Chapter 3: Early History, to 1865

It is difficult to determine which, if any, details of the early exploration of Oak Island are historically accurate. A dearth of documentary and other evidence from the period between the alleged discovery of the site in 1795 and roughly 1860 is at least troubling since, such a mysterious find should have generated at least some interest in the press. It should also have found its way into the detailed diaries commonly written and published by travelers during this period, but has not (with one exception). There’s a high probability the early Money Pit tale is either simple folklore or a hoax that persisted and grew due to its mysterious nature and the strong appeal such tales have within popular culture. The chance of a hoax is even higher due to cultural conditions in both Nova Scotia and the United States that predisposed citizens toward a belief in the existence of pirate and other treasures beneath their feet. People living in isolated, rural areas were poor and uneducated, and thus open to exploitation by scam artists and other charlatans who seized upon local beliefs in buried treasure. Such men (and women) claimed a supernatural ability to locate buried objects for a fee, and often seem to have created a market for their abilities by starting rumors of local treasure. This chapter examines the earliest known documents relating to the Money Pit tale, and discusses the cultural conditions that contributed to the development of the legend

First, let’s recount the earliest and most critical details of the legend as most commonly told.

Accounts usually begin with Daniel McInnis (or McGinnis), often said to have been a boy in 1795, who was exploring the island when he noticed an old ship’s pulley hanging from the sawn-off branch of an oak tree. In some accounts he is described as having “rowed to the island in search of adventure” when he encountered the items noted above. Beneath the pulley, a sunken circle of earth variously described as eight to fourteen feet in diameter led him to believe he had stumbled across the site where Captain Kidd buried his riches. McInnis is said to have recruited two friends named Vaughn and Smith, with whose assistance he excavated the depression. They are said to have found platforms of worked oak beams at ten, twenty, and thirty feet. They abandoned their efforts due to a lack of resources, and the spot lay untouched until 1803 (1804 in some accounts) when a group of investors known as the Onslow Company, led by a wealthy man named Simeon Lynds, re-excavated the shaft to a depth of ninety feet. They are said to have found “marks” of some type every ten feet. They continued digging, finally reaching ninety-five feet where they claimed to have found an “inscribed stone” bearing mysterious marks.

Each day, before work ceased, they are said to have driven an iron bar into the bottom of the pit to determine if anything solid lay below. At ninety-eight feet the work was abandoned for the day, and at this point it is said the iron bar had revealed the presence of another platform a few feet below the bottom of the excavation. According to some accounts the men left work in order to attend church services, while others simply state that they were to return the next day. However the shaft filled with water overnight, just before they were ready to retrieve the wooden chests that seemed to lie beneath their feet. Efforts to extract the water were unsuccessful, and the site was again abandoned.

Later, a group known as the Truro Syndicate, said to have included Lynds and Vaughn, re-excavated the site in the 1848-49 timeframe and again found nothing but some “ancient” looking wood and “three links from a gold chain, possibly forced from an epaulette.” These artifacts are said to have been brought to the surface by an auger bit drilled into the bottom of the pit. During this period several additional shafts and cross-tunnels were sunk around the original pit; all are said to have encountered the same problem with water infiltration as the original shaft was approached. On several occasions diggers were nearly killed by sudden “blow out” events, when water erupted into the excavation, filling the shafts with mud and debris, forcing the workmen to flee for their lives.

As outlined in the first chapter however, nothing in the account above is supported either by available physical evidence or the historical record. No contemporary accounts exist to corroborate any such activity and none of the artifacts said to have been found were preserved — including the chain links, the inscribed stone, and the oak platforms that comprise the core of the legend. It is claimed that a piece of parchment currently in the possession of treasure hunter Daniel Blankenship is the original fragment brought up by the drill during the 1848-49 excavation. However it is impossible to confirm the authenticity of this artifact. Even if someone produced the other items today, there is no way to determine if they were actually discovered during these early excavations; they are “out of context” from an archaeological point of view and therefore of dubious value.

The first published note mentioning the excavations appeared in print only in 1857, a short comment by a traveler who briefly visited the abandoned site and mentioned the debris he found there. This is the only “diary entry” by a traveler that has been discovered in the historical record. Prior to this date, the only fragment of evidence involves a single note, dated 1849, giving permission to dig for treasure on the island to members of that era’s treasure syndicate.

Next, in 1861 and 1863 accounts of the early activities were published in the British Colonist and Liverpool Transcript newspapers – over half a century after the events allegedly occurred. The 1863 article was written by an anonymous author who claimed membership in one of the prior syndicates involved in recovery of the treasure. The other was by J.B. McCully, who was involved in the 1849 efforts. We know this since the 1849 note mentions his name specifically.

An additional article from 1861 entitled “The Oak Island Folly” treated an excavation then underway with some derision. It also provided details, not mentioned in other articles, which are important to our understanding of the formation of the legend. The first is that “according to the theory on which these deluded people are proceeding – the money had been buried and sluices or communications with the sea, so constructed, that the localities of the treasure was [sic] flooded, while the vicinity was comparatively dry” [1] [italics mine]. This latter statement appears to be the prototype for later claims that the flooding of the excavation was due to the presence of man-made flood tunnels since, it was claimed, the island is composed solely of “hard clay soils” that would not permit natural flooding. This claim is completely inaccurate, as will be seen when the geology of the island is discussed in more detail.

The other important element in this article is the claim that treasure was nearly uncovered:

It was thought that about a fortnight ago they had struck upon the treasure; a day was set on which the copper-bound casks were to be raised from their long resting place -expectation grew high – shares sold at an enormous premium – hundreds of people flocked from all directions, and while each one was straining his eyes to get the first glimpse of the gold the middle hole “caved in,” and disappointment was soon pictured on the countenance of each one present.[2]

This description, if accurate, exactly parallels numerous well known examples in folklore related to treasure recovery. In all such examples, diggers are literally within moments of recovering the long-awaited booty when some unforseen event snatches victory from their grasp. The image of a treasure “sinking out of sight” or otherwise becoming inaccessible at the last minute due to an accident or error on the part of the excavators is part and parcel to legends of buried treasure.

Also interesting is the claim shares sold at an enormous premium. This suggests a treasure mania was in full swing at the time, perhaps created or elaborated upon by scam artists who hoped to become rich through the sale of shares to an unsuspecting public.

A final document is a letter to the editor of the Nova Scotian by someone identified only as “the digger, Patrick.” He apparently took exception to the “Oak Island Folly” article, which appeared in the Sept. 16 1861 edition. This letter contains material mainly agreeing with that found in the “Oak Island Diggings” article but provides additional details which, if accurate, rendered all subsequent excavations into deeper soils completely pointless. The letter states:

Four shafts have been dug north, south, east, and west of the old pit, from six to ten feet deeper than we wish to go in it; none of them distant from it more than twenty, and some of them not more than ten feet, and yet no water. This season we have gone directly underneath both platforms and water [i.e. the water in the old, or original pit – ed.], within two or three feet, and yet dry [3] [italics mine].

The italicized portions are critical. The first makes the claim that the 1861 excavators completely surrounded the original pit with additional, even deeper shafts, dug very close by, yet encountered no water at depth. What it does not say is that they also failed to encounter the alleged “flood tunnel” at roughly 80′. It is said that this tunnel brings sea water into the original pit. This is extremely unlikely, and the author seemingly did not realize his words effectively dispel the myth that such tunnels exist. Other physical evidence related to the flood tunnels will be discussed in the chapter on the island’s geologic features.

The second italicized passage states that the excavation in 1861 dug directly beneath the original Money Pit and encountered no water at all. By implication, they also did not discover disturbed (i.e. previously excavated) soil or other evidence of human activity below that point. If they dug underneath the Pit, they were standing directly atop ground excavated later by subsequent expeditions. This confirms that no water was seeping up from below and, if accurate, completely disproves the idea that any original feature left by the builders lay deeper than approximately 110 feet beneath the surface. It also means subsequent excavations below this level by modern expeditions have been completely pointless.

The last phrase in the above quote is interesting in comparison with one made in the Liverpool Transcript article cited earlier, where it is claimed that at the ninety foot level the 1804 excavators were hauling up two buckets of water for every one of earth. Subsequent writers have claimed no water at all was encountered during that early excavation, and that the pit was entirely dry until the “trap” was sprung. But the earliest available references say nothing of this, admitting that significant water was encountered long before the pit was “suddenly” filled by the so-called water trap. This represents another instance of a contradictory component having been removed in order to add to the mystery of the tale — a common event in the case of the history of Oak Island.

“Patrick” then states “but having undermined the water and wood, before a way could be made for the water to come down to our tunnel leading to the west pit, the treasure and platforms came down with a crash, driving wood and clay before them through 17 feet of a tunnel 4 feet by 8 in size, and raised this earth and wood 6 feet in what we call the west pit…” [italics mine]. This again shows the group believed treasure lay above the 110 foot level, not beneath it, and saw nothing to indicate any deeper excavation was required. If indeed the shaft continued below the then-current level of the pit, diggers excavating beneath the original shaft should have encountered disturbed earth and possibly other evidence of human intervention. They would be literally standing on that evidence. That they did not note disturbed soil beneath their feet is significant, given later claims that whoever dug the Money Pit excavated all the way to bedrock at the 200 foot level.

There are only three possible explanations for the details discussed above.

  • One: they are accurate, which means in one stroke “Patrick” has disproved the existence of both a horizontal flood tunnel and the presence of deeper excavations beyond the 110 foot level.
  • Two: the writer was involved in the creation of the fraud, was aware that no such features existed, and did not realize these details revealed the hoax.
  • Three: the writer was not sufficiently knowledgeable regarding the excavation’s progress to make these statements. In this case, any remaining details he relates become immediately suspect.

It must be emphasized that these articles represent the only known references to events which allegedly occurred on the island up to 1861. Consequently they must be treated with great caution. All relied upon oral accounts given by men who alleged to have been involved in earlier works. It is impossible to determine the accuracy of these stories due to a lack of alternative sources.

The study of folklore and its transmission shows memory is unreliable. Constant repetition of a tale is no guarantee of accuracy, even over short periods of time. The storyteller frequently introduces details from other stories (a process known as conflation) either intentionally or by accident, or leaves out other elements that interrupt or break the flow of the story. This does not mean writers were consciously falsifying details, though this must also be considered; it simply means the available documentary and physical evidence is insufficient to determine the accuracy of the events related in the articles. We cannot perform the necessary cross-checking against other sources, since no other sources exist, to verify details provided by early writers.

It is possible some or all the pre-1860s events occurred exactly as told. However it is far more likely the story was concocted, either by McInnis and friends or by later men, such as McCully, Pitblado, and others, who misappropriated their names in order to run a scam involving false claims of lost treasure. We must err on the side of caution, since a great deal of evidence is found in the historical record showing such hoaxes were common during this period. Tales of buried treasure were widespread, and many deceptions were played out by individuals who claimed special abilities or knowledge in regard to treasure location.

Hoaxers and Frauds

Iit is well known that the co-founder of the Mormon movement, Joseph Smith, and his father were “treasure diggers” (also called “seers” or “seekers”) who claimed the ability to locate buried valuables and other objects using divination techniques such as dowsing and scrying. Men and women claiming this ability were active in the latter 18th and early 19th century, though the practice continued at least until the US Civil War. Many were associated with early Methodism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and the Mormon movement, often claiming divine sources for their powers. Historian Alan Taylor discusses this practice in his book Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, associating the desire for buried gold with the economic marginality experienced by many settlers along the New England and Canadian coastline.

At the suspected spot, treasure-seekers employed divining rods – forked witch-hazel branches – to detect the precise place to dig. To ward off attacks from guardian spirits, the seekers laid out protective magic circles by scooping out a groove with a silver spoon or by dripping animal’s blood around the digging ground.[4]

All along the New England and Nova Scotia coastline, tales of buried treasure abandoned by pirates and lying just under a farmer’s field or near a secluded harbor tempted many a settler into digging a pit or two in search of easy wealth. So-called seekers capitalized on this belief, offering to lead groups of men to the site of a treasure if paid in advance for the service.

Divining for Gold

Divining for Gold (woodcut dated 1569)

The younger Joseph Smith and his father practiced the art of treasure seeking and also appear to have worked as diggers on a number of occasions.

I became acquainted with the Smith family […] in the year 1820. At that time they were engaged in the money digging business[…]. In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me… After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat […]. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it […] but would lend it. After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it and made so much disturbance among the credulous part of (the) community that I ordered the stone to be returned to me again […]. Some time in l825, Hiram (sic) Smith came to me and wished to borrow the same stone […][5]

Also noteworthy in the preceding quote is the reference to a “singularly appearing” stone found while excavating the well. The discovery of unusual artifacts is a common element in tales of buried treasure, and echoes the “inscribed” stone allegedly found during excavation of the Oak Island money pit.

The elder Smith was also accused of participating in criminal activities, and appeared in court on at least one occasion.

Judge Daniel Woodward, of the county court of Windsor, Vermont, near whose father’s farm the Smiths lived, says that the elder Smith while living there was a hunter for Captain Kidd’s treasure, and that “he also became implicated with one Jack Downing in counterfeiting money, but turned state’s evidence and escaped the penalty.”[6]

Seer Stone

“Seer Stone” allegedly owned by Joseph Smith.
Smith’s widow Emma gave this stone to the relatives
of Lewis Bidamon, her second husband. (Wilford
Wood Museum)

The practice of treasure-digging was widespread, and its practitioners were frauds and criminals who stayed in a given town only until their activities were brought to the attention of local authorities. The following quote shows the influence that such men, who often impersonated religious figures, could wield over entire communities where common sense was trumped by a desire to locate buried treasure.

In 1799 a mysterious fellow by the name of Winchell came to Middletown in Rutland County and took up a secretive residence on an out-lying farm, where he was suspected of being a fugitive from a counterfeiting indictment in Orange County.

Presently his money-making propensities appeared in a different form; he became a rodsman, one of those gifted frontier characters claiming an ability to discover hidden wealth by the use of a divining rod, usually a stick of witch hazel. During a year’s stay in the vicinity Winchell duped many of his neighbors into contributing funds to finance his treasure hunts. Just as each cache was to be uncovered some slight incident occurred to break the mysterious spell. [7]

The theme of the “incident that breaks the spell” is very common in folklore involving treasure recovery using divination. Many examples may be found in which, for example, diggers are exhorted not to speak until the treasure has been uncovered and removed from its pit. Invariably someone utters a word, either due to excitement or some other event. The diviner or seeker then announces the nearly recovered treasure chest has slipped back into the depths, or has vanished and can no longer be located by divination. We have already seen a variant of this theme in the “Oak Island Folly” news article from 1861, in which excavators were said to be moments away from uncovering the treasure when the tunnel collapsed around them. In this case they are defeated by a human agency in the guise of the men who designed the alleged flooding system. In many other treasure tales the incident is attributed to some form of supernatural apparition or curse.

It is not unreasonable to assert that the Oak Island legend has actually survived and prospered because it is more reasonable. A human-designed trap is far more appealing and acceptable to modern readers than a claim of ghosts or demons attacking hapless diggers. Folklore must appeal to the culture in which it is transmitted, and just as claims of men being “ridden by witches” at night have given way to modern stories of alien abduction, tales of treasure recovery involving clever concealment by humans are more likely to survive than those involving the spirits of vengeful pirates.

According to another report, “sometime around 1813, a party of treasure seekers came to Crabtree’s Island to dig a 20-foot deep pit. Wielding a pick, one of the men uncovered an iron chest. Unfortunately, to haul it up agitated the quicksand in which it lay, and the chest sunk from sight. Clairvoyants and ‘gold witches’ with hazel dowsing rods combed the site, but all efforts were in vain. Many residents claimed this treasure was bewitched.”[8] This example involves both a prosaic explanation (quicksand) for failure to recover the treasure as well as one involving supernatural forces.

Yet another example of this folkloric motif is found in Skinner’s Myths and Legends of Our Own Land:

Monhegan Island, off the Maine coast, contains a cave, opening to the sea, where it was whispered that treasure had been stored in care of spirits. Searchers found within it a heavy chest, which they were about to lift when one of the party–contrary to orders–spoke. The spell was broken, for the watchful spirits heard and snatched away the treasure. Some years ago the cave was enlarged by blasting, in a hope of finding that chest, for an old saying has been handed down among the people of the island–from whom it came they have forgotten–that was to this effect: “Dig six feet and you will find iron; dig six more and you will find money.” [9]

Noteworthy in the above passage is the mention of a saying that is strongly reminiscent of the “forty feet down, two million pounds are buried” phrase claimed to be visible on the “inscribed” stone allegedly found in the Money Pit.

The same work mentions that “The shore for several hundred feet around Dighton Rock, Massachusetts, has been examined, for it was once believed that the inscriptions on it were cut by Kidd to mark the place of burial for part of his hoard” (italics mine).

Then there’s another example cited by Skinner:

Now, Harry Main–to say nothing of Captain Kidd–was believed to have buried his ill-gotten wealth in Ipswich, and one man dreamed for three successive nights that it had been interred in a mill. Believing that a revelation had been made to him he set off with spade, lantern, and Bible, on the first murky night–for he wanted no partner in the discovery–and found a spot which he recognized as the one that had been pictured to his sleeping senses. He set to work with alacrity and a shovel, and soon he unearthed a flat stone and an iron bar. He was about to pry up the stone when an army of black cats encircled the pit and glared into it with eyes of fire. The poor man, in an access both of alarm and courage, whirled the bar about his head and shouted “Scat!” The uncanny guards of the treasure disappeared instanter, and at the same moment the digger found himself up to his middle in icy water that had poured into the hole as he spoke. (italics mine)

The italicized portions mention a flat stone and iron bar, as well as a treasure pit suddenly filling with water as soon as the digger breaks the spell by speaking. Compare the flat stone with the “inscribed” stone attributed to Oak Island, and the iron bar with the one said to have been used to test the bottom of the Money Pit. The treasure pit filling with water is also easily recognizable.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn from a tale found in central New York state. It also involves Kidd and one version of the fate of his crew. The tale claims they sailed Kidd’s ship, the Quedah Merchant, up the Hudson. Here they sank it and dispersed with their loot. Then,

About one hundred and twenty-five years after Captain Kidd did his final jig, a river boat was anchored off Kidd’s Point, as the projection at the foot of Dunderberg came to be known. The skipper called for the anchor to be raised and he found that it was fouled. It was raised by great effort and when it broke the water, it was seen that it was snared on an old cannon. This was immediately proclaimed to be a gun from the Quedah Merchant. […] Then rumors were circulated that a long auger had been made and that it bored through the deck of the sunken ship. When the auger was brought to the surface, pieces of silver were caught in the thread.

A stock company was formed and over twenty thousand dollars was collected. A huge caisson or coffer-dam was built around the wreck. A powerful pump driven by a large steam engine was obtained to pump the area within the caisson dry. Then the funds ran low or more probably the promoters feeling that no more money could be raised, and knowing that no treasure could be raised, left with their swag donated by the gullible river folk. (italics mine) [10]

This final citation shows even more common elements with the Oak Island story. the New York tale is said to have occurred circa 1825 (Kidd having been hanged in 1699) and includes not only the oft-cited “auger” that pierces the recesses of the treasure vault, but also the tantalizing elements caught in its threads (here silver; at Oak Island the “three links of a gold chain”) and caisson/cofferdam around the site. This pattern shows clearly that various aspects of the Oak Island tale strongly resemble other commonly told tales of buried treasure, and thus must be approached with caution due to the common elements found in such stories. It also shows that “stock companies” formed for treasure hunting purposes were probably designed to enrich the owners at the expense of gullible locals. A cautionary tale, to be sure.

Family Relations and Supernatural Happenings

We have already seen that Joseph Smith was involved in money digging and divination. The following shows his association with other men who played an important role in the formation and perpetuation of the Oak Island legend; William and Oliver Cowdery knew, or were related to, other important actors whose roles in the Money Pit saga will be discussed in a subsequent chapter.

As previously noted, residents of Middletown (Rutland County) claimed that a man named Winchell was involved in activities of religious folk magic with William Cowdery, Nathaniel Wood. and Joseph Smith, Sr. After his excommunication from the Congregational church at Middletown in 1789, Wood taught that “himself and his followers were modern Israelites or Jews, under the special care of Providence.” Middletown residents added that the quiet activity of these dissenters ended in 1799, when a visitor named Winchell introduced the divining rod to the neighborhood: “He was a fugitive from justice from Orange county, Vermont, where he had been engaged in counterfeiting. He first went to a Mr. Cowdery’s sic, in Wells the father of Oliver Cowdery, the noted Mormon.” According to these neighbors, “Winchell made the acquaintance of the Woods; and they then commenced using the hazel rod and digging for money, which was in the spring or early in the summer of 1800.” Based on his interview with more then thirty old-time residents, local historian Frisbie added that the Wood group now gained converts among “several families” in nearby Wells and Poultney (which were 7.4 miles apart): “I have been told that Joe Smith’s father resided in Poultney at the time of the Wood movement here, and that he was in it, and one of the leading rodsmen”… Winchell allegedly left Orange County at the time Asael Smith and his son Joseph lived there…[11]

Another example, this one involving two girls claiming supernatural abilities, shows that not only men could act as seekers. It also prefigures the appearance of the Fox sisters and the rise of Spiritualism in the 1840s. The sisters used trickery and sleight of hand to convince others they possessed occult abilities — a deception that went undetected for many years.

Mr. K. [Ex-Universalist minister Abner Kneeland] was persuaded to believe that two little girls in New York could see, by looking into tumblers of water, any hidden treasure, or stolen property, whether buried in the earth, sunk in the sea, or above ground, wherever it might be. By their direction, therefore, he spent all the money he could obtain, to find hidden and lost property, with the strongest confidence that he should obtain immense treasures by these means.[12]

Aside from the historical significance, which reveals the existence of a marked propensity among the public toward belief in the reality of buried treasure, the above is also appropriate to the work performed on Oak Island. As noted earlier, divination has been used at the Money Pit on more than one occasion to determine the most propitious location on which to dig. The 1893 prospectus states that “Hiram G. Corbett of Westboro [sic], Mass., writes me as follows: ‘I was on the Island three years ago. The man with me had a mineral rod and it worked all right at the money pits. The rod drew toward it from all points, right to one spot.’ ” [13] The same prospectus also mentions that:

You ask me to tell you what I saw when the old pit (or what is called the treasure pit) on Oak Island caved in, while the men were tunneling through from what was then called the “Fanny Young” pit, (so called from a clairvoyant who had been consulted on the subject.) That was in 1850 and the fact of the pit being named for her would indicate that it was dug at that time.

We know from the historical record that Brigham Young’s sister was named Fanny, and that she was also the 34th “celestial” wife of the younger Joseph Smith. The available biographical information suggests she was not on Oak Island in 1850, but the writer quoted above says only that he was on the island in that year. He does not state the clairvoyant was consulted during that period, so it is possible the site of the “Fanny Young Pit” was selected years earlier. The prospectus may or may not refer to Smith’s wife, but a relationship between those involved in early activity on the island and the early Mormon community seems to be supported by other genealogical evidence. This link is still being pursued.

Taylor cites a major treasure hoax that may be relevant to the Oak Island work, since the date matches exactly with the year the Onslow group is said to have explored the Money Pit.

Kendall cited an 1804 outbreak in the upper Kennebec Valley [Maine] when a treasure seer named Daniel Lambert gave “new food to the credulity of the multitude, and a fresh excitement to the inclination, constantly lurking in its mind, to depend for a living upon digging for money-chests, rather than upon daily or ordinary labor. The belief in the existence of these buried money-chests, and the consequent inclination to search for them, is imbibed in infancy…” [14]

Despite Canaan’s location dozens of miles inland, his neighbors attributed Daniel Lambert’s sudden wealth to the discovery of buried pirate treasure, because of his reputed occult skills with divining rods. […] In 1851 John W. Hanson recalled, “gradually he inoculated the entire population of the Kennebec valley with treasure-seeking mania, and people in all conditions of life, were found digging from Anson to Seguin, and all along the coast, even to Rhode Island.” […] The settlers eventually learned that the Lamberts belonged to a ring of counterfeiters who used the carefully contrived illusion of discovered treasure to disseminate their forged bank notes.[15]

1804 is the date usually given for the Onslow group’s expedition, and it is at least interesting that “Lambert’s Folly” (as the incident cited above came to be known) occurred during the same period. Communication along the coasts was well developed by this period, and it is certain that the treasure mania reached Nova Scotia quickly. Did Lambert’s Folly provide a spark to men who decided to capitalize on it by inventing a fictitious treasure at Oak Island? We will never be certain, but the synchronicity of events is interesting and should be borne in mind when evaluating the authenticity of the Money Pit treasure tale.

We do know, however, that some form of “money digging” and treasure mania existed in and around Nova Scotia earlier in the 19th century. A brief passage in The Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters, a series of satirical letters published in Halifax newspapers in 1821-23, mentions an incident in which a man paid a Sheriff’s debt by “pulling out the leg of an old stocking tied at both ends, he told out of it as many doubloons as satisfied the sheriff […] he told us he had been turning up his fields and found it there.” The same passage goes on to say the man “advised us all to do the same thing” and “to follow his plan, and not do like the Chester folks; who once dug for money, and at last got so deep thta they arrived in the other world; and falling in with the devil, were glad to get away with the loss of their tools.” [16] (italics mine).

This indicates a predilection for, and perhaps numerous incidents of treasure digging occurred in Nova Scotia during the critical period. More importantly at least one occurred in Chester, the town nearest to Oak Island. Additionally, the mention of a man “turning up his fields” and “advising” others to do the same in order to find money indicates a strong belief in the existence of local treasure was present among local residents. And, like Lambert’s act of showing off a large sum of money to his friends, the incident with the sheriff indicates a hoax was being conducted by one or more men in the area.

The use of occult practices on the island has continued up to the present day. Several sources indicate such methods were used by Dan Blankenship, a leading member of the now-defunct Triton Alliance group, to determine the best location for their “Borehole 10-X” project. This shaft broke through underlying bedrock at approximately 200 feet and into what the group claims were man made water-filled tunnels beneath the island. No treasure was found, though it was claimed a “severed human hand” and the corner of a wooden chest were visible when a video camera was lowered into the void by the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

The Kidd Legend

From all the above it is evident that many inhabitants of eastern North America following the Revolutionary War were susceptible to tales of buried treasure. Stories of buried gold and hidden hoards abounded in the area, and it was felt many pirate hoards were buried in isolated locations along the coast. The fabled treasure thought to have been accumulated by William Kidd seems to have received special attention, possibly due to Kidd’s connection with Boston and the fact that many British loyalists, some of whom undoubtedly lived in and near Massachusetts, relocated to Nova Scotia after the end of the American War of Independence.

For example, we find the following claim in the 1863 newspaper article discussed earlier in this chapter:

Better than a century ago an old man died in what was then known as the British Colony of New England. On his death-bed he confessed himself to have been one of the crew of the famous Captain Kidd; and he assured those who witnessed his last moments, that many years past he had assisted that noted pirate and his followers in burying over two millions of money beneath the soil of a secluded Island, east of Boston.

Compare this with the following letter regarding the Vaughn and McInnis families.

A story, current in the Vaughn family, was recounted by him and vouched for by the grand-daughter. It was that the Vaughns came to Nova Scotia by way of New England, from Virginia at the time of Roger Williams, that they were later followed by the McGinnies [sic] and Smiths. After having settled in the vicinity, sometime in the 1790s two of the Smith’s or McGinnies [sic] or one of each family, who were sailors, visited the family after an extended voyage ending in England. While in England they had befriended an old sailor who said he was one of Kidd’s crew and in gratitude for their help and friendliness, he told them that Kidd did have a huge cache of valuable booty. He did not know exactly where it was except that it was somewhere in “New Anglia” and that it was on an island “covered with Oaks”. This information excited the local family, knowing of Oak Island, or at the time Gloucester Island, according to Des Barres and led them to carefully explore the island with the results that we know of.[17] [Italics mine]

William Crooker’s book on the Money Pit legend includes a chapter on pirate folklore in Nova Scotia; he mentions that the area was a known haven for pirates, and states that “[…] the settlers were imaginative. They envisioned buried treasures on the beaches and in the woodlands bordering the shores. They blended their fancies with their superstitions and a wealth of folklore was born.”[18] This reinforces the claim that people living in the area during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries believed strongly in the existence of nearby pirate treasure – perhaps as close as their own back yard or a neighbor’s field. This tradition predisposed the inhabitants toward a belief that any unusual or out of place feature might represent a marker pointing toward a longed-for treasure that would solve their financial worries forever. Additionally, any incident involving the discovery of treasure, whether real or imagined, was likely to trigger a mania of treasure-digging (as was the case in Maine during the Daniel Lambert incident) as well as a rash of false reports.

Lost Civilizations, Lost Treasures

Another factor contributing to the belief in numerous lost treasures was the legend that a “lost tribe of Israel” trekked from the Mediterranean to North America after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Joseph Smith capitalized on this belief when he claimed to have discovered gold plates on which the “lost tribe” had inscribed the apocryphal Book of Mormon. Additionally, a Mormon historian mentions that “[o]n the basis of a report of a parchment book found in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (William Miller’s birthplace), and stories of metal artifacts and plates recovered from Indian burial mounds in western New York and Ohio, Ethan Smith was convinced that the American Indian peoples were the Lost Tribes.”[19]

This belief has little direct bearing on the Oak Island tale, but shows that not only pirates were suspected of having buried gold or other riches in North American soil. Other contemporary news articles mention a belief that ancient, unknown civilizations existed in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans, and therefore might have left behind valuables that could be uncovered if one dug a deep enough hole. Thus the gold fever affecting various groups during this period was not confined to the coasts, but reached far inland to areas where pirates would not have been expected to visit.

Even recent occupation by known parties was sometimes suspected of having resulted in the burial of treasure. Another legend, which displays a remarkable resemblance to the early Oak Island story, tells us that

On Crown Point, Lake Champlain, is the ruin of a fort erected by Lord Amherst above the site of a French work that had been thrown up in 1731 to guard a now vanished capital of fifteen hundred people. It was declared that when the French evacuated the region they buried money and bullion in a well, in the northwest corner of the bastion, ninety feet deep, in the full expectancy of regaining it, and half a century ago this belief had grown to such proportions that fifty men undertook to clear the well, pushing their investigations into various parts of the enclosure and over surrounding fields. They found quantities of lead and iron and no gold.[20]

Here we are told of a well (compare this to the Money Pit) allegedly filled with valuables, ninety feet in depth (the same depth at which the inscribed stone is alleged to have been found) that involved treasure recovery excavations far beyond the extent of the original feature (“pushing their investigations into various parts of the enclosure…”).

Formation of the Oak Island Legend

Given the traditions of “rodsmen” or ” seekers” claiming occult abilities to locate buried valuables and pre-existing beliefs in buried treasure, it would have been simple for a few men to plant the idea of a treasure on Oak Island in the minds of local inhabitants. The lack of documentary or physical evidence for work said to have been conducted during the 1795-1860 period, the ready availability of news stories describing numerous hoaxes and scams perpetrated by the so-called ” seekers,” and the lack of stories describing successful treasure hunts in these areas seem to point to the Money Pit as a hoax or legend that spiraled out of control over time.

Certain aspects of the story as it was understood then, and even now, conform to well known characteristics of treasure tales of the time. Taylor, in his article The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830 (1986) notes that “tradition held that a minium of three (a particularly magical number that occurs repeatedly in treasure lore) seekers was essential for a successful dig.” The same article cites Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Breitnal, who claimed “you can hardly walk half a mile out of Town on any side, without observing several Pits dug with that Design, and perhaps more lately opened.” It is also noted that “in Pittston, Maine’s ‘Pebble Hills’ diggers excavated pits eighty feet deep. In Frankfort, Maine, a century of treasure seeking leveled a hundred-foot gravel mount named ‘Codlead.’ […] In Vermont this tradition overlapped with rumors that early Spanish explorers had opened, abandoned, and sealed mines filled with valuable ores and coins.” [21]

Here we see the commonality of elements.

  • Three seekers (i.e. McInnis, Smith, and Vaughn).
  • Huge excavations of great depth (compare the eighty feet cited above with the original claimed depth of the Money Pit).
  • The belief that the Spanish were somehow involved in the burial of vast hoards in the Northeast. The latter can be related to citations of the Spanish Main and the claim that a “Spanish” shoe was found on Oak Island.
  • Like many of these early treasure stories, divination of some type was involved in the alleged discovery of appropriate locations for excavation.

Even the diameter often claimed for the Money Pit (12-14 feet) matches William Stafford’s 1833 account of the use of a “magic circle” to delimit the extent of a treasure excavation by Joseph Smith, Sr., who “first made a circle twelve or fourteen feet in diameter. This circle, said he, contains the treasure.”[22]

The one major difference between the Oak Island tale and others found in early American and Canadian history is that the Money Pit tale does not make use of the element of evil supernatural spirits guarding the treasure. Instead, hopeful treasure hunters must match wits with the persons who devised nefarious, complex flood tunnels and other impediments. It is this distinction that preserved the legend of the Money Pit while others vanished. Modern audiences are unlikely to accept that supernatural beings are preventing treasure hunters from recovering gold, but few can resist the challenge of overcoming the devices of other men.

Even given the above evidence, however, we cannot discount the possibility that the original stories accurately recorded actual events that occurred during this early period. The lack of documentary and other evidence is not damning, but it is extremely problematic and mandates that attempts be made to either confirm or disprove the legend using other methods. Later chapters will explore the geology of the island, the limited amount of archaeological data available for study, and the familial relationships of various families involved in the tale. For the present we will move on to a discussion of later aspects of the Money Pit story, since this will show how the legend developed from its embryonic stage in the 1860s to the modern form known today.


[1] Liverpool Transcript, 29 August 1861, author unknown

[2] ibid

[3] “Patrick,” letter to the editor, Nova Scotian, Sept. 16, 1861.

[4] Taylor, Alan, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, 1990, North Carolina Press, p 79-80

[5] Sworn affidavit given by a neighbor, Willard Chase, against Joseph Smith in l833.

[6] Historical Magazine, 1870

[7] Ludlum, David M., Social Ferment in Vermont 1791-1850 1939

[8] New York Times, March 15, 1873

[9] Skinner, Charles, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land vol. 9 (sourced from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6614/6614.txt)

[10] Harris, Harold, Treasure Tales of the Shawangunks and Catskills (1998, Hope Farm Press and Bookshop)

[11] Quinn, D. Michael, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. 1987

[12] Trumpet and Universalist Messenger, June 15, 1839

[13] Prospectus published by an Oak Island treasure recovery company, 1893

[14] Taylor, p.81

[15] Taylor, p.178-180

[16] McCulloch, Thomas, The Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters. Edited by Gwendolyn Davies (Carleton University Press edition, Ottawa CA 1990), pp 63-64.

[17] Correspondence between R.V. Harris and Gilbert Hedden, 1939

[18] Crooker, William, Oak Island Gold. Halifax, Nimbus Publishing Ltd 1993, p. 91

[19] Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, esp. 5-8, p. 142

[20] Skinner, op cit

[21] 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. 8.

[22] Taylor, Alan, Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830, p. 11.