Chapter 2: The Problem of Myth and History

The Problem of Legend And History

“This site also demonstrates one of the great dangers of archeology, not to life and limb, although that does sometimes take place, I’m talking about folklore…” – Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

The most problematic aspect of research into tales such as Oak Island involves the level of historicity, or historical authenticity, that can be deduced from available sources. If the existence of an event, person, or place is unsupported from a historian’s point of view – i.e. little or no reliable evidence can be found in the historical record to confirm whether an event occurred, it may be considered ahistorical.

It should be noted that, while laypersons use the terms myth, legend, and folktale almost interchangeably, folklorists consider each a specific subtype with identifiable characteristics. The Oak Island tale falls most closely into the legend category, which is identified as follows:

Legends are prose narratives that, like myths, are regarded as having happened in some historic or remembered time by their narrators and the audience.
· legends are set in a less remote period than myth, when the world was something like we know it today
· they tend to be more secular than sacred (though there are many legends about religious figures like saints)-their principal characters are human
· legendary topics include migrations, wars and victories, tales about past heroes, succession in dynasty or family, and so forth
· they are the verbal counterpart of written history, but also contain unverifiable elements like buried treasure, fairies, ghosts, saints, and other topics[1]

It must also be remembered that none of these terms are in any way pejorative or insulting. While someone may use the phrase “oh, that’s just a myth” conversationally when making a disparaging remark about a story, the folklorist makes no such judgement. It is not necessary for a legend or myth to be false, and indeed many such tales contain kernels of fact and verifiable detail. This is what makes legends believable – the listener identifies known locations, people, or events that lend credence to the story. But as mentioned above, a legend nearly always contains unverifiable and frequently fantastic elements. The Oak Island story also contains elements of folklore, such as the claims that “strange lights and fires” gave the island a reputation of being haunted, and that men who rowed to investigate such sightings failed to return.

The story also contains kernels of fact, such as the “artificial beach” (a real and interesting feature that deserves proper study by qualified industrial archaeologists) and many of the documented events occurring after roughly 1865. It is the earlier material (from 1795 to 1860) that is problematic and currently ahistorical, as will be demonstrated below. As this is the core of the legend upon which all later elements depend, the whole premise of the treasure hunt is placed on shaky ground.

The first problem is that no primary sources – contemporary, first-hand evidence such as letters, plans, sketches, journals, or even news articles – have been discovered that describe the initial events said to have occurred prior to 1860.  As will be discussed in subsequent chapters, the first evidence of a treasure hunt on the island does not emerge until 1849 – a single document involving the grant of a treasure hunting license.  Detailed accounts of events prior to 1860 were not published until 1861-63.  This is disturbing, since an event as unusual as the discovery of a deeply excavated shaft with a mysteriously “inscribed” stone at the bottom and wooden platforms every ten feet should have found its way into news articles or other media soon after the first major excavation allegedly occurred circa 1804-05.  Its failure to make such an appearance is not damning on its own, but it is unusual.

The delay in publication also presents an additional problem.  A significant time lag between an event and the creation of a written account describing it introduces the need for caution, since observers’ memories are certain to change over time.  Details are lost or jumbled, others are added as the tale is passed from one person to another.  First person, eyewitness accounts are just as likely to become confused over time; only if multiple accounts containing similar details are available (that hopefully match the physical evidence) can these be trusted. Even if the event did occur in some form, an account written decades later is certain to contain fabrications, errors, omissions, and other flaws.

The probability of invented evidence being introduced into the Oak Island tale is high for other reasons.  Many authors, especially those who produced early accounts of the treasure hunt, had a vested interest in preserving and perpetuating the tale.  It is also likely one or more men invented the story out of whole cloth in an effort to hoax or swindle unsuspecting investors, since treasure related hoaxes were very popular in the early 19th century.

The subject matter itself – a supposedly vast buried treasure – is one that invariably involves wild claims and invented details unsupported by objective evidence.   It also involves romanticized notions of hidden wealth, secrecy, and discovery that lend the topic to even more invention of detail.  Fantastic tales, whether related to treasure, the supernatural, or other events, must always be treated with suspicion by the historian unless a great deal of confirmatory evidence is available. Large portions of the Oak Island tale are also peculiar or unique – in particular, the claim that an extensive set of excavations and flood tunnels was constructed there, and that no other site exhibiting similar features is known to exist elsewhere.

Additionally, many features and artifacts said to have been found on the island – the inscribed stone, pieces of chain recovered from the depths, bits of wood, or the so-called “Spanish” shoe, can be more readily explained by invention, misinterpretation, or mistaken identification.  The men who are said to have found these and other objects had fixed expectations regarding the island and its history: they were psychologically predisposed to associate items found in the vicinity of the excavation (and, indeed, across the whole island) with the legendary treasure.  Often there was no reason for such associations to be made, and in other cases much more prosaic explanations existed for the presence of certain objects.

For instance, the chain and other artifacts said to have been found buried in the shaft were almost certainly debris that fell into the depths during one of many recorded collapses or floods caused by earlier excavation attempts.  Expedition after expedition sank dozens of shafts and horizontal connecting tunnels, largely unrecorded, during the mid 19th century; many of these collapsed or were filled with debris after they were abandoned.  Later excavations have since recovered bits of debris from earlier attempts and mistakenly claimed these represented evidence of the “original” excavation.  Finds made by these men provided confirmation of preconceived beliefs, justifying their emotional and monetary investment in the validity of the treasure tale.

Taylor cites another historian, Whitney R. Cross, to describe those personality characteristics necessary to early Yankees’ emotional investment in treasure related tales.

[T]hey were credulous in a particular way: they believed only upon evidence. Their observation, to be sure, was often inaccurate and usually incomplete, but when they arrived at a conclusion by presumably foolproof processes their adherence to it was positively fanatic.

Cross’ description, it should be said, is also extremely accurate when describing subsequent generations of treasure hunters even to the present day. Taylor also supplies a description of early treasure hunting that exactly parallels the evolution of the Oak Island tale: “[p]ersistent failure and insistent belief progressively promoted evermore complex techniques and tools in the search for treasure. Unwilling to surrender their treasure beliefs, seekers concluded that they needed more sophisticated methods. They remained confident that, by trial and error, they would ultimately obtain the right combination of conductor, equipment, time, magic circle, and ritual.” [2] It is only necessary to remove references to magic circles when describing modern day treasure hunters, though they continue to rely on supernatural means in order to determine the most likely place to dig.

The Oak Island story is analogous to many other legends involving buried treasure, and such tales are prone to cross-pollination of story elements. Elements of the Money Pit story that may be found in other tales of buried treasure include those described below.

The Marker

The pulley in the tree, the “stone triangle” said to point to the location of the Pit, and the “inscribed stone” allegedly found at the ninety foot level fulfill the role of the ” ’X’ marks the spot” motif found in other tales of treasure.

We also find mention of “marks” denoting treasure sites in period literature. For instance, according to Taylor “a 1729 Philadelphia newspaper essay by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Breitnal described local treasure seeking’s extent: […] They wander thro’ the Woods and Bushes by Day to discover the Marks and Signs; at Midnight they repair to the hopeful spot with Spades and Pickaxes.” [3]

Mysterious Location

Later versions of the Money Pit story talk of lights and fires on the island, and the disappearance of local men who attempted to investigate these events. These elements do not appear in early versions of the story, thus providing yet another example of the amount of alteration and fabrication that occurred over time.  This represents an attempt to justify the initial belief in the presence of treasure on the island, since many pirate tales (both historically accurate and fictional) involve men landing in remote locations to bury their gold under cover of darkness.

Repeated, failed recovery attempts

This is especially critical, since the tradition of treasure hunting makes especially strong use of imagery involving recovery efforts that fail at the last minute due to some error on the part of the excavators.  This imagery is used repeatedly in the case of the Money Pit legend, where numerous groups were said to have been “just that close” to recovering the treasure before it was snatched away.

Famous associations

In the early days of the Money Pit legend, the famous pirate Kidd was considered the primary architect of the treasure shaft.  Later, once it became known his travels did not include this area of Nova Scotia and his treasure hoard was small, his name disappeared from the tale and was replaced with the generic term “pirate.”  Later writers introduced the Knights Templar, Francis Bacon, and other famous names into the story, frequently with no supporting evidence whatsoever.

Traps and impediments

The flooding system said to lie beneath the island represents the primary impediment, aside from the sheer depth of the shaft itself.  Water often represents a barrier to treasure recovery, as may be seen in tales of half-flooded caves that can only be reached at certain times of the day or month or stories in which an almost-recovered chest sinks back into quicksand or mud at the last moment.

Involvement of Children

While modern versions of the Oak Island tale use the imagery of children (“boys on an adventure” in many cases) wandering the island and stumbling across the tree and chain, the original story used no such motif; the men said to have found the Money Pit site were adults who owned land on the island.  Other treasure-related tales tell of children finding some tell-tale mark that was missed by adults, and the motif of the clever child who locates or holds the key to recovery of an item unobtainable by adults is very common in pirate treasure tales.  For example:

It was after the turn of the century when a boat put in, one evening, at Cold Spring Bay, and next morning the inhabitants found footprints leading to and from a spot where some children had discovered a knotted rope projecting from the soil. Something had been removed, for the mould of a large box was visible at the bottom of a pit. [italics mine] [2]

In the above case, the children’s discovery of a “knotted rope” was apparently ignored by adults, who only later realized its significance after the pirate treasure was recovered and spirited away under cover of darkness.

Numerous cases have been discovered in which authors introduced a similar story element into fictional works based on the Money Pit tale, which may explain how the original tale of adults finding the site was transformed into an event involving children. James DeMille, a Canadian author and historian whose involvement in the Oak Island tale is not yet fully understood, made use of this motif in his book The Treasure of the Seas (1872), as well as Old Garth: A Story of Sicily and possibly in other contexts as yet undiscovered.

Treasure of the Seas (frontispiece)

Fig. 1: frontispiece from DeMille’s The Treasure of the Seas, showing a young boy chatting with a sailor (courtesy canadiana.org)

Breaking a spell

Many treasure recovery folktales include admonitions involving specific activities during the excavation effort.  Often a prohibition against speaking or crossing a magic circle drawn around the site is broken, causing the nearly-recovered treasure to “sink out of sight” or a guardian spirit to awaken.  The Money Pit tale includes an element involving excavators driving an iron bar into the bottom of the Pit every evening; the last time this rite is performed, they strike what they believe is a treasure chest several feet below and tap on it repeatedly using the bar.  The next day, the pit is filled with water.  Various authors have asserted that “those taps on the chest loosened some stopper” and caused the water trap to be sprung – this action caused the “spell” to be broken and the treasure to be lost by invoking a “guardian” (in the guise of the flood system) to protect the treasure.  Indeed, the term “tapping” or “rapping” is often associated with the presence of spirits or poltergeists in Spiritualist and other supernatural lore.

[2] Taylor, Alan, The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830. American Quarterly, Vol 38, No 1. Spring 1986, p. 15.

[3] Taylor, Alan, Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830 p. 17.

[4] Skinner, Charles, Myths and Legends of Our Own land vol 9