Oak Island and Maritime Culture: An Island of Possibilities
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson):
The paper had been sealed in several places with a thimble by way of seal; the very thimble, perhaps, that I had found in the captain’s pocket. The doctor opened the seals with great care, and there fell out the map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores. It was about nine miles long and five across, shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up, and had two fine land-locked harbours, and a hill in the centre part marked “The Spy-glass.” There were several additions of a later date, but above all, three crosses of red ink—two on the north part of the island, one in the southwest—and beside this last, in the same red ink, and in a small, neat hand, very different from the captain’s tottery characters, these words: “Bulk of treasure here.” Over on the back the same hand had written this further information:
Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to
the N. of N.N.E.
Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E.
The bar silver is in the north cache; you can find
it by the trend of the east hummock, ten fathoms
south of the black crag with the face on it.
The arms are easy found, in the sand-hill, N.
point of north inlet cape, bearing E. and a
Since the eighteenth century treasure hunters have tried to unearth the “pirate treasure” from a cavern that reaches a depth of forty-six meters on Oak Island. Over the years, tourists have traveled to the island to catch a glimpse of the famous Money Pit. Numerous products related to the Oak Island mystery are now the norm on tourist store shelves, and a tourism industry has been built upon the folklore. Films and a vast array of literature have also been produced, with each author citing their own theory. With such a large interest, a treasure seeking community has been formed, with many “arm chair” treasure hunters, participating in the search for the mysterious treasure of Oak Island. It has been difficult to trace the origins of this established genre, as with mystery often a shroud of uncertainty often follows. The question remains: why have so many people believed in these stories of pirate gold?
Folklore, for a long time has had a significant impact on maritime culture. In the past, religion and superstition have served as a background for the people of the South Shore of Nova Scotia, to which stories of the unknown have found home. In her journeys to the region, Helen Creighton has unearthed the superstitions of the past. Her books have elevated the ideals of a cultural “backward” region. Once known for its large fishing communities, the South Shore is now seen as an adventurous place, where pirates once frequented the nearby coast. The folklore of pirates, treasure and gold are now standing elements of maritime culture. Oak Island and its lost treasure is arguably the most well known phenomenon of the unexplainable that Nova Scotia has, and thus it deserves credit.
Oak Island has a long and mysterious history. Recent research has suggested that the island was perhaps inhabited around the 1795 mark. In June of 1795, it is believed that Donald McInnis aged thirty-four, from Chester first ventured onto Oak Island. McInnis had heard tales that the small island just off the coast of Nova Scotia was once inhabited by pirates. Yarns and superstitions told of stories of “lights” being seen at night on the island. When McGinnis arrived to the island he discovered a ship’s tackle block hanging from an oak tree. The area looked excavated, as trees and brush were cleared in the immediate area. Excited, he went home to find his friends John Smith and Anthony Vaughan. The three friends returned to the island with shovels and picks, and they began digging for buried treasure. The trio dug thirty feet below the oak tree which was later known as the Money Pit. After many attempts to recover treasure, McGinnis gave up his pursuit. For more than 200 years, tales of the treasure were told and the mystery of Oak Island became entrenched in the minds and hearts of many local people along the South Shore.
Since McGinnis’ exploration of the island, many have tried to recover the treasure, but often at a cost. The search for treasure has caused toil, heart ache and even death amongst treasure hunters. In 1803 the Onslow Company (including McGinnis, Smith and Vaughan along with a group of investors) excavated the Money Pit without success. In 1804, an inscribed stone was removed from the Money Pit. This year also saw McInnis and the Onslow Company face more challenges when an attempt to recover the treasure ended as when dug a certain depth, water would rush into treasure shaft. Later attempts to recover the treasure would led to the discovery of an intricate system of flood tunnels that had been constructed to prevent whatever was below the oak tree from being discovered. In 1849, the Truro Syndicate tried their luck finding treasure but to no avail. In 1850, a flood tunnel was discovered. This tunnel allowed water to rise in the shaft along with the changing of the tides. During the early twentieth century, many believed that a treasure could be uncovered including United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who helped finance an excavation attempt.
In 1861, the island claimed its first casualty as one man died from scalding burns while pumping water out of the treasure shaft. In 1893, the Oak Island Treasure Company was formed by Fred Blair, in order to explore the areas around the Money Pit. In 1897, the group found a stone triangle that theorists have linked to a Masonic presence on the island.
In the same year, Maynard Kaiser fell to his death while exploring the Money Pit. In 1899 a second flood tunnel was discovered, and its location was isolated to south shore of the island where an artificial beach had been created. In 1936 a second inscribed stone was unearthed. The following year, Charles Roper, a surveyor from Halifax, surveyed the stone triangle formation and concluded that the central stone of the triangle pointed directly to the Money Pit. On August 17, 1965, four men, Robert and Bobby Restall, Karl Graeser, and Cyril Hiltz died from drowning when the collapsed from the carbon monoxide fumes that filled the tunnel. In 1971, a camera was used to take video footage of Borehole 10X. It is speculated that a severed hand and two oak chests were recorded.
Major excavation has been carried out on Oak Island since 1795 and continues to this day. David Tobias a businessman from Montreal, and Dan Blankenship a contractor from Miami, Florida established Triton Alliance. Blankenship heard of the island when he read about it in Reader’s Digest. The two men, who own a percentage of the island, have their own ideas of what is on the island, and who buried it. Fred Nolan another treasure seeker suggests that the stone triangle on the island is crucial to solving the mystery. However, Dan Blankenship believes that the Money Pit holds the key to unlocking the enigma, as he believes that the treasure lies at the bottom of Borehole 10X. Yet Tobias considers that the treasure is in the original findings and is found at the bottom of the Money Pit.
Dan Blankenship and Fred Nolan are well known celebrities amongst treasure hunters. The two men have poured fortunes into deep dark holes to no substantial avail (that the public knows of). There are frequent visitors to the island even though a sign at the entrance of the causeway to the island reads “No Trespassing.” Theorists offer their suggestions to both, and have even traveled to the island to explain their findings. These theorists though have often hurt the island’s credibility.
Arguably so, Oak Island is the world’s most recognized treasure hunt. Treasure hunters from around the world continue to hypothesize about what is buried on the island and whose treasure it is. These treasure hunters all have claim their own ideas, and often they can be extremely opinionated. There are numerous websites and online forums where enthusiasts can discuss the mystery and history of the island.
Numerous theories exist about who buried what. Some believe that Sir Francis Bacon buried his manuscripts on the island. Others suggest that the Incas buried their treasures beneath the oak tree.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Acadian gold, King George III’s treasure from Havana, Cuba, Masonic Knights Templar who buried the Holy Grail on the island and even the landing of UFOs have all been levied amongst theorists. Unfortunately, these wild ideas have hurt the creditability of the island as a historic site. Because of such fantasies, many investors in the 20th century see the island as a financial risk as there is no one definitive theory that stands out amongst the others.
During the nineteenth century, rumors of pirate treasure buried along the coast of the South Shore were commonly spread. Helen Creighton, an acclaimed folklorist visited the area during the 1930s and 40s. She recorded many of her cultural stories in Folklore of Lunenburg County Nova Scotia, and Bluenose Ghosts. During this period and still today, many rural Nova Scotians were and are superstitious. Her work is reflective of this as tales of ghosts, forerunners, buried treasure and pirates are all told as an oral history by some of the residents of the South Shore region.
Many have praised Creighton’s work as influential in describing Nova Scotian culture. However, critics like Ian McKay have suggested that she has left a large portion of the region out, due to her methods of research, and her biases to certain cultures. Such criticism is warranted, but her work should be acclaimed as it is the first documented history of the region that records such superstitious stories of pirates and gold, and it serves a purpose to this discussion.
Helen Creighton’s journeys along the winding roads of the South Shore were fruitful, as she gathered an important collection of literature which has taken the form of many books. The stories that she received orally from fisherman, farmers, and industrial labourers tell the story of the region. In the past, the South Shore coast was home to small operating fishing ports where seamen gathered on the docks to discuss the weather and the whereabouts of a mysterious treasure nearby. General Stores and the local church were gathering places for the community. Many of Creighton’s stories were likely told in such an environment. Religion was important to the local people, because Lunenburg was settled by the Protestants and in particular the Lutherans in 1753: “most of the settlers were Lutherans, but other Protestant clergy ministered them…” In Lunenburg, St. John’s Anglican Church exists as the oldest church in Canada.
Helen Creighton’s research has recovered many myths. In one interview, Creighton explores the unexplained as she looks at how to properly dig for treasure, and the superstition that surrounds it. As she talked with Mr. Enos Hartlan of South-East Passage, Nova Scotia, she learned of one attempt to obtain treasure.
One man was walking along a beach one night with another man and they saw a bunch of pirates sitting around a fire. Beside the fire there were two casks of gold, so these mend decided they’d creep up and get the smaller cask and run for it. It seemed pretty safe as the pirate’s swords were lying at their sides. So they went up and got the cask all right and they outrun the pirates and hid the box, planning to come back in the morning. They went to sleep then and in about 2 hours’ time come back to the place planning to divide the gold, but it had disappeared. Yes sir, that’s as true as I’m a-setting’ here. My father told me that story not once but a dozen times.
The people of the South Shore often stayed up late listening to yarns. Many believed that Captain William Kidd a British privateer, turned pirate had buried his treasure on Oak Island:
The greatest inspiration however stems from the fact of Captain Kidd’s fabulous treasure, and many people think that it lies in Nova Scotia. Some say it is buried in a bay that has three hundred and sixty-five islands and both Mahone and Argyle Bays answer to these requirements. Rocks have been found bearing the name the famous pirate. … We may speculate upon the source of treasure, but there is no doubt that the money and other wealth have been extracted from the ground and washed up on our shores.
Colonization by European countries was often carried out in pursuit of riches. The idea of exploring new lands was fostered by the belief that riches would be found. George H. Hubbard quotes J.D. Whitney when he states: “sixteenth century travelers had little else in mind save the recompense for their toils and dangers in the rich mines of the precious metals which they were going to discover.”
The new settlers of the South Shore were intrigued by the idea of finding gold in the area. There have been documented cases where small amounts of treasure have been recovered. During this period, small amounts of gold doubloons were recovered, and were taken to the bank to be cashed. These stories were common to the South Shore of Nova Scotia and fueled curiosity amongst local residents and the rest of the world. When Lunenburg was founded, the British government established the Shoreham Grant, an act relating to the recovery of treasure. The act reads:
Do by these Peasants give grant and Confirm unto the several Persons hereafter named Seventy Shares & a half of Two hundred Shares or Rights whereof the said Township is to consist with all and all manner of Mines unopened excepting Mines of Gold and Silver, precious Stones and Lapis Lazuli in & upon the said Shares or Rights.
The Shoreham Grant is interesting because Harris and MacPhie point out that Lapis Lazuli is not local to the region, but rather is a material which is only found in the Caribbean. Many believed that some bullion from across the Atlantic lay in the area of the South Shore, and possibly on Oak Island.
Treasure-seeking activity in the South Shore region was frequent during the early 18th century as people like Daniel McGinnis searched on Oak Island for pirate treasure. Residents of the areas of Lunenburg, La Have, Port Medway, and Blue Rocks all claimed that pirates had visited their towns, and that treasure was buried in the area. Amazingly there are three hundred and sixty five islands which stretch the length of the Mahone Bay. This activity is rare for such a small region and begs the question: Why do people believe in the unexplained? What are the causes for this cultural experience?
Religion and superstition play a role in the belief of folklore. During the 18th and 19th centuries, religion was a static element of the times. A strong faith base was evident as Anglican and Catholic churches were frequently attended by the people. The belief in a divine being and the practice of such belief is fundamental to religion. The notion that God exists without being visible to humanity is a part of this belief. Ontologically, superstitions are similar. Superstitions are the belief in something fearful and unknown. These beliefs are often widely held and are acted upon as stories are told. Often unjustified, superstitions are told affecting the nature of an idea. A comparison of religion and superstition reveals that both are similar in nature.
As religion was practiced, so was superstition. People believed in God, whom they could not see, and they also believed in stories of ghosts which could not be seen. The mystery of God was similar to the mysteries which were told by the people. Both mysteries were practiced as people went to church and they also told their pirate stories. Both creeds of belief provided similar elements for the people. The unknown was intriguing and the church served as a place where such mysteries were discussed.
It is impossible to isolate the starting point of folklore stories on the South Shore. No person is responsible for the stories of pirates and gold. Culturally, a story was created at one point in time and was built upon. Perhaps a series of historical events triggered discussion and a fable was formed. Or there could be some truth to these stories, but this is unknown. As folklore was told, the stories were altered, added to and told to others. In her writings, Creighton is also responsible for altering many stories. These superstitions were a part of the South Shore culture because they told the story of the people and their desire for gold bullion and fortune. For those living on the South Shore, adventure was intriguing because the possibility of finding wealth could change their lives. Many of the people were hard working laborers. They were not afraid of work and they knew how to dig a hole in the ground. To them, gold on Oak Island was the equivalent to a modern day 6/49 lottery draw. As these stories were created, one bigger story was established.
Helen Creighton’s work can be viewed as a contributing factor to the creation of such a folklore market which is pursued by those who are interested. Her stories of the unexplained were knitted together to create a genre that was broadcasted to the world. Middle-class society would read her books and learn about the superstition and Nova Scotia. People from around the world heard about Oak Island and its lost treasure. The individual connected mystery and gold to the region. Pirates and spooky places are intriguing because people inherently enjoy adventure and the unexplained. A sense of liberation can come from adventure. In our secular society, instead of religion, there is room for other unknowns. The mystery of treasure and gold is appealing to many, and often acted upon. For some, treasure hunting is a hobby which is conducted in spare time and after work. Arm-chair historians conduct research in hopes of revealing the secret of Oak Island and its lost treasure. Yet, some treasure hunters are professionals.
Barry Clifford, a professional treasure hunter, discovered the Whydah, a fabled pirate ship off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1984. He recently led an expedition in collaboration with the Discovery Channel to find Captain William Kidd’s lost pirate ship the Adventure Galley. The film Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd which has recently taken the form of a book, details the expedition that led Clifford to the coast of Ile Ste. Marie, Madagascar and to Pirate Island, where gold was rumored to be buried. For some, treasure hunting is a profession, for others it is a passionate pursuit of the unknown. The idea of finding treasure can become consuming, and often obsessive.
There is a huge market today for pirate stories and the unexplained. The Discovery Channel and the History Channel have produced documentary films on the mystery of Oak Island. Pirate films have also made a return to the big screens in Hollywood. The recent release of the Disney movie The Pirates of the Caribbean is one example. The movie, starring Johnny Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow was nominated for five Academy Awards, and grossed $305,388,685 in the United States.
This genre is making a comeback in Hollywood as plans for a sequel are already in the works. As Katherine Monk suggests:
The fact is, all genre movies have an inner code that tends to resonate best at specific times in human history. Because it’s [pirate movies] one of the original genres, the swashbuckler has come and gone several times over since the start of commercial cinema. From serious entertainment, to child-oriented matinees, to adventure story with mass appeal, it’s also taken many forms. Yet behind every manifestation, we can follow the same pirate map to the hidden treasure of meaning because pirate movies have proven one of Hollywood’s best vehicles for subversive commentary on the outside world. For starters, look at the heroes of the pirate genre. They’re usually pirates—criminals who steal from the rich and redistribute wealth to the poor. That’s pretty counter-culture. Moreover, the pirate is usually a person who straddles the lines of sexuality. Depp embodied the androgynous side of the pirate’s life perfectly with his bedroom eyes and cocky, pompous self-assurance—as well as his scarlet costume—which made him a true charmer.
As mentioned before, a large body of literature has been established from Nova Scotia folklore. There have been many children’s books and plays written including Jim Betts’ play, The Mystery of Oak Island which was featured at Calgary’s Storybook Theatre Launch in 2004. The mystery of the island has encouraged others to write. Rolling Stone featured an article on the island. Randall Sullivan’s article “The Curse of Oak Island,” highlights the hardships faced by treasure hunters:
Can what’s buried beneath the ground on Oak Island possibly be worth what the search for it already has cost? Six lives, scores of personal fortunes, piles of wrecked equipment and tens of thousands of man-hours have been spent so far, and that’s not to mention the blown minds and broken spirits that lie in the wake of what is at once the world’s most famous and frustrating treasure hunt.
Many are intrigued about the possibility of treasure on Oak Island. Tourism has grown as many traveled to the region to visit the quaint towns which were once visited by pirates. The Leader Post Regina ran a review of Nova Scotia in a tourism piece:
Nova Scotia’s amazing history blossoms beneath the surface of modern times around nearly every corner, creating a mix that makes the province charming and exciting to visit. … And just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s more, so much more. This province is steeped in history and tradition, as well in the fine art of the short and tall tale. The story of Oak Island is one that will have even the most skeptical wanting to purchase a Nova Scotia shovel in order to dig for the much-sought-after buried treasure of Oak Island. … It is a story, like many Nova Scotia stories, that stays with the visitor well after they have returned home—yet another fascinating part of visiting remarkable Nova Scotia.
The packaged idea of gold and treasure that Creighton created still exists. Recently, the Oak Island Tourism Society with the hard work of its board members have tried to get the province on board with taxpayer’s money to help create more tourist attraction to the Money Pit. Dan Blankenship and the “Michigan Group” own seventy-eight per cent of the island are willing to sell the property for 7 million dollars. The province has not offered any money, but is willing to help. Danny Hennigar, spokesmen (Publicity and Communications) of the Oak Island Tourism Society, has tried to bridge the gap between the treasure hunters and the Nova Scotia government. He believes that the South Shore economy has a famous piece of real estate, and it should be developed. He believes an interpretive centre will draw people to the region. Many people have tried to recover the treasure and at a cost. Hennigar believes that “it’s an ugly idea. I’d like to see the whole island kept as a heritage site.” [ 19]
NDP MLA, Bill Estabrooks has also advocated for more recognition of the island because he says the province should help out financially. Local PC MLA Judy Stretch of Chester-St. Margaret’s has also been a strong supporter of Oak Island and its possibilities.
Oak Island became an example of such treasure stories because millions of dollars have been spent to recover the treasure, but none has been found to this day. Still, people believe that treasure is buried on the island. However, it is those who are on the outside looking in, that see the area as mysterious. In the past, many Nova Scotians believed in treasure stories. However, no gold was found, and instead of adventure, the realities of maritime culture prevailed. Hard working individuals, laboured on the seas and in the woods of rural Nova Scotia. It has only been outsiders who have ventured in pursuit of the wealth. They were intrigued by the idea of treasure, and purchased the island. Like Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island Blankenship and Nolan caught the “golden bug,” as they have poured their wealth and life into the depths of the Money Pit.
The history and mystery of Oak Island has been discussed for over 200 years. Treasure hunters like Dan Blankenship and Fred Nolan have come to the region in the search of the unexplained. Tourists, with a sense of adventure visit the quaint towns of Mahone Bay and Lunenburg, in rural Nova Scotia during the summer months. A market for this folklore has been created through literature and film, because society enjoys the unexplained.
Many in society believe the pirate stories and folklore of treasure that have been recorded by Helen Creighton’s visits to the South Shore region. These stories are collections of maritime culture and have become a large volume, establishing a literary genre. The belief in the folklore cannot be traced and this is a part of the mystery. Religion and superstition are two strong elements that fostered such cultural interaction in the early part of the 18th century. Folklore has had consequences and has caused cultural interaction, and Creighton’s works have broadcasted local folklore to the world.
Oak Island and folklore are intricate elements of maritime culture which should be studied further. Oak Island’s significance to regional maritime history has not been expanded upon. This phenomenon has not received adequate research, as very few academic studies have been pursued. Nonetheless, there is something that is drawing people to the region, as six men have died, and millions of dollars have been spent in the search for the treasure, while nothing has been lifted from the depths of the Money Pit.