With the new Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander now in cinemas, wannabe explorers around the world may find themselves lamenting that, in this day and age, all the blank spaces on the map appear to have been filled in. But, as Shakespeare wrote, “there are more things in heaven and earth” than we can possibly imagine, and sometimes even the fires of a childhood fantasy like treasure-hunting can be kept burning. Into this frame comes Oak Island, a 140-acre piece of land off the south coast of Nova Scotia, Canada; the epicentre of a centuries-old mystery that continues to fascinate those who dare attempt to solve it.
Originally established as a community by European settlers in the mid-18th Century, it was first dubbed ‘Smith’s Island’ after British settler Edward Smith, but was subsequently renamed twice: first as ‘Gloucester Isle’ and shortly thereafter ‘Oak Island’. It didn’t take long for the island’s reputation as a repository of hidden treasure to build, with the initial rumours starting to spread at the very beginning of the 19th Century. The haul of booty claimed (perhaps fancifully) to reside there includes jewels belonging to Marie Antoinette, Shakespearean manuscripts, and even religious artefacts.
Widely considered to be the first story is the account of Daniel McGinnis, one of the primary settlers who, in 1799, whilst assessing potential farming territory, discovered a depression in the ground and soil noticeably looser than the surrounding area, which prompted McGinnis to set about excavating the area with two of his associates. After two feet of digging, they unearthed a layer of flagstones with layers of oak platforms and ‘tool marks’ appearing at 10 feet intervals. However, feeling superstitious and abruptly fearful of the consequences of their actions, the men called a halt to their work after descending 30 feet. From this came more fanciful embellishments, such as the tale that one of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd’s crew had revealed, in his dying moments, that treasure worth in excess of £2 million (approximately £187 million in 2018 currency) was buried somewhere on Oak Island.
Eight years later, picking up from McGinnis’ aborted attempt, a group known as the ‘Onslow Company’ continued the work and reached a new depth of 90 feet. Along the way, they found similar layers of wood at regular intervals and the ubiquitous ‘tool marks’ reported by the McGinnis dig. More notably, they also recovered a large stone inscribed with obscure symbols at the bottom of their excavation. Although many researchers have attempted to decipher it, none have conclusively demonstrated that they have cracked the code (those Alan Turings among us can still view an image of the stone online and try for themselves). However, this excavation was as ill-fated as the first: shortly after the stone’s discovery, the pit was suddenly flooded to the 33-feet level. With efforts to drain the water proving fruitless, the company called time on their attempt; the island had defeated the treasure-hunters once more.
From the early 1800’s until the present day, Oak Island has continued to play host to the hopes and dreams of those who ventured to explore it. Famous names who hunted for a share in the island’s supposed riches include Hollywood adventurers like Errol Flynn and John Wayne. However, perhaps the most notable was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32rd President of the United States. Roosevelt was a true believer of the legend: he personally took part in an expedition, carefully monitored the contemporary reports of his time and even kept up with any new developments on the island right up until his death in 1945.
Even after hundreds of years of speculation, both figuratively and in the very literal sense, the truth (if there is one) of Oak Island remains shrouded in intrigue. The pit, not so ironically named the ‘Money Pit’ by explorers, has – aside from the mysterious stone yielded by the Onslow Company – yet to produce anything close to the treasure that folklore postulates could reside within it. Despite the romantic allure of fortune and glory, the island also has a chequered past: over 14 persons are recorded as perishing from a combination of mining accidents, drowning, gas-leaks, and malfunctioning equipment. However, all of this has done nothing to dissuade modern treasure-hunters from the search, with many books, blogs, movies and a TV show (The Curse of Oak Island) continuing to expound upon the pervading theories. There is nothing more enticing than an unsolved mystery, and nothing has eroded interest in exploring the depths of this legend. Perhaps this succinctly demonstrates that, in the age of information, where most of us have the knowledge of millennia in the palm of our hand, we all still crave a piece of the unknown.