Critical Enquiry

Chapter 1

The hunt for the vast treasure thought to lie concealed at the bottom of the legendary Oak Island "Money Pit" has inspired generations of hopeful searchers. Each group has been convinced that they, and only they, possessed the knowledge and technical ability required to solve the puzzle and recover the treasure. On several occasions, individuals have been so convinced of the correctness of their solution and the efficiency of the available technology that they predicted recovery of the elusive treasure within a few weeks. Well known figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt have participated or invested in various excavations, either in hope of recovering the treasure or simply in order to satisfy a sense of adventure. Large sums of money have been invested over a documented period of roughly 150 years, with each expedition sinking shaft after shaft to increasingly remote depths in the hope that they might succeed where others failed. None have succeeded in recovering even a single gold coin from the depths, yet efforts continue to this day.

Aerial View of Oak Island

Aerial View of Oak Island

Groups and individuals involved in (at least) the most recent treasure recovery efforts have also been characterized by a frequently fanatical devotion to the legend; this results in a lack of objectivity and precludes acceptance of information that might jeopardize their belief in the story. Worse, the end result of such fanaticism is that contradictory material is selectively ignored or dismissed out of hand when made available; evidence that fails to support the legend's authenticity is simply not discussed and does not appear in most written material dedicated to the subject. The Money Pit is practically a religion to many of the people who have devoted their lives and, sometimes, their fortunes to its resolution. Challenges to the veracity of the archetypal version of the story, no matter how well documented or researched, are met with a storm of criticism and invective as well as, unfortunately, ad hominem attacks.

What most Oak Island "believers" do not realize, or (worse) refuse to accept, is that the tale as known today is vastly different from the version known during the 1950s, which itself barely resembled the version as described by writers between 1861 and 1863, when the first written documentation appeared in the form of newspaper articles, allegedly dictated by members of that era's treasure hunting company. Later chapters will discuss in detail the changes that have occurred and possible reasons behind these modifications.

A darker motive for the fanatical devotion described above may be related to the tale's true origins, however. As will be discussed later, the Money Pit almost certainly began as a scheme to defraud investors. Its future depends on maintaining the illusion that a treasure exists; public knowledge of the wealth of available contradictory evidence is unlikely to attract new investors.

Today's version of the legend argues for the existence of a complex series of tunnels, shafts and traps, radiating out from the Pit - from which, it is claimed, items such as pieces of chain and wood from the original construction work have been recovered. It includes a system of cleverly constructed tunnels, an "artificial beach" said to feed these tunnels with a constant flow of sea water, and huge boulders laid out in the shape of an immense Christian cross. The most recent addition involves a previously unknown set of allegedly man made horizontal tunnels, cut into bedrock some 200 feet beneath the surface and possibly leading to the nearby mainland. This follows a pattern seen throughout the evolution of the legend since its first appearance in the 1850s: each succeeding generation of treasure seekers has believed the gold lies "just out of reach" of their current excavation, and therefore concocted a new reason for their failure to retrieve it. The concept of a treasure "moving" or "sinking just out of reach" is an important component of the legend, as will be seen in subsequent chapters regarding pirate folklore and the practice of "scrying" for treasure.

A major reason for the perpetuation of folklore related to Oak Island is that every prior writer who has discussed the tale has, for the most part, blindly accepted the commonly told story as if it were documented, legitimate history. A review of the bibliographies included in most modern books on the subject reveals that few authors have examined the legend's historical context or researched any original sources; instead these writers, none of whom were trained historians or archaeologists, focused on possible solutions for the legend as it was already commonly understood. This resulted in the well known list of possible protagonists - pirates, the Knights Templar, and others - as well as a complete mythology surrounding events that, judging by the historical record, never occurred. While the lives of men such as McInnis, Smith, and Vaughan, the three "boys" who are commonly said to have found the pit, are reasonably well documented, and they are known to have lived in the area of (or on) Oak Island during the period in question, absolutely no documentary or physical evidence has yet been found confirming the events of 1795 or, for that matter, any subsequent excavations until at least the year 1849. No maps, diaries, drawings, letters, news articles, or other written materials have been uncovered - a suspicious set of circumstances given the known popularity of pirate treasure hunts during the latter 18th century and the magnitude of the work said to have been performed circa 1804.

Additionally, items such as the "oak platforms" and "inscribed stone" that comprise the legend's core have long since vanished, if indeed they ever existed. Although the stone is said to have been seen as late as 1912 (1919 by some accounts), the reputation of certain figures involved in documented excavations from roughly 1860 to the early 20th century suggests this stone was created much later than the legend claims. Conclusive evidence has been found proving the inscription depicted in modern day books, which is composed of a set of symbols commonly used in many cultures, appears in no documents dated earlier than the 1940s. This well-known set of symbols was foisted upon Edward Rowe Snow, an author who briefly discussed the Money Pit legend in his books on New England history, as the legitimate article even though Frederick Blair and other Oak Island proponents of that era knew it was a phony. That such a fraudulent inscription was then adopted and uncritically reused in subsequent publications is indicative of the minimal fact checking and research conducted by most authors who have dealt with the Money Pit legend.

Further exacerbating these errors, subsequent "discoveries" of various items in and around the pit, as well as features such as the "artificial beach," have been thoughtlessly and wrongly associated with the Money Pit legend, frequently with no supporting evidence whatsoever and no regard for their association with previous treasure excavation attempts. Everything found on Oak Island is automatically thought to represent yet another component in the "puzzle" of the original excavation, and this is simply not the case. Wishful thinking, guesswork, and accumulated folklore have combined to transform the island from the site of an alleged pirate treasure pit in the mid 19th century to a location now said to be riddled with complex flood tunnels, man-made passageways cut in bedrock hundreds of feet below the surface, and linkage with tales ranging from the Captain Kidd legend to Francis Bacon, the Knights Templar and, perhaps most comically, extraterrestrials.

It speaks volumes that the first three known (or at least alleged) attempts to excavate the Money Pit occurred during periods of intense interest in buried treasure of one type or another. The first phase, from 1795 through at least 1804, fell precisely within a period of pirate treasure mania that raged across Nova Scotia and New England. An 1849 excavation exactly parallels the California gold rush that broke out during the same year. The work conducted in 1861, the first mentioned by sources not directly tied to the excavation company, closely correlates with news of the Colorado gold rush at Pike's Peak - not to mention the first Nova Scotia gold rush, that began in roughly 1860.

No matter whether the 1861-63 news articles represent an accurate history or a fabrication, the dates noted in the previous paragraph are suspicious since it is common for criminals and con artists to capitalize on the mania produced by events such as gold strikes. Many vulnerable, often starry-eyed investors are available during such periods, and it would be a simple matter to entice them into investing in a potentially valuable treasure when newspapers are filled with stories of rich returns and wealthy investors. The level of interest in Nova Scotia at this time can be gauged by the fact that a short article in an 1861 Liverpool [N.S.] Transcript newspaper entitled "The Oak Island Folly" was found alongside others called "The Gold Diggings: Tangier" and "The Lunenburg Gold Diggings." Both described the progress made in these areas, the amount of gold being produced, and prospective future yields. This shows that gold fever was strongly in the minds of local residents at this time; such a situation is ideal for the creation of a fraudulent pirate treasure legend on Oak Island.

Either the 1795-1804 events actually occurred as part of an earlier fraud created by McInnis and friends, by others who misused their names, or the writers of the 1860s era articles created the story from their own imaginations in order to lend an air of respectability to their efforts. Without contemporary documentation from these periods, it will never be known whether the earlier events occurred and, if so, if the 19th century news articles represent accurate accounts.

Oak Island Shoreline

Oak Island shore, showing oak trees (circa 1930)

The Oak Island legend of today is the direct descendent of a type of fantasy originally crafted by religious charlatans and tricksters who parlayed a strong local belief in the presence of pirate treasure into an ongoing hoax that brought them, if not large fortunes, at least a comfortable living. Such men profited from the legend they invented, while the shares they sold to finance their ventures became worthless. Many were related by blood or marriage, and strong familial ties have emerged through research into the histories of individuals who played key roles in the early popularization of the story. These families included men who, like others who prowled the northeastern USA and eastern Canada in the early 19th century, claimed the ability to find buried treasure using supernatural methods involving "seeing stones" and "rods."

A close examination of the available historical materials, often in the form of documents written by men such as J.B. McCully, Charles Archibald, and John Pitblado (who are now thought to be the primary architects of the original hoax) also reveal many internal inconsistencies that call into question the story's legitimacy. Statements made by these men in the 1890s contradict those found in documents written in, for instance the 1860s. For example, the Sales Prospectus of the Oak Island Treasure Company, written by J.B. McCully in 1893, states "The funds of this company in the meantime having been exhausted nothing was practically done that we are aware of until 1863." This contradicts a statement found in a newspaper article entitled "The Oak Island Folly" published in 1861: "[m]en have been diligently at work, nearly every Summer, for the last ten or twelve years, on Oak Island, near Chester Basin, in search for treasure supposed to have been buried by Captain Kidd, a noted pirate, a century ago" (italics mine).

The following chapter explores the problematic nature of research into legends such as Oak Island, where historical data have been corrupted or overlain by folklore and poor documentation. Subsequent material presents the historical context in which the legend was invented, as well as the available physical evidence, both geological and archaeological, and how both were misused to perpetuate the legend. The lack of direct evidence regarding the earliest components of the story, i.e. those said to have occurred prior to 1860, prevents us from making a definitive statement regarding the exact date when the hoax was created. The wanton destruction of archaeological evidence by treasure hunting groups in the immediate area of the original Pit similarly prevents a firm determination of exactly what, if anything, existed on the site prior to known excavation attempts. However, the available documentary and physical evidence is more than sufficient to demonstrate the Pit is a hoax, or at best a piece of runaway folklore that now feeds on its own past, despite the claims of believers who willfully ignore or deride efforts to prove otherwise. That these believers choose to ignore such data suggests their own complicity in maintaining the illusion that a treasure lies buried beneath the island.