On a warm September day in 1795, three teenagers, Daniel McGinnis, Anthony Vaughn and John Smith
, were walking in Oak Island, located in Mahone Bay
, Nova Scotia
, when they stumbled across an interesting depression in the ground, about 13 feet in diameter. Curious, they looked up and saw a tree with a sawed off branch and rope burns, from a pulley
. Having been filled with stories of pirate
treasure, they immediately thought that they'd hit the jackpot. They started digging as hard as they could. At ten feet, they hit a row of oak planks - surely they must have reached the treasure
! However, once they pried them out, there was just more dirt. Ten more feet down, they hit another row of planks, and ten feet down they hit another row. Having reached the limit of what they could do themselves, they left the site and went home, eager to return.
What those three boys unwittingly stumbled on is one of modern day's most puzzling archaeological enigmas
-just what is the Pit, who built it, and what's buried underneath? To this day, 211 years later, we still don't have any answers to the above questions, and six people have died, along with millions of dollars spent, to the pursuit of these answers. Today the Triton
Alliance, a group of wealthy investors headed
lawyer David Tobias
, digs the site, and they have kept it highly restricted - no more tourists are allowed in, and any trespassers will be (and have been) shot at.
A Brief History (Continued)
Despite the boys' pleas for help, most mainlanders would not go near the island - strange lights had been seen there in the past, and the general consensus was that it was haunted. It was not until 1801 when the first organized attempt was begun, when John Smith told his family physician (he was now a husband and father) Dr. Simeon Lynds about the pit. Dr. Lynds organized a small group of investors to dig the pit, and called themselves the Onslow Syndicate (named after Dr. Lynds' hometown). The syndicate dug much further, down to 90 feet, and at every ten foot interval they found rows of oak logs, some covered with coconut husks. At 90 feet, they found a mysterious stone inscribed with mysterious letters. A professor at Dalhousie university in Halifax later deciphered it to say "40 feet below two million pounds are buried", but the stone has since been lost. It was last seen in the 1920's, being used as a doorstop at a Halifax construction company.
That night, the workers were all very excited - they thought they were coming very close to the treasure, and just a few more feet would uncover it. As it was Saturday, they went home on the mainland to return on Monday. On Monday morning, however, they got the shock of their lives. As they went in to inspect the hole, they found that it had filled with 60 feet of water since they left. Although they tried to bail it out, it was rushing in far faster than they could handle. They held an emergency meeting, and it was decided that they would try to sink another shaft nearby, and then tunnel over to where they thought the treasure was. However, this tunnel inevitably filled with water, and the Onslow Syndicate, disheartened, quit, much to the protestations of Smith and McInnis (Vaughn had since moved away).
It wasn't until 1849 that another attempt had been made at uncovering the treasure. Smith and McInnis, now in their early 70's, still lived on and farmed the island and managed to help out with the new pursuit. Even Anthony Vaughn managed to make one last trip to the island, from his home in Halifax. Dr. Lynds, who was still alive, was a major investor in this new pursuit, and immediately they sunk another shaft, which flooded at 86 feet.
Undaunted, the new syndicate decided to borrow a tool from the Nova Scotia coal mining industry - a pod augur, which was a man-powered drill with a bit at the end. They descended the bit down the original hole, and began drilling. They hit more coconut husks, a strange metallic substance, and finally, a sturdy cedar box. After drilling through the box and descending the drill through empty space, they thought they had hit the treasure; upon pulling up the drill bit, three links of a tiny gold chain were found. On the next try, the director of the bit, James Pitbaldo, found something very interesting - however, he quickly pocketed the item and refused to show it to anyone. He said he would show the item at the next investor's meeting, but when that day came, he never showed up. In fact, he disappeared entirely. To this day we have no idea what Mr. Pitbaldo found, and we probably won't ever know.
In 1850 it was found that the pit was flooded by an artificial shaft leading to the ocean in Smith's Cove (named after John Smith), which was packed with tons of coconut fibres. This acted as a water purifier and restrictor, since if the shaft ran directly open to the pit, it may cause a collapse. Four more shafts were eventually found leading to the ocean, and there may be still more that we don't know about. The second syndicate dug more shafts and tried to build a coffer dam around the cove, but a fierce Atlantic storm destroyed it. Discouraged, this syndicate disbanded and McGinnis, Vaughn and Smith would never find out what was buried in that pit. Another syndicate was formed in 1866, but this one too soon folded. A coin bearing the date "1317" was supposedly found, but this too disappeared.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Joins The Search
In 1891, a fourth syndicate, the Oak Island Treasure Co. was formed by Montreal insurance salesman Frederick Blair, and brought fresh funds and new technology to the search. A much more powerful drill was brought to the pit, and they commenced drilling. On one occasion, they brought up a mangled piece of parchment; the only legible letters on it were "V.I.". Afterwards, they decided to temporarily halt drilling, since valuable clues as to the treasure may get destroyed that way (we can only guess what that parchment piece said). In 1909, young lawyer Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had first heard the stories of Oak Island as a boy on Campobello island, joined the search, and visited the island later that year armed with diving suits and new hydraulic drills. They dug up more cement-like material, which proved to be man-made, forever disbanding the natural sink-hole theory. As well, they poured red dye into the pit to see where it would go, and traces of it turned up all around the island, proving that there was more than one water shaft.
Hedden Makes an Attempt
After this venture failed, interest in the island waned until the New York Times ran a feature Sunday article on the strange history of the island in 1928. Gilbert D. Hedden, operator of a steel manufaturing plant, saw the article and formed a new syndicate, intrigued with the engineering problems inherent in finding the treasure. However, Hedden did not start to dig until the summer of 1935. The pit was excavated to 155 feet and strongly timbered for support, but no chests or cement chamber were to be found. Hedden was digging in the spot indicated by Blair as the original site where the drill had found the chamber, but the ground had shifted so badly from the collapse of other pits that he believed the treasure might have slipped many feet horizontally and sunk deeper into the wet clay.
Electricity was brought to the island for the first time in 1936 and pumps were installed with a capacity of 1000 gallons per minute, twice the expected flow of water into the pit. The water tunnel entrance was exposed at 104 feet, and this flow was transferred to another old shaft where the pumps took care of it easily. However, despite Hedden's efforts, nothing new was found save for a strange substance - free (metallic) mercury, which is almost never found in this form in nature. Due to lack of funds, the project folded in 1939, and was handed over to Erwin T. Hamilton, a professor of mechanical engineering at New York University.
Attempts Since Hedden
By the 1960's, so many alternate shafts had been dug and collapsed that no one knew where the original shaft was. To find it came wealthy investor Robert Restall and his sons. They set up shop in the early 60's, but a tragedy occurred soon after, which would be funny if four people hadn't died; Restall, overcome by carbon monoxide fumes collapsed into a pit. His son tried to save him, but he too was overcome and fell in. A nearby worker saw this and tried to save both of them, but he too was overcome by the fumes. Another nearby worked also tried to save them, but I think you can guess the outcome. Four people died that day, bringing Oak Island's death toll to 6 (a boiler exploded in 1859 killing a man, and in 1897 a mechanical failure caused the death of another worker).
In 1970, David C. Tobias of Montreal started the Triton Alliance, a group of over 50 wealthy investors who still drills the site. Recently, they opened up a new borehole called 10X, which sunk a shaft near where the original is thought to be, and descended a camera under the water. A human hand, a heart-shaped rock and other curiosities were found, but still no treasure. In 1995 the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution did a sonar scan of the area, and the results, which are confidential, were quote "encouraging".
Enough history. So what is down there and who buried it?
This is really the question to end all questions. As for what is down there, we don't know, but there are three irrefutable facts:
- The pit is man-made
- Whoever constructed the pit was knowledgeable in advanced hydraulics, other engineering concepts
- It was constructed at least before 1750, when settlement would have made such a project impossible to do secretly
Theories of who built it
Currently, there are many theories as to who built the pit, everything from Captain Kidd to aliens. I will outline the major candidates below, and give pros and cons to their likeliness of building the pit.
- They lacked the means or motivation to build a pit; most treasure was not buried or stored
- The Atlantic Vikings were poor farmers; they wouldn't have had treasure to bury
- Lack of advanced hydraulics knowledge
- They were much more technologically sophisticated than we give them credit for, ie. Mayan calendar, Midwest snake mounds, etc.
- Evidence suggests that New England natives may have built stone calendars similar to Stonehenge
- However, the Natives did not have advanced hydraulics knowledge. Let's move on
- Spanish treasure ships which ran aground sometimes buried their loot on an island, for later retrieval. This may have been the case at Oak Island. Many of these ships were later lost at sea, and the secret of their treasure burial was lost with them.
- It would have taken at least a year to build a pit of such complexity - not feasible for a grounded ship
- He gained much loot from Royally-sanctioned privateering
- Met with Queen Elizabeth I in private to discuss plans for looting ships
- Could have used British labourers under the Queen to dig the pits
- However, he was openly wealthy - there was no need for him to bury the loot
- There is a theory that the actual author of Shakespeare's plays is Francis Bacon; he would have the necessary knowledge and "inside information" on royalty to write such masterpieces. He would also have the necessary motive to hide these plays, which challenge the notion of "divine right of rulers".
- Bacon would have necessary contacts to be able to have them buried in such a way
- Bacon once wrote of preserving manuscripts in mercury...traces of mercury were found at the Oak Island pit site
- None of the original manuscripts of the plays are known to exist...where are they??
- The hiring and swearing to secrecy of hundreds of labourers seems elaborate at best, for a few manuscrpts. Surely Bacon wouldn't have known in his time that his plays would become so world-reknowned. Plus, this entire theory hinges on the assumption that Bacon actually wrote the plays, making it sound like more of a conspiracy theory.
- They may not have amassed enough wealth to warrant burying it in such an elaborate manner
- They probably didn't have the technological ability to build such a pit
- Gathered much loot during his years of pirating; was going to reveal the location of his treasure cache to the authorities in return for his life in 1701; the British refused.
- When he learned of his impending arrest, he buried most of his loot
- Would have the motive and possibly the means to do such a thing
- Kidd rarely sailed as far north as Nova Scotia
- Kidd said his treasure was buried in the South China Sea - nowhere near Nova Scotia
Military Weapons Cache
- During the American War of Independence, the British may have needed a secure place to store weapons/payrolls in the event of an American attack. Oak Island may have been built for this purpose.
- The threat of an American incursion into Nova Scotia was limited at best, and the structure is far too elaborate for a mere weapons cache
- maybe the pit wasn't meant to hide anything at all?
- Pirate ships, like other oceangoing vessels, needed dry dock maintenance from time to time - but understandably, this was difficult to do at normal dry docks.
- Oak Island, with its shaft system, could be used to pump water onto the island if it were surrounded with a coffer dam; it would lower the water levels enough to have a dry dock
- On the other side of Nova Scotia is the world's largest natural dry dock, the Bay of Fundy. A pirate could easily dock his ship during low tide, make the necessary repairs, and have it ready by high tide (this process was called careening), thus making the elaborate Oak Island dry dock useless.
The above theories are the most popular ones, currently. Triton alliance leader David Tobias believes that it is Captain Kidd's treasure. However, there is one more theory that is gaining popularity, and if it proves to be true, then Oak Island could yield some of the most important archaeological finds ever.
The Knights Templar
Founded in 1118 by Hughues de Payens and 8 followers, the Knights Templar were officially "guardians of the sacred pilgrimage" to Jerusalem. However, they may have had ulterior motives. They petitioned the Crusader king of Jerusalem, Baldwin, to set up their headquarters on top of the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. Baldwin agreed, and for the next nine years the Templars did little, remaining at their post above the Temple. Some believe that they were actually excavating the tunnels under the Temple, which many believe were stocked with gold and holy relics. This may have been the original source of all the Templars' wealth.
As time passed, the order attracted young nobles to the cause, and everyone who became a Templar signed over their land and possessions to the order. As a result, the Knights Templar eventually became one of the largest landowners in Europe, and also started a rudimentary banking system.
After the Crusades ended, many Kings, especially those who owed the Templars debts, thought their existence to be superfluous and unnecessary. One of these kings, Philip IV of France, decided in 1307 that the Templars were wicked sinners, and thus banned the organization, rounded up all the members they could find and tortured them, later killing the Grand Master Jacques de Molay by roasting him alive. However, the French never recovered most of the treasure, and there is evidence to suggest that they may have moved their treasure and organization to Scotland, where a noble family there, the Sinclairs, were sympathetic to their cause. The Sinclairs may have became the guardians of the Scottish Templars' treasure and possibly holy relics, guarding them in case of English attack.
There is some evidence to support that in 1398, Henry Sinclair, a family head, actually sailed to the Nova Scotia region of North America with a Venetian trader, Niccolo Zeno and some close friends and aides. Descriptions of the area, written by Zeno's brother, correspond with current-day sights, as well as a mysterious rock carving found in Westford, Massachusetts, depicting a Scottish knight bearing a shield with the Gunn family heraldry; James Gunn was a close friend and aide of Henry Sinclair, and may have died in that location in a battle against Natives.
In the 1500's, the Protestant Reformation in Scotland wreaked havoc on the Catholic Sinclairs, whose churches were being burned and destroyed. It was only a matter of time before the mob would get to the treasure, so the decision may have been made to move all the treasure to Oak Island, a place which the family had prior knowledge of through Henry's journey. The family would have also had enough labourers to do the job, enough ships to transport the loot, and enough time to build the pit. The guardian of the secret location may have been killed in a battle, leaving the Oak Island treasure site lost forever, until it was found by three boys in 1795.
There are a few problems with the argument above, namely that it is mostly based on conjecture and not historically accepted claims. While the Knights Templar seem a most tempting candidate, there is too much conjecture to wade through to be able to definitively say it was them. Nonetheless, I think the concept is pretty cool, and if it is true, then what is buried at the bottom?
Why, the Holy Grail of course.
Or something out of the movie National Treasure
Or, The Da Vinci Code
Most of this was taken from extensive notes I made for a seminar, which I presented to my Gr. 12 World History class. It went over really well, actually. Very interesting material. My main source was the book "The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Uncovering the Oak Island Mystery" by Steven Sora.