Chapter 4: Evolution of the Legend: 1865-Present

Documentary material pertaining to Oak Island becomes more readily available in the historical record after publication of the news articles in the 1860-65 period.  This simplifies the problem of tracking its progress and the changes the story underwent until it reached the form commonly known today, but reveals nothing about the earlier, undocumented period prior to 1860.  A review of the available documentation from 1865 to the present shows that the story has mutated repeatedly and continues to do so, often in response to changing attitudes and new evidence that has emerged as the excavations continued into ever deeper soils.  In numerous cases, the distortions were clearly caused by later writers relying solely on secondary evidence rather than working from original (“primary” to historians) sources such as the 1860s-era news articles.  This practice has resulted in a various authors’ errors being magnified and carried forward into subsequent works, creating an increasingly muddled history filled with inaccuracy, folklore, and unconfirmed “facts” created from thin air.

Additionally, our understanding of the island’s history has been affected by its use in numerous works of fiction written primarily for children or young adults.  For instance, an interesting book entitled The Treasure Of the Seas by James De Mille recounted the Oak Island tale in the context of an adventure novel, with three boys traveling to an unnamed island in order to participate in the treasure hunt. This tale is very different from all later accounts; this may be due to artistic license on the part of the author, an imperfect understanding of the details of the known legend, or a conscious desire to alter various details. It states, for instance, that the original pit was “about fifteen feet in diameter. Trees grew all around it. Just on this circular spot, however, nothing grew at all, not even moss or ferns. It looked as if it’d been cursed, or blasted. The trees were all around it.” [1]

It would be useful to find another variant, preferably one purporting to represent a factual history of the treasure hunt, from roughly the same time period in order to make a comparison possible. None has so far come to light, however, so we must presume De Mille simply created details he thought would be interesting to young readers. He also used elements of the Oak Island legend as a basis for another adventure novel titled Old Garth: A Story of Sicily, (1883) so he may simply have seized upon a formula that worked successfully in the context of juvenile fiction of that period.  However, his is also the first known work to make the claim “boys” were responsible for finding the site; it is likely he helped develop the legend by introducing that story element into Oak Island’s mythology.  It should be noted that Daniel McInnis (or McGinnis) was actually born in North Carolina in 1758, fought as a Loyalist during the American War of Revolution, then removed to Nova Scotia following the British defeat.  No boy in 1795, he would have been roughly 37 years of age and, according to land grant records and deeds, owned land on Oak Island and in Chester well before that date.

De Mille’s association with the Money Pit may extend much further, however.  He was a professor of history and rhetoric at Dalhousie College (now University) in Halifax, Nova Scotia as well as the author of a number of works of fiction.  He was in residence at that institution during the 1861-era Oak Island expedition, and members of the organization regularly met there to discuss progress and events related to the excavation.  Part of the lore of the Money Pit legend is that “a professor at Dalhousie College” once “pronounced” the “forty feet below, two million pounds are buried” phrase that has since become integrated into the tale.  Given De Mille’s use of the legend in his fictional work, his position as professor of history, and the meetings held at the college by investors of his day, he may be the “professor” mentioned above. Another candidate is James Leichti, who was professor of modern languages at the same time and apparently had contact with the treasure-hunters of the day.  However no documentary evidence has emerged thus far in support of this hypothesis, so it has yet to be proven (and may never be so).

The next reference, A History of Lunenburg County by Des Brisay, is important since it represents the first independent, historical citation of the legend following publication of the 1860-era news articles. It reveals nothing new. Instead it closely resembles the original articles, often citing passages verbatim. This indicates Des Brisay simply copied this material without significant alteration while adding details regarding the families that originally settled the area of Chester, Nova Scotia.  McInnis & friends are named in both this and the 1860s versions, but in neither case are they described as “boys” as later versions of the legend often claim. Instead we are told that “three men—Smith, McInnis, […] and Vaund [should be Vaughn]—emigrated from New England to Chester. Smith and McInnis took up land on Oak Island […] McInnis one day discovered a spot that gave evidence of having been visited by someone a good many years earlier […]”[2]

Several aspects of the modern version of the tale may be called into question, presuming for a moment that Des Brisay and the earlier news articles were accurate. First, they reveal the island was inhabited prior to the supposed discovery of the Pit, which means it is possible the site allegedly found by McInnis was simply an abandoned farmstead or cabin site. It should be noted that some other writers claim the Money Pit site was actually “lot #18” according to an old survey of the island, so this theory may be correct. Des Brisay’s description of the original discoverers as “men” rather than “boys on an adventure” raises the question, as noted earlier, whether the commonly-told tale cited in modern works on the island is simply a corrupted version of De Mille’s adventure novel.

Des Brisay then goes on to describe the Pit site, citing a detail not seen in later retellings of the legend though it can be found in at least the 1863 “Original Sketch” newspaper article. He notes that the men found the typical oak tree, but “with a large forked branch extending over the old clearing. To the forked part of the branch, by means of a treenail connecting the fork in a small triangle, was attached an old tackle block.” [3] This shows that the tackle block is mentioned in the earliest known versions of the tale, and the “burn mark” mentioned in some subsequent variants is apparently a later addition. Note also that the branch is not described as having been cut off.

Later, Des Brisay says that the depression found by the men was seven feet in diameter – much smaller than the usual twelve to fifteen feet – then claims the men also found the remains of a road leading to the western shore of the island. Next, the “beams” found at ten feet are described as rotted logs, not as worked lumber.

It is also noteworthy that Des Brisay cites an 1861 letter by one Henry Poole, Esq., who visited the island while the Pit was being excavated by the company then in operation. At that time the shaft was 120 ft. deep; Poole wrote that the spoil earth taken from it was “composed of sand and boulder rocks.” This demonstrates that while the oft-cited “impermeable clay soil” certainly exists nearer the surface, at depth the diggers were encountering a soil mix highly susceptible to water infiltration. This strengthens the case for the flooding being caused by natural geological formations, as does another article from 1867.  This reference states that

[…] we understand that having secured the service of Mr Brown (of the Walton Manganese Mines) that the matter is drawing near to a solution. It appears evident from the results obtained by Mr Brown’s boring that whole affair is but a freak of nature. The watercourse, by which the original money-pit was flooded, is in all probability a layer of gravel creation, at a depth of 135 feet, and most of the other indications of previous excavations are likewise satisfactorily accounted for. It is to be hoped that the enterprise of the present company, although un-rewarded with the success they anticipated, may at least be the means of setting at rest for all time to come the whereabouts of Kidd’s treasure so far as Oak Island is concerned. [4]

The idea that the flooding of the pit was occasioned by a layer of gravel lying at depth agrees strongly with the geology of the island, as will be discussed in detail in a subsequent chapter.  It also provides an explanation for claims that attempts at using an auger resulted in a noise like “metal in pieces” being heard at the top of the pit.  The same noise would be produced by a drill bit encountering gravel. This provides a more reasonable explanation than the illusion that the drill had struck loose coins or other valuables. The fact that this scrap of information was removed from later retellings of the story suggests that authors have intentionally avoided evidence jeopardizing the authenticity of the treasure story. The romance of “metal in pieces” was more likely to preserve and propagate the legend than a prosaic explanation involving gravel beds and natural water infiltration.

Development of the “Inscribed Stone” myth

The idea that an “inscribed” stone was discovered at the ninety foot level is part and parcel to the Money Pit story, and the evolution of this particular component of the tale is indicative of the manner in which other components developed. In the earliest manuscripts (circa 1860) it is simply claimed that a stone bearing “marks” was found, and that no one was able to decipher or understand them. Somewhat later documents state that “one wise man” or “a professor at Dalhousie [college]” claimed a translation of either “ten feet down, two million pounds” or “forty feet down, two million pounds are buried.”

It must be understood that no documents dated on or before the mid 20th century show a sketch, description, photograph, rubbing, or other visual representation of the “symbols” said to be found on the stone. The 1893 Prospectus, for instance, contains no such material. This is very strange, since the stone is a critical component of the legend. Not until 1949 does any such depiction surface; in this year Edward Rowe Snow, a treasure hunter and writer of books of stories about New England, published True Tales of Buried Treasure, which included a hand-drawn set of symbols now well known to students of Oak Island lore [5] Snow was given the symbols by a Reverend A.T. Kempton of Cambridge, Massachusetts. We know little about Kempton, except that he was also in correspondence with Frederick Blair, then excavating the Money Pit site. Copies of this correspondence are still being sought, but notes indicate Blair felt Kempton’s ideas were completely wrong.

Since publication of Snow’s book, numerous writers have made use of these symbols even though their provenance is at least highly suspect, if not completely unknown. Kempton may have invented them himself to fit the commonly known “forty feet down” phrase often associated with the island. It is very unlikely these symbols are correct since, as noted above, no other depiction of the actual stone has yet been found. It is also suspicious that earlier authors did not describe the “marks” said to have been found on the stone. It would have been very easy to mention the triangles, boxes, circles, and other common shapes. That this did not occur indicates the “marks” were either completely random or simply natural scratches caused by glacial action. Many treasure stories, as noted earlier, use the imagery of “inscribed stones” as markers.

It is apparent that modern understanding of a major component of the Money Pit story — the stone and its alleged inscription — is based on incorrect and possibly fabricated evidence produced long after the events are said to have occurred. Despite this revelation, subsequent generations of writers will continue to make use of these symbols, further muddling fact and fancy.

[1] De Mille, James, The Treasure of the Seas, 1873, p. 84

[2] Des Brisay, Mather Byles, History of the County of Lunenburg, Toronto, William Briggs 1895, p. 302

[3] ibid, p. 302

[4] Halifax Sun and Advertiser, 11 January 1867

[5] Snow, Edward Rowe, True Tales of Buried Treasure. Cornwall Press 1951 (Revised 1960), p.25