The ongoing saga that is Oak Island is back in the news again. Mainly due to the current claims of finding an ancient Roman sword in a ship wreck off the coast of said island. Which isn’t entirely true, as we’ll discuss later in another post. Until we’re able to get to those posts I highly recommend that you go read Andy White’s excellent work on the Roman Sword and #SwordGate.
It’s also come to my late attention that there’s a TV show completely dedicated to the saga of Oak Island. Said show has managed to have 3 television seasons on the History Channel (not surprising). I’ve decided to start looking into these shows myself, but that’s another blog post as well. I will not be using the show as a reference here in this series of posts.
Here, I want to look over the actual history of Oak Island, as is documented, and examine some of the claims made about this highly disturbed piece of land. It’s a lot more interesting than it first looks, and covers a lot of ground, as you’ll see.
The Origins of Oak Island as We Know Them.
For those who don’t know, Oak Island is a privately owned island off the south coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s only about 140 acres big, and is at max 36 feet (11-ish meters) above above sea level. It’s been the source of endless speculation for over two centuries, and one could say an endless money sucking and sometimes deadly disappointment for those who pursue it’s supposed treasures. Most recently, History Channel has thrown their hat into the ring of Oak Island spectators with their three year old show “Curse of Oak Island”, though I’m pretty sure it’s not as huge a money suck for them as it’s been for those in the past.
But what are these “mysteries” and “curses” that surround such a small piece of land? They really span quite a distance, being associated with everything from Captain Kidd to the Knights Templar to the Ark of the Covenant to pre-Columbus European visitors. Even Shakespeare gets thrown in just for fun!
The main focus of so many investigations on the island is the center around what is known as the Money Pit. One of the earliest accounts is mention in what is basically a letter to the editor from the August 20, 1857 issue of the Liverpool Transcript. After setting a somewhat defensive air, J.P. Forks (1857) gives a somewhat vague description of the excavation site on Oak Island and some detail is given about the excavations shafts themselves. There is a mention of the goal of this was to find a buried treasure of Captain Kidd, but unsurprisingly, this was unsuccessful (Forks 1857). Forks (1857) then goes on to talk about a different, haunted island that he’s going to visit in order to get evidence of real live ghosts. I guess he was over looking for the treasure for the time being. I know logically there must be an earlier account or story written in the Liverpool Transcript outlining the events that Forks is replying too, but I haven’t been able to secure it yet.
In a similar style as Fork’s letter, in 1862, J.B. McCully writes to the Liverpool Transcript, again with an air of justification, to explain why he and his company are on Oak Island digging. He gives a brief review of the the first setters in Chester who already had a tail of an old crew member of Captain Kidd’s crew saying that he helped bury a treasure of about 2 million pounds on some island (McCully 1862). What island this was is not clarified in McCully’s letter, but he then goes on to tell a now familiar story of of a Mr. McGinnis and his adventures. Probably most satisfyingly, he’s also the first person to use the term “Old Money Pit” in reference to the excavations done by his company (McCully 1862). It doesn’t seem to be flattering.
Many sources now retell McCully’s story and it’s really changed very little despite the game of telephone it’s gone though since first being mentioned in print in the Liverpool Transcript (Nickell 2000, O’Connor 2004, Oak 2008). New information has been added and fleshed out, we hope by facts. Though McCully gives no dates for McGinnis’ original discovery and subsequent digs, according to a website called Oak Island Treasure and others (Nickell 2000, O’Connor 2004), the real story starts all the way back in 1795 (Oak 2008). In this version Daniel McGinnis was out fishing one day and soon found himself inland under a old oak tree “bearing the marks of unnatural scarring (Oak 2008)”. He deduced that these were rope scars and it was somehow used as part of a rope and tackle system (think pulleys) used to move items up and down a shaft (Oak 2008) . Sure enough, there happened to be a roughly 5 meter diameter depression under said tree, and this was all McGinnis needed to realize that there was pirate gold buried under this tree (Oak 2008). Long story short, he went home, got some friends to come help him, and they began what would end up being a 10 ish year excavation to find bupkiss.
What we do know, thanks to land deeds, is that John Smith purchased the area where the Money Pit stood on June 26, 1975 from Casper Wollenhaupt and he held it for the next 62 years (O’Connor 2004). Daniel McGinnis either was a tenet farmer for Smith, or also purchased land adjacent to Smith’s and the two men worked at how to continue digging for the treasure as they farmed their land (O’Connor 2004).
This is Just the Beginning for the Oak Island Saga.
In 1803 the Onslow Company was founded, it included the original three excavators, McGinnis, Smith and Anthony Vaughan, plus the addition of Simeon Lynds (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). Lynds, fascinated by the prospect of a mysterious treasure, was able to raise moneys from some 30 businessmen from Onslow, Canada to fund further excavations (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). With this new infusion of money the new company set to digging.
Interestingly there was something to the shaft that the Onslow Co. was investigating. The ground had been disturbed at some prior point as it was much softer to dig than the surrounding dirt, and apparently pick ax markings could be seen in the walls as the workers dug down (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). Most interestingly were the wooden platforms found at roughly every ten feet to a depth of about 90 feet (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). This detail seems to become important later on, but for now, this is obviously evidence of the pit being intentionally created and not a natural phenomena. Even the descriptions given of the dirt, the clay, the stratification and the eventual water gain all sound completely realistic (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). All accounts of the excavations are fairly believable up to this point, until we get to one particular detail.
Forty Feet Below.
At some point apparently a stone was found that had a mysterious cipher written on it (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). O’Connor tells us that this stone is recorded in the Onslow Co.’s accounts and that it was supposedly seen by hundreds of people before it vanished in 1919 (O’Connor 2004). McCully also mentions the stone and that it bore an inscription:
“… and one at 80 feet was a stone cut square, two feet long and about a foot thick, with several characters on it. (McCully 1862)”
But he doesn’t mention if the inscription was translated nor does he provide a sketch with his article. It’s also possible that he never even saw the stone himself, just based the wording in his article. He’s apparently just relaying what he’d been told about it.
The stone’s adventures between the time it was discovered and the time it vanished are almost comical. First it was placed in Smith’s Fireplace as a curio piece (think detailed mantel piece), then it was taken by one A.O. Creighton, who brought the stone to Halifax while he was treasurer for a different Oak Island searching company as a way to raise funds (O’Connor 2004). Then the stone was apparently used to beat leather for book binding before vanishing in 1919 when the A.O. Creighton’s bookbinding business closed (O’Connor 2004).
As far as the inscription goes, it was never written down formally. It’s even dubious that the inscription existed. Harry Marshall, the son of Creighton’s bookbinding partner recalled the stone in an affidavit, but never remembered any inscription on it (O’Connor 2004). The only possible copy of said inscription existed as part of a supposed 1909 letter from a schoolteacher who apparently drew it in the letter she was sending (O’Connor 2004). O’Connor admits that the glyphs from said letter do translate to say “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried.”, but the code used for the cipher is so incredibly simple that it’s easy to doubt it’s authenticity (O’Connor 2004). O’Connor is very frank about the dubious nature of the inscription, and suggests that it was probably investor bait, if it existed at all (O’Connor 2004).
The apparent origins of the wording of the original inscription seems to have come from “True Tales of Buried Treasure”, a book by Edward Rowe Snow published in 1951 according to the Crystalinks website (Nd). Snow claims he was given the set of symbols by Reverend A.T. Kempton of Cambridge, Massachusetts (Crystalinks Nd). Kempton apparently appears for this one encounter, and has no further involvement with the story (Crystalinks Nd). Thus is the known history of the inscription bearing stone.
There is a good deal more to the mysteries of Oak Island, and we’re going to look at these in another post. For now let’s just process what has been presented here, and look forward to more about this kind of interesting place.
1857 Correspondence in the Liverpool Transcript. 20 August 1857 Vol. 4 No. 32. S.J.M. Allen Editor. Liverpool, Nova Scotia. http://web.archive.org/web/20150106084107/http://novascotia.ca/archives/virtual/newspapers/archives.asp?ID=2941 Accessed 1/19/16
Nd Oak Island Mystery. Crystalinks.com. http://www.crystalinks.com/oakislandmystery.html Accessed 1/19/16
1862 Correspondence in the Liverpool Transcript. October 1862. Liverpool, Nova Scotia. https://web.archive.org/web/20080517112423/http://www.oakislandtreasure.co.uk/content/view/74/97/ Accessed 1/19/16
2004 The Secret Treasure of Oak Island: The Amazing True Story of a Centuries-Old Treasure Hunt. The Lyons Press. Guilford, CT. https://books.google.com/books?id=QLoZMFzjWtQC&pg=PA269&dq=O%27Connor,+D%27Arcy.+1988.+The+Big+Dig.+New+York:+Ballantine.&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwin2-WT877KAhWFpR4KHYyKCrwQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed 1/19/2016
Oak Island Treasure
2008 Hisotry. Oak Island Treasure. https://web.archive.org/web/20080509165300/http://www.oakislandtreasure.co.uk/content/section/5/35/ Accessed 1/19/2016
2000 The Secrets of Oak Island. Skepitcal Inquirer. Vol 24.2, March/April 2000. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/secrets_of_oak_island Accessed 1/19/2016