feet below. As they dug down they discovered layers of logs at about every 10 feet (3.0 m). They were said to have abandoned the excavation at 30 feet (9.1 m) due to the people of the area refusing to assist in the digging based on “superstitious dread”. In 1863, an investor in the Oak Island diggings named Paul Phy claimed that “McGinnis” was the first settler on Oak Island and had discovered the “depression” around 1799.
Investigator Joe Nickell reviewed the original accounts and interviews with McGinnis descendants and other descendants of the original Oak Island land owners. While later sources asserted that the treasure had been discovered by three young boys, he asserted that the story was of three adult lot owners who discovered the depression on the island and began digging.
These excavations were first briefly mentioned in print in the Liverpool Transcript in October 1856. A more complete account followed, again in the Liverpool Transcript, by a Justice of the Peace in Chester, Nova Scotia, the Novascotian, British Colonist, and A History Of Lunenburg County (the last source based on the Liverpool Transcript articles).
Approximately eight years after the McGinnis dig, according to articles written in the 1850s, another group examined what was to become known as the Money Pit. The Onslow Company sailed 300 nautical miles (560 km) from central Nova Scotia near Truro to Oak Island with the goal of recovering what they believed to be secret treasure. They continued the excavation down to approximately 90 feet (27 m) and found layers of logs or “marks” about every ten feet (3 m) and layers of charcoal, putty and coconut fibre at 40, 50 and 60 feet (12, 15 and 18 m).
According to the earliest account written in 1862, at 80–90 feet (24–27 m), they recovered a large stone bearing an inscription of symbols. The pit subsequently flooded up to the 33-foot (10 m) level. Bailing did not reduce the water level, and the excavation was abandoned. Several researchers apparently attempted to decipher the symbols. One translated them as saying “Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.” The symbols currently associated with the “Forty feet below” translation and seen in many books first appeared in True Tales of Buried Treasure, written by explorer and historian Edward Rowe Snow in 1951. In this book he states he was given this set of symbols by Reverend A.T. Kempton of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1849, investors formed the Truro Company, which reexcavated the shaft back down to the 86 feet (26 m) level, where it flooded again. They then drilled into the ground below the bottom of the shaft. According to the nineteenth-century account, the drill or “pod auger” passed through a spruce platform at 98 feet (30 m), a 12-inch (300 mm) head space, 22 inches (560 mm) of what was described as “metal in pieces”, 8 inches (200 mm) of oak, another 22 inches (560 mm) of metal, 4 inches (100 mm) of oak, another spruce layer, and finally into clay for 7 feet (2.1 m) without striking anything else.
The next excavation attempt, made in 1861 by a new company called the Oak Island Association, resulted in the collapse of the bottom of the shaft into either a natural cavern or booby trap underneath. It was later theorized that the imagined chests had fallen into a deep void and that the pit may have been booby-trapped to protect the treasure. The first fatality during excavations occurred when the boiler of a pumping engine burst. (Six people were killed in accidents during various excavations.) The company gave up when their funds were exhausted in 1864.
Further excavations were made in 1866, 1893, 1909, 1931, 1935, 1936, and 1959, none of which were successful. Excavators did, however, pour red paint into the flooded pit that revealed three separate exit holes around the island. Another fatality occurred on 26 March 1897 when Maynard Kaiser, a worker, fell to his death. Franklin Roosevelt was part of the Old Gold Salvage group of 1909 and kept up with news and developments for most of his life.
In 1928, a New York newspaper printed a feature story about the strange history of the island. Gilbert Hedden of New Jersey, operator of a steel fabricating concern, saw the article and was fascinated by the engineering problems involved in recovering the putative treasure. Hedden collected books and articles on the island and made six trips there. He even ventured to England to converse with Harold T. Wilkins, the author of Captain Kidd and His Skeleton Island, believing he had found a link between Oak Island and a map in Wilkins’s book.
Hedden purchased the southeast end of the island. He began digging in the summer of 1935, following excavations by William Chappell in 1931. In 1939, he even informed King George VI about developments on Oak Island.
The 1931 excavations by William Chappell sank a 163-foot (50 m) shaft 12 × 14 feet to the southwest of what he believed was the site of the 1897 shaft, close to the original pit. At 127 feet (39 m), a number of artifacts, including an axe, an anchor fluke, and a pick, were found. The pick has been identified as a Cornish miner’s poll pick. By this time, the entire area around the Money Pit was littered with the debris and refuse of numerous prior excavation attempts, so the owner of the pick cannot be identified.
In 1959, Robert Restall and his 18-year-old son came to Oak Island and signed a contract with one of the property owners. In 1965 they attempted to seal off what was thought to be a “flood tunnel” in Smith’s Cove. After digging a shaft down to 27 feet at Smith’s Cove, Restall was overcome on August 17, 1965 by carbon monoxide fumes from a gasoline engine operating at the top of the shaft. Restall’s son then went down the shaft and also lost consciousness. Kal Graseser, Restall’s partner, and workers Cyril Hiltz and Andy DeMont then went down as well. A visitor at the site named Edward White had himself lowered on a rope into the shaft and was able to bring out DeMont. The other four men died.
In 1965, Robert Dunfield leased portions of the island and, using a 70-ton digging crane with a clam bucket, dug out the pit area to a depth of 134 feet (41 m) and width of 100 feet (30 m). The soil removed was carefully inspected for artifacts. 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 metres away. Dunfield’s lease terminated in August 1966.
In January 1967, Daniel C. Blankenship, David Tobias, Robert Dunfield, and Fred Nolan formed a syndicate for exploration on Oak Island.
In April 1969, Daniel C. Blankenship and David Tobias formed Triton Alliance, Ltd. and purchased most of the island. Certain of the previous landholders, such as Mel Chappell, became shareholders in Triton.
In 1971, Triton workers excavated a 235-foot shaft, known as Borehole 10-X, supported by a steel caisson to bedrock. According to Blankenship and Tobias, cameras lowered down the shaft into a cave below recorded the possible presence of some chests, human remains, wooden cribbing and tools; however, the images were unclear, and none of these claims has been independently confirmed. The shaft subsequently collapsed, and the excavation was again abandoned. This shaft was later successfully redug to 181 feet (55 m), reaching bedrock; work was halted because of lack of funds and the collapse of the partnership.
An account of an excavation of the Money Pit appeared in the January 1965 issue of Reader’s Digest magazine. More than a decade later, the Money Pit mystery was the subject of an episode of the television series In Search of… that first aired 18 January 1979, bringing the legend of Oak Island to a wider audience.
In 1983, Triton Alliance began a lawsuit against Frederick Nolan over the ownership of seven lots on the Island and causeway access to the island. Two years later, Nolan’s ownership of the lots is confirmed but he is ordered to pay damages for interference with Triton’s tourist business. The case is appealed and Triton loses again in 1989 but the damages owed by Nolan are reduced.
During the 1990s, further exploration was stalled because of legal battles between the Triton partners and a lack of financial resources. As of 2005, a portion of the island was for sale for an estimated US$7 million. A group called the Oak Island Tourism Society had hoped the Government of Canada would purchase the island, but a group of American businessmen in the drilling industry did so instead.
It was announced in April 2006 that brothers Rick and Marty Lagina from Michigan had purchased a 50% stake in Oak Island Tours Inc. for an undisclosed amount of money. The shares sold to the Michigan partners were previously owned by David Tobias; remaining shares are 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 it would resume operations on Oak Island in the hope of discovering buried treasure and solving the mystery of Oak Island.
In July 2010, Blankenship and the other stakeholders in Oak Island Tours Inc. announced on their website that the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage had granted them a temporary Treasure Trove Licence allowing them to resume activities until 31 December 2010. After December 2010, the department repealed the former Treasure Trove Act and replaced it with a new “Oak Island Treasure Act”. The new Oak Island Treasure Act came into effect on 1 January 2011 and allows for treasure hunting to continue on the island under the terms of a licence issued by the Minister of Natural Resources.
While later accounts say that oak platforms were discovered every 10 feet (3.0 m), but the earliest accounts simply say that “marks” of some type were found at these places. They also say there were “tool marks” or pick scrapes on the walls of the money pit and that the dirt was noticeably loose and not as hard packed as the surrounding soil.
In 1851, treasure hunters discovered coconut fibers beneath the surface of one beach called Smith’s Cove. This led to the theory that the beach had been converted into a giant siphon, feeding water from the ocean into the pit via a manmade tunnel. A sample of this material is said to have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution in the early 20th century, where it was concluded that the material was coconut fibre. The origin of these fibres has been a source of heated debate among Oak Island researchers, since coconut trees do not occur naturally in Canada.
One expedition said they found the flood tunnel at 90 feet (27 m), and that it was lined with flat stones. However, Robert Dunfield (a trained geologist) wrote that he carefully examined the walls of the reexcavated pit and was unable to locate any evidence of this tunnel.
Upon the invitation of Boston-area businessman David Mugar, a two-week survey was conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1995. This is the only known scientific study that has been conducted on the site. After running dye tests in the bore hole, they 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 idea of artificially constructed flood tunnels. The Woods Hole scientists who viewed the videos taken in 1971 reported that nothing conclusive could be determined from the murky images.
The five finger drains or box drains at Smith’s Cove on Oak Island, which have traditionally been assumed to feed seawater into the alleged flood tunnel, have in recent times been argued to be the remains of an early salt works, and accordingly there is no connection between the five finger drains and any flooding of the Pit.
Oak Island lies on a glacial tumulus system and is underlaid 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 (125 to 148 feet) in the Money Pit area.
The Oak Island 90 Foot Stone was cut with “mysterious markings” that no one could read or decipher. The first public announcement of the Oak Island 90 Foot Stone and its symbols was in the Halifax Sun and Advisor dated 2 July 1862, which mentioned a letter retelling the facts of the stone. The author was J.B. McCully, who had drafted the letter on 2 June 1862. While offering a secondhand description of the conditions of discovery during the 1805 excavation, McCully mentions the following: “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 a newspaper article from 1863, the stone is said to have been built into the “chimney of an old house near the pit”. Another article from a year later claimed that the stone had been preserved by the Smith Family. On 2 January 1864, John Hunter-Duvar, secretary of the Historical Society of Nova Scotia, contacted treasure hunter George Cooke. In a letter dated 27 January 1864 from George Cooke to John Hunter-Duvar replying to the letter of 2 January 1864, Cooke claims that Smith had built the stone into his chimney in 1824 and says that he was shown the stone by Smith in the chimney around 1850. Cooke further said that when he visited the house in 1864, he discovered that the chimney had been enclosed in wood and surrounded by a staircase making the stone no longer visible.
The next mention of the stone is in the Oak Island Treasure Company Prospectus of 1893. The prospectus claims that at some unknown point between 1864 and 1893, the stone was taken out of the chimney and moved to Halifax where an unnamed expert was said to have deciphered the stone as reading: “Ten feet below are two million pounds buried.” An undated post-1893 letter by William Blair states the following: “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.” George Mitchell was the superintendent of works for the Oak Island Association, formed 3 April 1861 and ceasing operation by 29 March 1865.
James DeMille, in his 1872 fiction novel The Treasures of the Sea, details how he was a summer resident of Chester Basin during the later 1860s. He lived on Oak Island for a summer and possessed firsthand knowledge of the underground workings through his own observations. DeMille noted the stone had already been removed from the fireplace when he arrived on the island and that up until that point no person had been able to decode the mysterious symbols found upon the stone.
The Oak Island Syndicate was based on the original Truro Syndicate enlisted the help in securing funding for the treasure hunt through silent partner Warren Delano, Jr., who was an accomplished mariner, trader, business organizer, and grandfather to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reginald Vanderbilt Harris (1881-1986) wrote in his 1958 book “The Oak Island Mystery” It was said, “About 1865-1866 the stone was removed and taken to Halifax. Among those who worked to remove the stone was Jefferson W. MacDonald.”. While the letter of William Blair supports the idea that the MacDonald helped remove the stone, Harris provides no source for the claim that the stone was removed in 1865 or 1866.
On August 19, 1911, Collier’s Magazine published a firsthand account by Captain H.L. Bowdoin of the stone which was at that time located at Creighton’s bookbindery in Halifax. He described the rock as being “of a basalt type hard and fine-grained.” The stone Bowdoin saw had no symbols on it. He was told that they had worn off, but was doubtful given the hardness of the stone that it would have been possible for such an inscription to wear off no matter how the stone might have been used in the bookbindery.
The book The Oak Island Treasure by Charles B. Driscoll states this: “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 supposedly brought by A.O. Creighton of the 1866 expedition from the Smith home to Creighton’s bookbindery in Halifax. Harry W. Marshall, the son of one of the owners of the bookbindery, wrote in 1935 that he had seen the stone at the business until it closed in 1919. He believed that the stone was left behind in the building at that time.
The names of the original lot owners and their plots were mapped out for Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Crown Lands office on July 6, 1818, by William Nelson and David W. Crandall.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stirred by family stories originating from his famous sailing and trading grandfather and Oak Island financier Warren Delano, Jr., began following the Oak Island Mystery from late 1909 to early 1910 and continued to follow and keep close tabs on progress until his death in 1945. Throughout his political years, he monitored Oak Island and kept close ties to recovery attempts and development. He privately devised a secret plan to visit Oak Island as President in 1939 while being in nearby Halifax, Nova Scotia. However, the fog delay and the international situation leading up to World War II made it impossible, as is seen in an archived signed letter.
Australian-American actor Errol Flynn was invested in an Oak Island treasure dig.
Actor John Wayne was an investor in the drilling equipment manufacture used on Oak Island and offered the use of his equipment to help solve the mystery.
William Vincent Astor, member of the prominent Astor family and heir to the fortune after his father died on the Titanic, took a passive investment in digging for Oak Island Treasure.
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Jr. maintained a passive investment in, and monitored the status over time of, Oak Island exploration and treasure hunting. Admiral Byrd advised Franklin Roosevelt on Oak Island and formed a relationship over their work, forming the United States Antarctic Service (USAS), an arm of the federal government, with Byrd nominally in command.
There has been wide-ranging speculation among enthusiasts as to how the pit was formed and what it might contain.
The earliest theory was that the pit held a pirate treasure hoard buried by Captain Kidd. Some believe that Kidd conspired with Henry Every and Oak Island was used as a pseudo community bank between the two. Folklore has it that a man on his deathbed in the early 18th century confessed to having been a member of Kidd’s crew, and stated that they had buried several chests of treasure on an island “east of Boston”. Another pirate theory involved Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who claimed he buried his treasure “where none but Satan and myself can find it.”
Critic Joe Nickell argues that there is no treasure and that the apparent pit is a natural phenomenon, likely a sinkhole connected to limestone passages or caverns. Suggestions that the pit is a natural phenomenon, specifically accumulated debris in a sinkhole or geological fault, date to at least 1911. There are numerous sinkholes on the mainland near the island, together with underground caves (to which the alleged booby traps are attributed).
The resemblance to a human-made pit has been suggested to be 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 appearance of “platforms” of rotten logs has 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, they found a pit, described as follows: “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.”
Another explanation proposes the pit was dug to hold treasure, but that this was done by someone other than pirates, such as Spanish sailors from a wrecked galleon or British troops during the American Revolution. A recent theory proposes that the pit was constructed by British marines to store the loot acquired from the British invasion of Cuba, which at the time was valued at about 1,000,000 pounds (about $180,000,000 in 2015). The author John Godwin argued that, given the apparent size and complexity of the pit, it was likely dug by French army engineers hoping to hide the contents of the treasury of the Fortress of Louisbourg after it fell to the British during the Seven Years’ War.
Joy Steele suggests that the Money Pit is actually a tar kiln that dates from the historical period when “Oak Island served as a tar-making location as part of the British naval stores industry”.
There is a story that, like most others regarding the island, lacks archival sources, or any quoted sources at all, which places the jewels of Marie Antoinette (which are historically missing, save for some specimens in the collections of museums worldwide) on Oak Island. On 5 October 1789 during the French Revolution, an angry mob of Parisian working women was incited by revolutionaries and marched on the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lived. According to the story, Marie Antoinette instructed her maid or a lady-in-waiting to take the jewels and flee. Supposedly, this maid fled to London with the jewels and perhaps other treasures, such as important artwork or documents, secreted away either on her person (one variation suggests sewn into her underskirts in the case of the jewels, though fails to mention artwork) or as her luggage; it is even said she was perhaps assisted by the remaining officers of the French navy during the uprising at the queen’s behest.
The story then goes on to say that this woman fled further afield from London to Nova Scotia. Through the royal connections she would have had during her service to the queen at Versailles, she managed to contract the French navy to help construct the famed ‘pit’ on the island. This theory (as noted) lacks recognized documentation other than that which is folkloric in nature, involves the French navy, which (during the Revolution) had an uncertain level of authority, and would place the construction of the Oak Island structure very close to its alleged initial discovery by Daniel McGinnis in 1795. Whether such a complex engineering effort could have been completed in that small period of time is questionable, though no official date of its construction exists.
Still others have speculated that the Oak Island pit was dug to hold treasure much more exotic than gold or silver. In his 1953 book, The Oak Island Enigma: A History and Inquiry Into the Origin of the Money Pit, Penn Leary contended that the pit was used to hide manuscripts showing Francis Bacon to be 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 pointing to Bacon’s authorship. Author and researcher Mark Finnan elaborated upon Leary’s Oak Island theory. The theory was also used in the Norwegian book Organisten (The Organ Player) by Erlend Loe and Petter Amundsen.
Some have speculated that the Rosicrucian secret society and its supposed leader Sir Francis Bacon organized a secret project on Oak Island as 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. Daniel Ronnstam claims the 90 foot stone is in fact a dual cypher created by the master cryptologist, Sir Francis Bacon.
It has been asserted that the pit could have been dug by exiled Knights Templar and that it might be the last resting place of the Holy Grail or possibly the Ark of the Covenant.
Mark Finnan in his book Oak Island Secrets noted that many Masonic markings were found on Oak Island and pointed out that the shaft or pit and its mysterious contents seemed to replicate aspects of a Masonic initiation rite involving a hidden vault containing a sacred treasure. Joe Nickell identifies parallels between the accounts of Oak Island and the allegory of the “Secret Vault” in York Rite Freemasonry, similar to the Chase Vault, identifies many prominent excavators as Freemasons, and suggests that the accounts explicitly include Masonic imagery. The most thorough and comprehensive treatment to date of the masonic aspects of the Oak Island Legend is given by Freemason Dennis King in his article “The Oak Island Legend: The Masonic Angle”.
Some suggest what lies concealed in Oak Island can be more than 1,500 years old. Researcher and author J. Hutton Pulitzer’s theory involves ancient mariner voyages of Minoan, Phoenician, Carthaginian and later Roman Empire origins visiting Oak Island because of its strategic navigational location. Pulitzer writes in his books that ancient mariners kept the New World a trade secret and were hired by the kings, pharaohs, and emperors of ancient Europe to collect valuable resources, such as gold, tobacco, and other exotic items. On the television series The Curse of Oak Island, he postulates the theory that one such secret voyage involved treasure and religious artifacts from King Solomon’s temple or the Ark of the Covenant, being relocated and deposited on Oak Island for safekeeping.
Another explanation is that the Money Pit is actually a sunken Viking ship which has settled in a vertical position, making it a treasure only in the historical or archeological sense. Sukhwant Singh theorizes the regularly separated platforms are actually wooden backrests for rowers, and the coconut fibers are the remains of mattresses, pillows, or other cushions used by the Vikings for comfort.
Barry Fell attempted to have the symbols on the stone translated in the late 1970s. Mark Finnan Fell concluded that the symbols were similar to the Coptic alphabet and when translated reads as follows: “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.” Fell proposed a theory where Coptic migrants sailed from North Africa to Oak Island and constructed the pit.
Lee Lamb claimed that human-made structures exist under Oak Island. She was unable to conclude if these structures were constructed by people hiding a treasure or were the remains of prior excavation attempts.