On a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia, a treasure hunt has been going on for an incredible 221 years. During that time it has drawn adventurers of all kinds, including Hollywood entertainers such as John Wayne and Errol Flynn, and even an American president-to-be, Franklin D Roosevelt. And now, an intriguing new theory regarding the origin of the notorious ‘money pit’ of Oak Island and involving eighteenth century Freemasons is causing a stir in some quarters. More on that shortly, but first, here’s the background.
The story began in 1795 when three young men decided to row out to the island and search for treasure. A ship’s tackle hanging fifteen feet up on a sawed-off tree branch over a depression in the ground seemed like a great place to start. To their great surprise, the young treasure seekers found, just two feet down, a virtual pavement of carefully placed flagstones. Digging another ten feet produced an oaken platform. At twenty feet and then thirty feet came two more oak platforms. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to hide something. The treasure hunters had, however, reached the limit of their time and resources and, failing to enlist any support in their quest from the hardworking townspeople, they quit and went home.
Seven years later Simeon Lynds of Onslow, Nova Scotia, heard the story from John Smith, one of the pit’s three, original discoverers. Lynds formed a local company to pursue the project. Through the efforts of his Onslow Syndicate, and numerous others that would make the attempt, it was ultimately realized that the pit went ninety feet down with platforms at ten-foot intervals. It was further ascertained that a series of booby traps caused the shaft to flood. Protected by drains, the flooding tunnels were, in turn, protected by coconut fibers and eel grass that prevented the drains from silting up. It became clear that someone with expertise in hydraulic engineering, and with something of great value to hide, had been at work. The presence of coconut fiber was evidence that the ships that brought it to Nova Scotia had sailed a great distance.
In more recent times, articles in Colliers, Popular Science, The Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest and The Wall Street Journal periodically brought attention to the island with a reportedly great treasure. Today the treasure hunt has become a television reality show: “The Curse of Oak Island.” So far three seasons have aired and, despite some doubts, a fourth is on the way.
For me, interest in Oak Island began in the 1970s when D’Arcy O’Conner, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, wrote a page-one story on a topic not generally covered in the business news. My interest was to culminate in my book, Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar, and several articles for Atlantis Rising, beginning with “Knight Templar Treasure in America” (AR #20). I first investigated some of the weaker theories and quickly ruled out Vikings, Mayans, military pay ships, Acadians, and French refugees hiding the jewels of Marie Antoinette. Later I looked into what was, and still is for most of the public, the favorite suspect: pirates, and privateers.
Piracy has existed in the Americas since the earliest settlements. The first suspect for creating the Oak Island pit was Captain Kidd. After starting out as a privateer licensed to go after pirates, Kidd went on to capture ships of great wealth in the Indian Ocean. His exploits so aggravated relations with the people of India, in fact, that the British East India Company pressured the crown to declare him a pirate and to take away his privileges as privateer. Kidd also visited a small island called St. Mary’s off the coast of Madagascar. Here a virtual pirate nation named Libertalia existed where pirates were free to trade with each other, repair their ships, and hide their treasure. Remarkably, a treasure vault there, similar to the one in the Money Pit, had shafts and side tunnels where pirates could hide their ill-gotten gains from each other. Here, Captain Kidd, no longer a licensed privateer, learned that he had been denounced as a pirate. Heading home, he hoped to find a way to buy his way out of trouble. Kidd is known to have hidden treasure in Lewes in Delaware, Oyster Bay on the shore of Long Island, Gardiners Bay at the eastern tip of the same island, and two places in Rhode Island. In all of these places, however, his holes had been hurriedly dug and quickly discovered. There was no evidence that he had spent any time to construct anything like the Money Pit. He was soon arrested, brought to England for trial, and hung for his troubles.
A better suspect might be someone who started his career as a true pirate but later became a legitimate privateer, Sir Francis Drake. When I first discussed the Oak Island money Pit with owner, David Tobias, he told me he was convinced it was Drake who had hidden a treasure. Drake was a hero in England for his success in capturing Spanish treasure ships. He started by taking smaller ships in partnership with William Le Testu, a Huguenot pirate, but soon Drake, on his own, graduated to capturing massive amounts of gold and silver in the Americas. Tobias told me Drake had gaps in his career when no one could pinpoint his whereabouts. I found two major holes, though, in the Drake theory. The first was that he was on a dual mission for Queen Elizabeth that had him sailing up the coast of California and possibly as far north as Alaska. Second, when he did return home, he had no reason to hide his money. Indeed, he gave the crown enough to finance its own navy, and he bought (through agents) a Cistercian Abbey that had been in the hands of a rival. The Buckland Abbey and five hundred acres became Drake’s personal estate. The portion of his ventures that he kept would be more than twenty five million in today’s dollars.
In my last conversation with Tobias, he had begun to lean towards the idea that I had first suggested to him: the Knights Templar. The Templars had started as a small order that aimed, ostensibly, to make the highways to Jerusalem safe. After spending nine years in the stables of King Solomon beneath the Temple of Jerusalem, they returned to France. There St. Bernard, the head of the Cistercian order of monks, helped them grow to the extent that they became the largest fighting force in Europe, owned the largest fleet of ships, and in turn, a bank. Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem could deposit funds in London or Paris and then withdraw them in Jerusalem. Kings and nobles could also deposit jewels as collateral for loans.
The French King Philip was broke and in debt to the Templars. They refused to allow him to join their order, so he decided he would banish them and proceeded to order their arrest and imprisonment. However, possessing the world’s greatest intelligence operation, they were, I believe, tipped off. Just days before Friday the thirteenth of October, 1307, I believe, they loaded their treasures housed in the Paris Temple on to wagon trains and transported them to the port city of La Rochelle. There, their treasures were likely loaded onto their ships, and then the fleet secretly headed for the outlaw nation Scotland, led by Robert the Bruce who had stabbed his rival to death on a church altar. The result: Bruce and his country had been excommunicated. What better place for an outlawed order to find refuge?
The legendary Templar treasure could have been vast. Besides gold, silver, and jewels belonging to various nobles, it may have contained religious artifacts taken from Jerusalem. In Scotland the Sinclair family would be declared the guardians of the Templars—now reconstituted as Freemasons—and protectors of the wealth of the order. There is reason to believe that in 1398, Henry Sinclair beat Columbus to the Americas by a century. In Nova Scotia, I maintain, Sinclair found a perfect refuge from persecution and a perfect place to hide the treasures of the Templars. Still others, linked closely to the Cistercians and who, incidentally, were expert engineers, came over the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and the Money Pit and began its intricate construction. The year was 1441, a time when the Sinclair family had recruited hundreds of masons and craftsmen, allegedly to work on building the Rosslin Chapel. Instead, I have argued, they sailed to Nova Scotia and began the Oak Island construction in 1441, completing it in 1445. Then they sailed home to start work on the Chapel. Among the massive intricate carvings in Rosslin was one that depicted maize, native corn indigenous only to North America.
The Island Changes Hands
In 2007 David Tobias, now in his eighties, was persuaded to sell his half of the island. He had battled with his junior partner Dan Blankenship over whether dowsing could be considered a serious method. Fred Nolan, owner of the smaller half of the island, also challenged him. His family, who had long been against sinking millions of dollars into the Money Pit, also opposed him. A group of treasure seekers from Michigan were the new buyers. Marty and Rick Lagina and Craig Tester became the latest to put their money into this mysterious hole in the ground. Their first battle was to get the treasure trove permit reissued to them. It took years of negotiations before they could stick a shovel into the ground, but they came with deep pockets and open minds.
Several years after taking ownership, the group started work and for the first time on much of what ended up on television. “The Curse of Oak Island,” an unusual reality show, first aired on January 5, 2014. Their research was to take them in many surprising directions. The original shaft dug by the Onslow Syndicate, however, appears to be lost. There are so many shafts and tunnels crisscrossing the island that the location of the original shaft is uncertain. The syndicate attempted to extend the most famous shaft, dubbed Borehole 10-X. They even sent divers through the narrow shaft and that led to other challenges; and they were forced to stop, as the effort became too dangerous.
The syndicate even attempted to drain a triangular swamp that one researcher claims holds treasures from Solomon’s Temple. Metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar, and heavy construction equipment was employed. In the process, the group and their show examined the whole spectrum of theories and even traveled to Scotland to research the Knights Templar.
The research did turn up, though, one Spanish coin dating to 1652. This could point to Spanish treasure, or maybe not. After all, Spanish pieces of eight were, at one time, the most used currency in America, even in New York City. In nearby Chester a Genoese coin dating between 1200 and 1300 also turned up; and while it is tempting to say that a member of the Sinclair-Zeno expedition must have brought it, it is worth remembering that coins often provide problematic evidence. So the jury is still out: Pirates or Templars.
The latest theory under consideration proposes that a handful of England’s more powerful Freemasons orchestrated by Admiral George Anson invaded Havana, Cuba, plundered it, and brought their loot to Oak Island. Anson had already made a great fortune attacking the Spanish and brought home a treasure worth 400,000 pounds, the greatest haul to date. His money went into updating the family’s ancestral home called Shugborough Hall. The founder of the estate, William Anson was a lawyer and a contemporary of Sir Francis Bacon. This is an interesting connection itself, as one prominent theory is that the Money Pit also holds the papers of Sir Francis Bacon. There is evidence that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He also wrote on science and learning and proposed that documents could be preserved in mercury. Mercury flasks were found on the island. When Bacon died, his closest friend Thomas Bushnell disappeared for two years. Bushnell was a mining engineer and had the skills required for the Oak Island construction. When he returned, he said he was protecting Solomon’s House, a place at the center of Bacon’s New Atlantis. Theorists claim Bacon left numerous clues in works attributed to the Bard. In Titus Andronicus is the line “to bury so much gold under a tree, and never after to inherit it.” The dig on Oak Island had started because of a clue dangling from a tree branch. And Titus was the Roman who first looted Jerusalem.
George Anson, the admiral, was a descendant of William Anson. Despite his riches, the admiral was not ready to settle down; and with Washington Shirley, a grandmaster of an elite Freemason lodge, George Keppel the third Lord of Albemarle, his two brothers, and George Pocock, planned a massive raid against Havana. Anson died just before the attack was launched, which, ironically, turned out to be a great success. Havana’s Fort Morro was the repository of the gold and silver for all of Central and South America. The raiders were supposed to return to England with an unprecedented booty of silver and gold. But, these high-ranking Masons may have had a better plan than giving the majority of their plunder to the king. After reaching Bermuda, the fleet, apparently, then separated, with ten ships heading north to Nova Scotia, and the rest to England.
Depending on which version you believe, most of the men disembarked in Halifax, where they were given a share of the plunder and did what self-respecting pirates were known to do. While they raised hell, the cabal headed to Mahone Bay where they constructed the Money Pit with its platforms, side tunnels, and booby traps.
Another version has the ten ships that left Bermuda going straight to Oak Island. After constructing the vault, it is speculated, they burned eight of the ships and returned to England on the other two. According to this theory, the raiders planned to return in 1795 to recover their treasure.
It is a great story and fits in with the numerous Freemason-type clues on the island. It also seems to confirm the report of one of the three young discoverers, Daniel McGinnis, who claimed to have seen lights on Oak Island at night. The tale does have a couple flaws. Original records show that four families owned the island as early as 1759. In 1763 many settlers arrived in the area, including 300 families in Lunenburg, 30 in Chester. Most were German and Swiss. Lunenburg was named for the Duke of Brunswick and Lunenburg, a Rosicrucian, and, interestingly, involved with Sir Francis Bacon. Nevertheless, a yearlong construction project would have drawn much attention. In fact, in 1762 the island was first surveyed by the province’s surveyor-general Charles Morris, who reported no such project.
The questions remain: Who? While several theories have merit, until something definitive turns up, it pays to keep an open mind. What? Nothing of any merit was recovered and although the Shakespeare-Bacon theory is intriguing, there is an equal amount of evidence that Bacon’s writings were hidden in colonial Virginia. Even the question of ‘when’ is difficult. The coconut fibers indicate a date of AD 1200–1400 pre-dating most theoretical beginning scenarios. Finally the most important question: Was the treasure allowed to remain under Oak Island, or did someone come back to claim it?
CAPTION: Henry Sinclair Lands on Oak Island (Painting