The secret of Oak Island
These textfiles are excerpted from a booklet written by Bro. Laverne Johnson (1914-1999) of Centennial-King George Lodge No. 171, BCR in 1991. They have no Masonic significance and are included here only as an item of interest.
Many years before Oak Island became the focus of a treasure hunt, a group landed on the island with a cargo or treasure which they had to leave there. That cargo or treasure was considered so valuable that it justified doing a tremendous amount of work to give it the required security. The plan for concealment and recovery was simple and effective. Evidence indicates that the depositors never managed to return, and none of the many treasure hunters has discovered the secret of the concealment in spite of all their attempts, and although the necessary information has been available to them for many years.
For those who are not familiar with the story, Oak Island is a small island about three quarters of a mile long from east to west, lying up toward the head of Mahone Bay, about fifty miles west of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is about two hundred yards from the mainland. In 1965 a causeway was built from the island to the mainland.
In the summer of 1795 a young settler, Daniel McGinnis ^ (or McInnis) wandering around the eastern end of the Island came upon a large oak tree. Some time long before, one big branch had been lopped off several feet from the trunk, and there was evidence that something had been suspended from that branch. Directly beneath the cutoff branch there was a depression in the ground indicating that in the past the ground had been disturbed and through the years had settled somewhat. McGinnis must have heard many stories of the pirates who had, and still did, operate along that coast, and he persuaded two friends, Anthony Vaughan and John Smith, to come to the island with him and examine the ground in the depression to learn if pirates had buried something there long ago.
When the young settlers dug down a couple of feet they came upon a layer of flagstones which were not indigenous to the island, but probably came from Gold River, a couple of miles away. No doubt when the flagstones were placed they were approximately level with the surface of the ground, and a light covering of earth was placed over them. Through the many years that had elapsed between the time they were laid down and 1795 the disturbed ground had settled so the stones were well below the surface when the diggers found them. Somebody must have had a good reason for going to the trouble of laying those flagstones, and the only plausible reason would be to leave a mark or pattern on them to convey some kind of information to someone who would return to the island. Of course the enthusiastic diggers envisioned treasure just below the stones, and simply cast them aside and continued their search.
The settlers continued to dig, and found nothing except clay until they were down about ten feet, when they encountered a platform of heavy logs, the ends of which were set firmly into the sides of the excavation. It had become evident to the diggers that they were working in an old filled-in shaft. Early reports stated that the logs were well rotted on the outside, and it was agreed that they must have been there for many years. Below the platform was a space caused by the settling of the fill, but there was no treasure, just more disturbed clay. The boys persisted for another ten feet, and then they struck another log platform with the same conditions below it.
It was becoming much more laborious getting the excavated material up to the surface, and the superstitious local people were not inclined to have anything to do with this weird adventure on the uninhabited island. It was also becoming urgent that the diggers leave their treasure hunting and attend to the various tasks of getting in crops and gardens and preparing for the coming winter. After digging down a few more feet they called a halt, hoping it would be only a temporary postponement, and that they could resume their search the following spring.
The young men were convinced that they were involved in a search which promised great rewards, but being early settlers in a harsh land they were never able to spend more time on the hunt except by working for others who came to seek the treasure. However John Smith did buy the lot on which the treasure site lay, and a few years later built his house and raised his family there. The shaft stood abandoned for eight or more years, but reports suggest that the next attempt to excavate it was made in 1804. Mel Chappell, who owned the island for a good number of years told me that during the early years searchers at the site had to agree to refill any shafts they dug. This was to ensure that livestock or children would not accidentally fall in, and no doubt this explains why the searchers in 1804, sometimes known as the Onslow group, ^ found the shaft pretty well filled in when they began their search.
The Onslow group cleaned out the shaft down to ninety-three feet, encountering a log platform approximately every ten feet. The fill in the shaft was easily dug, but the walls were so hard that very old pick marks were said to be visible in the hard clay. Quite far down in the shaft the diggers came upon a large stone which had a considerable number of marks of varying shapes on it. The stone no doubt gave the original diggers of the shaft considerable labour freeing it from the very hard clay in which it was embedded, and by the time they got it free it must have acquired many scratches, gouges, etc., from bars picks and shovels. The stone was so heavy that it was easier to move it onto one of the partial platforms that supported the ladders than to hoist it all the way to the surface. The searchers, coming upon it, hoisted it up to the surface and left it there out of their way. It was of no interest to them, but that large stone was at least partially responsible for putting the whole treasure hunt off the track.
The treasure hunters found the shaft dry nearly all the way down, but by the time they reached ninety-three feet a good deal of water was seeping in from below. Returning to work one morning the diggers found water standing in the shaft to within thirty-two feet of the top.
All attempts to overcome the water failed, even the digging of another shaft a few feet away from the one that was flooded. The Onslow group finally had to abandon their search without even learning the purpose of the deep shaft they had cleaned out, and which soon came to be known as the Money Pit. The big stone which they had hoisted out of the Pit still lay there on the surface. It was probably about this time that John Smith built his house, because it is recorded that he used the marked stone in the back of his fireplace. It must have been something of a conversation piece because it is said that different people examined it there, wondering if the marks could be some kind of code. Apparently nobody raised the question of why anybody would need a code on a stone far down in the Money Pit. The man who left the stone there certainly knew whether or not he had buried something, and if he had he would not have needed anybody to tell him it was there. This whole undertaking was a very serious enterprise for him, and he would not be at all interested in setting up puzzles for any searchers who might get down there. He knew they would be drowned or driven out without discovering the secret the flooding water guarded.
When the Onslow group had to abandon their search, we can assume that the flooded shafts were filled in, because John Smith and his family were then living a few rods away from them. Apparently no serious effort was made to renew the treasure hunt from 1805 until 1849, but in spite of all the growth and change that took place in those intervening years it was still quite possible to tell where the original shaft had been.
In 1849 the Truro Company ^ came to Oak Island determined to find out what the Oak Island Mystery was all about, and to recover whatever might be buried in the shaft.They cleaned out the shaft down to eighty-six feet, and at that depth there was only a small amount of water coming in from below. The men went away to church Sunday morning, and when they returned to the island in the early afternoon they found sixty feet of water in the shaft.
After failing to make any headway in bailing the water out of the shaft they decided to explore the depths by using primitive drills known as pod augers. We must remember that at that time they still had no idea of what they might expect to find in the depths, or what the purpose of the deep shaft might be. They set up the drills at tide level in the shaft, and then reached down through all that water, through several feet of mud, and through a timber platform. After passing through a small space, the drill passed through more timber, and then through what the wishful-thinking drillers believed must be metal in pieces, no doubt coins; twenty-two inches of them.
The pod augers did not bring anything of interest to the surface, but it was readily accepted that they had drilled into treasure, probably casks or chests of coins. We can consider that assumption as the point at which the Oak Island Treasure Hunt went off the track. Beforehand they suspected that there might be treasure buried under the island, but after the report from the drillers there seemed to be no reason to doubt it any longer. The next problem seemed to be how to shut off the water that flooded the treasure, and the value of the treasure no doubt increased with each discussion of the strange mystery.
It came as a surprise when somebody discovered that the water in the shaft was salty, and that it rose and fell with the tide. A search along the shore revealed that in Smiths Cove about five hundred feet away water streamed out of the beach sand as the tide ebbed. They investigated and found that the beach contained a very large manmade filter system taking in a considerable area of beach between high and low tide levels. It included five drains or branches which converged to create a tunnel running into the Island in the direction of the flooded shaft. Obviously the shaft was deliberately flooded by a five hundred foot tunnel, and the searchers had a much better understanding of the tremendous amount of work that some group had done on the island in the distant past.
This new information should have given the searchers pause to consider very carefully to just what kind of plan those long ago depositors could have been working. Someone should have realized that the original excavators would have known and accepted the fact that when they flooded the depths of the shaft there was no chance any searcher would ever be able to dewater the shaft and get back down into the depths. There were no pumps or power sources such as we take for granted today, and regardless of what means might have been devised to shut off the water, there were simply too many things that could go wrong and ruin their plans. The depositors definitely would not consider burying something down in those flooded depths if they intended to recover it, but the tremendous amount of work expended indicated that they did intend to recover something, but not necessarily from the depths of the shaft. There had to be something that the searchers were overlooking, but they did not reconsider the situation. After all, the drillers were confident that they had drilled through a large quantity of metal in pieces, and they had no way of knowing that later searchers would not find any metal in pieces, but would encounter coarse gravel at that level. In view of the drillers reports it seemed that the only reasonable and logical assumption had to be that some somebody had buried something very valuable deep down in the island long ago.
Since the drillers were satisfied that they really had drilled through metal in pieces the searchers naturally assumed that the depositor had devised some way of shutting off the water. It is interesting to note that some people, including some good engineers, have accepted the theory that the depositor must have used a system of gates to shut it off, and that he must have had some means at the surface for closing those gates. Even though it was not known at the time that the tunnel was unlined it should have been obvious that even one small stone getting in the way would have prevented the gates from closing properly to seal off the water from the shore. It would also follow that if there was a means on the surface for closing the gates anybody coming on the site could have tampered with that means in some way that would render it ineffective for the depositor when he returned.
Those who carried out the original works at Oak Island were people of their time, several decades before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. They knew what was feasible and practical for their time, but they had no way of knowing whether any great technological advances would be made in future generations, or what would be feasible and practical at those future dates. Nevertheless, some of the people who believe that Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare have suggested that the originals are buried on Oak Island, to be recovered at some later date when technological inventions would make the recovery feasible and practical. That is a good example of the impracticality of some of the theories advanced for the recovery of the Oak Island Treasure. Considering how little was known about the situation at Oak Island one cannot criticize the 1849 drillers for their mistaken assumption that they drilled through metal in pieces, and for their continuing the search in the flooded depths.
The report by the drillers that they had penetrated twenty-two inches of metal in pieces is precisely the kind of thing that treasure hunters like to hear, so the searchers accepted it without question, and they continued to expend all their efforts on overcoming the flooding water. They built a cofferdam at Smiths Cove to block off the water from the area where the big filter had been found, but storm winds combined with high tides wrecked their dam. They dug shafts close to the flooded Money Pit to try to drain off the water from it. They only ended with more flooded shafts. As one company gave up the struggle to recover the treasure, another company took over and the battle went on. In the early 1860s there was some kind of a collapse in the depths of the shaft, and the myth was born that treasure runs away from its seekers. From that time on there was a tendency for the search to go deeper and deeper, but until 1867 the searchers continued to work at about the same level.
In 1865 or 1866 the large stone which had been recovered in 1804, and which had been built into the back of John Smiths fireplace in his house close to the Money Pit, was removed and taken to Halifax where it was displayed prominently in the window of a bookbinders shop. This happened at the same time a search company was trying to sell shares in another Oak Island expedition. R.V. Harris, wrote on page 20 of his first edition, "It is said that James Liechti, ^ a Professor of Languages (1866- 1906) at Dalhousie College, expressed his opinion that the inscription meant 'Ten feet below two million pounds lie buried', but most people were sceptical respecting this version because of the concurrent efforts being made to sell stock".
This report of the code inscribed on the stone, coupled with the report from 1849 that the drillers had drilled through quantities of coins, was sufficient to set the pattern for future searches. Treasure hunters would no longer have any doubt that the treasure lay deep in the flooded depths. Numerous theories were advanced in attempts to decide how the depositor might have intended to shut off the water in order to recover his deposit, and whether he had some system of gates as some theorized, or whether he could have had some other ingenious plan that nobody had happened to think of. It did not occur to anybody that perhaps he had no intention of ever trying to shut off the water or to get back down into the flooded depths, and that the moment he let the flooding water into the depths the possibility of recovering anything from the depths was so remote as to be unthinkable. Those depths made a seal against him as well as against any unauthorized searchers.
The search ground to a halt in 1867, and the latest company of searchers withdrew from the Island. There does not appear to have been any organized work carried out at the Money Pit until about 1897, although numerous shafts were dug and a considerable amount of tunnelling was done at points between the Money Pit and Smiths Cove. Perhaps one of the more interesting incidents during that period occurred when Mrs. Sellers ^ was ploughing with oxen in 1878 about three hundred and fifty feet from the Money pit toward Smiths Cove. Suddenly the ground caved in under the outfit, and one ox tumbled several feet down into the caved in area. Later exploration in that area revealed that the ox had fallen into a filled-in shaft which connected with the flooding tunnel. That old shaft became known as the Cave-in-Pit.
During all the exploration that had taken place at the immediate Money Pit site numerous shafts had been sunk, some of them overlapping. Because shafts had been dug and then filled in, and more shafts had been dug and then filled in, by 1895 the precise site of the original shaft was no longer known. The Oak Island Treasure Company ^ went to work, and in 1897 and after false starts and other problems finally felt that they knew the precise spot where the original shaft had been. They sank some drill holes down into the bottom of the shaft, and after withdrawing the drill from one hole, which went down to one hundred and fifty-five feet, a small piece of parchment, roughly the size of a dime, was found in the drill cuttings.
The men involved in the drilling were reputable people, but there seems to be something unusual about the way the parchment was handled. First of all we read about the cuttings from the drill being washed out to separate the chips, etc., from the other material. At that time they found the the tiny balled up piece of something different from everything else. They wanted to have the cuttings and the little ball of strange material examined, but they did not take it to an expert in Halifax, as one might have expected. Instead they took it to Amherst, where it was examined by a Doctor Porter in the presence of a number of men there. It was Doctor Porter who skillfully separated the little ball from the other trash and flattened it out, and proved it to be a piece of parchment. Perhaps they had a good reason for taking it all the way to Amherst, but it seems rather unusual that a doctor should be examining this collection of cuttings in a courthouse in front of a group of witnesses. It would appear that somebody must have known that the good doctor was going to discover something significant.
William Chappell ^ was involved in the drilling when the piece of parchment was discovered. He must have believed implicitly in the authenticity of the parchment, because in 1931 he and some of his family were involved in sinking a shaft down to one hundred and fifty-five feet in an attempt to recover what they believed was a container of priceless documents. They did not find anything of significance or interest. In 1962 William Chappells son, M.R. Chappel, told me, "I don't know whether or not there is any gold or silver on Oak Island, and don't care, but I am convinced that my Daddy drilled through a container of priceless documents in 1897, and that is all that interests me about Oak Island."
The Oak Island Treasure Company had to accept failure in 1900, and there is no record of further activity at Oak Island until l909. The expedition at that time is of interest for only two reasons. First of all Captain Bowdoin who was one of the principals, examined the large stone which had been recovered from the depths, and which was still being used in the bookbinders shop. For what it is worth he reported that he could find no signs or marks or any kind of code incised on the stone. The second point of interest is that this was the expedition in which the young Franklin D. Roosevelt ^ was a member. The expedition carried on for a couple of years, and then bowed out. Some minor expeditions carried out searches between 1912, and 1931 without any success.
It was in 1931 that Wm. Chappell and other members of his family came again to Oak Island, determined to find the container of precious documents that they believed had been drilled through in 1898. Once again a lapse of several years had changed the topography of the site to some extent. There was some difference of opinion between Wm. Chappell and Fred Blair, ^ who was deeply involved in all that went on at Oak Island through the years from 1893 to 1951, as to the precise location of of the 1897 drill site from which the parchment was recovered. It would have been difficult at that late date to tell exactly where the 1897 drill site had been, and it would have been much more difficult to tell where the original shaft had actually been. They sank a shaft twelve by fourteen feet to the southwest of what they believed was the site of the 1897 shaft, and they went down to one hundred and sixty three feet. From the bottom of the shaft they drilled in several directions, but no trace of any more parchment was found, and the project was abandoned.
Gilbert Hedden ^ of New Jersey was the next man to take up the challenge at Oak Island, and his men began work in 1936. Then in 1937 he began excavating a new shaft, twelve by twenty four feet, just east of, and close to the Chappell shaft of 1931. About ten feet below the surface they came upon the remains of a very old shaft which had been filled in long before. It lay in the southern part of Heddens big shaft. The big shaft was carried down to a hundred and twenty-four feet, and then some drilling was done from that depth, but nothing of interest was found, and that was the end of one more expedition.
While work on the new shaft was being carried on, Fred Blair drew Mr. Heddens attention to a book which had recently been published by Harold Wilkins, an English writer of treasure stories. The book was entitled Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island. Oak Island has often been considered as the location of Captain Kidds buried pirate treasure, and at least one official geological survey of the island calls the Money Pit Captain Kidds Treasure Pit. Blair and Hedden apparently agreed that there were certain similarities between Oak Island and the island described in Wilkins' book, although the only similarity I can find is that they are both pieces of land surrounded by the sea. Mr. Hedden was sufficiently intrigued that he went to England to confer with Wilkins, who had apparently never heard of Oak Island. However, after repeated conversations about Oak Island, Wilkins became so caught up in the mystery that he began to suspect he may have been involved at Oak Island in some previous life.
Eventually Mr. Hedden gave up trying to get anything worthwhile out of the Wilkins story, but while he was still interested, he engaged Chas. P. Roper, ^ Provincial Land Surveyor of Halifax, to do a careful survey of the east end of the Island, where all the treasure hunting efforts had taken place. Mr. Ropers commitment was to include anything that could possibly have been left by someone who had buried something on the Island. The survey was organized by Mr. Hedden to find out if any significant marks might coincide with marks on a chart in Wilkins book. Charles Roper told me many years later that the survey was simply another days work to him, and that he was not interested in anything it might reveal, or in the meaning of any marks on Oak Island.
From Mr. Harris' two editions of The Oak Island Mystery it is obvious that by the time the Oak Island Treasure Company was incorporated in 1893 there was a good deal of confusion as to precisely where the original shaft had been. When William Chappell recovered the fragment of parchment he may or may not have been drilling at the site of the original shaft. Then when he returned to the Island in 1931 to continue the search for the remainder of the parchment he and Fred Blair were of different opinions as to where he should sink his 1931 shaft. The Roper Survey would indicate that the original shaft lay close to the northeast corner of the 1932 Chappell shaft. But according to R.V. Harris, in May 1947 Fred Blair declared his firm belief that the Money Pit lay south of the 1931 Chappell shaft. By 1965 opinion seemed to have veered to place the original shaft slightly north of the Chappell shaft, and when Robert Dunfield ^ dug his big hole in 1965 he dug it well north of the Chappell shaft.
In 1965 Robert Dunfield from California obtained a lease to the whole Island. He constructed the causeway from Crandalls Point on the mainland over to the west end of Oak Island; about six hundred and fifty feet. He had already barged bulldozers onto the island, but the causeway made it a simple matter for him to bring large dirt moving machines onto the Island. Now the marks are gone, and much of the surface at the east end of the island looks very different from what it used to be. Oak Island is unique in Canada, and as a buried treasure site it is unique when compared to anything else anywhere in the world. It is unfortunate that the authorities in Nova Scotia have not taken Oak Island seriously enough to make any effort to preserve those unique characteristics. Apparently any treasure hunter with a treasure trove license has a free hand to do whatever he wishes, and in some ways the hunt has become a kind of "search and destroy" mission.
In 1973 a hole was drilled down to one hundred and ten feet some six hundred and sixty feet northerly from the Money Pit. The drill was said to have brought up a small piece of wire from that depth, and also to have struck what seemed to be a metal plate. A shaft was sunk to examine the significance of the drill findings, but at a hundred feet down surface water was becoming a problem. With all the modern pumps and power available the shaft was abandoned within ten feet of those drill findings. One has to ask what suddenly made significant evidence become so insignificant.
Some unrevealed evidence led to the sinking of Bore-hole 10X, ^ about a hundred and fifty feet east of the Money Pit. It went down to about two hundred and forty feet, far down into bedrock. Many tales have been told about the significance of 10X, but after a great deal of time and money was spent it seems that this unrevealed evidence was misinterpreted. These efforts certainly bring into question the value or significance of any artifact found in the depths of Oak Island. If enough people could have the opportunity of learning what the evidence really indicates at Oak Island, it should change the whole direction of the search for the solution to the Mystery of The Oak Island Treasure. That is the purpose behind the publication of this booklet.
In spite of all the devastation that has occurred at Oak Island, the general elevations are still apparent. The treasure is still in its original location, the high ground is where it was before, and there are still landmarks existing that could give a very close approximation of where the treasure lies. It will be unfortunate if the hunt continues on in future as it has in the past, until the Mystery of The Oak Island Treasure is totally discredited, and the evidence and meaning of the drilled stones and the triangle are lost for all time.
There is nothing to indicate that the Oak Island Treasure has been retrieved. It must still be there in the high ground, and its retrieval would be a wonderful event for Nova Scotia and Canada, both historically and archaelogically.