As anyone who’s ever played a game of telephone can tell you, rumours can morph until they’re barely recognizable as the truth—that’s the fun of the game. Just like telephone, the story of Oak Island, a 57-hectare privately owned land mass off the coast of Nova Scotia, has turned from rumour to old wives’ tale to legend.
In 1795, 16-year-old Daniel McGinnis stumbled upon a mysterious filled-in passage descending into the earth with a pulley system. The hole was flanked by three trees that formed a triangle, and the trees had symbols carved into the base. This was all it took to spark whisperings that the infamous pirate Captain Kidd had landed on Oak Island and buried the treasure he had plundered from his various voyages. McGinnis’ initial excavations with his friends yielded nothing beyond rotting oak platforms at three-metre intervals the entire length of the shaft, but that was enough to capture the cultural imagination. Stories and reports of the treasure were published starting in 1857 and have only grown since then, spawning documentaries, movies, and TV shows, including the most recent History channel reality show The Curse of Oak Island.
McGinnis’ initial excavations with his friends yielded nothing beyond rotting oak platforms at three-metre intervals the entire length of the shaft, but that was enough to capture the cultural imagination.
In 1804, after McGinnis and his friends reached the 30 metres below the surface, the money pit flooded with sea water. After that, people directed their attention to the rest of the island, and a centuries-long fervour began. Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were among those obsessed with the contemporary Eldorado-esque legend of Oak Island and all three were involved in the search at one point or another. As a young man, while working as a law clerk, Roosevelt visited the island and continued to follow the quest of other treasure hunters for decades after.
The initial shaft that was discovered has been given the nickname “the money pit” for the supposed treasure at the bottom, but it’s also an apt name given the many expensive expeditions that have sought it out—only to be disappointed and leave empty handed.
Even so, strange and inexplicable objects have been uncovered over the years to keep the public’s curiosity piqued and treasure hunters coming back for more. Coconut fibres, tablets with unrecognizable symbols, coins, jewellery, and a lead cross thought to be between 420 to 820 years old have been found at the site with no possible justification as to how or why they are there.
Subsequent digs have found or created additional tunnels that connect to the money pit and the ocean, but they have also yielded misfortune and tragedy. Dams that were built to prevent the tunnels from flooding were knocked out by storms, tunnels have collapsed with people still inside, and to date, seven treasure hunters have died in pursuit.
The Curse of Oak Island reality show popularized the legend that seven people were fated to die before the treasure could be found—real Pirates of the Caribbean stuff. The show is in its seventh season and is responsible not only for a lot of the artifacts that have been found but also some of the more outlandish theories of what else could be hiding just beneath the island’s surface.
Pirate treasure is the least absurd thing the island supposedly has to offer. Spanish naval treasure, British imperial treasure, a Viking ship, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant are also thought to be on Oak Island. This is due in large part to the oddities and inconsistent time periods of each artifact that is found. There aren’t enough pieces of a puzzle to form a clear image but instead what appear to be single pieces of several different puzzles.
Spanish naval treasure, British imperial treasure, a Viking ship, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant are also thought to be on Oak Island.
The only problem with knowing for sure is the quicksand. Oak Island is covered in quicksand and sinkholes, which can give the impression that the land has been disturbed and something buried there. It is also why tunnels and digs were prone to collapse and high levels of danger in earlier explorations, as the ground is highly unstable.
The Curse of Oak Island’s seven years of exploration were backed by tremendous personal funding by the show’s hosts Rick and Marty Lagina, allowing the team to use modern technology and equipment to drain swamps, excavate large swaths of land, and even send divers down into the original money pit.
The conclusion drawn by the show, and by anyone following the story of Oak Island closely enough, is that it was a stopover for many travellers and explorers throughout history. All of the theories hold some kernel of truth. Human bones of European and Turkish origin were found on the island, which coupled with the cross indicates that the Knights Templar most likely did pass through, as did pirates and Spanish naval ships. That should be wondrous enough without conspiracy theories of the Holy Grail, buried treasure, or Sir Francis Bacon’s original Shakespearian manuscripts.
Maybe it’s time to hang up the telephone?