How Oak Island Works

Theories abound as to what could be buried in Oak Island's "Money Pit."
Theories abound as to what could be buried in Oak Island's "Money Pit."
Filip Fuxa/iStock/Thinkstock

"Just mention the word treasure to some men and right away their eyes gleam." This line was written by Mildred Restall, a woman who knows something about treasure hunting [source: Fanthorpe et al.]. In 1959, her husband, Robert, brought her and their children to Oak Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, to pursue a mysterious treasure. By the time the Restalls came to the island, two men had already died looking for treasure there. After six years of searching on the island, Robert passed out from a gas leak and fell into a shaft. Robert perished, along with his son and two friends while attempting to save him.

These tragedies haven't stopped treasure hunters from all walks of life from coming to Oak Island to search for treasure – a treasure that no one has yet found, and no one can be sure exists.


Otherwise unremarkable, Oak Island is a mere 140 acres. The saga allegedly begins in 1795 when a teenage boy, Daniel McInnis, was exploring the island and discovered a tackle block (part of a pulley system) hanging from the limb of an oak tree. Below the tackle block was a noticeable depression in the ground. This was enough to encourage young Daniel to dig, believing it was possible that pirates had chosen this spot for buried treasure.

What he found, and what others have found after him, has amounted to a fascinating mystery. The story convinces many would-be adventurers that some sort of treasure lies beneath the ground on Oak Island. Theories abound: Some believe it's pirate treasure, others conjecture it's Marie Antoinette's jewels, and still others say it could be the original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays. Some believe it's connected to the notoriously secretive Freemason fraternal organization. And you'll even find those who are convinced that the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant are buried on Oak Island. Today, a reality TV series entitled "The Curse of Oak Island" follows modern treasure hunters and hypes the idea that the island and its alleged treasure are "cursed."

Have we lost you yet? You're not alone. Skeptics abound, too. To them, the site McInnis found was simply a sinkhole, and any interesting discovery can be explained away or has merely been a hoax.

We'll discuss what people have found on Oak Island, and you can decide for yourself whether the claims of treasure are bona fide or bunk.

The First Excavations at Oak Island

In the late 18th century, treasure hunters found coconut fiber in the Money Pit – even though the nearest coconut tree was thousands of miles away. Could it be a clue?
In the late 18th century, treasure hunters found coconut fiber in the Money Pit – even though the nearest coconut tree was thousands of miles away. Could it be a clue?

We've already mentioned young Daniel McInnis's discovery. But in truth, nearly every detail of this early account is debated, including the spelling of his name, his age at the time of discovery, whether he was originally drawn to the island by observing lights, and whether he discovered a tackle block or a sawn-off tree limb. The questions multiply when considering what McInnis and others allegedly found on Oak Island.

The following is a general folklore version of what happened according to Bobby Restall, Robert's son. McInnis and two friends started digging and found a layer of flat stones two feet down. At 10 feet down, the friends found a layer or platform of oak logs. They found two other such platforms at 20 and 30 feet down. Although convinced this was a man-made pit, the men realized they needed help to continue. They refilled the pit, later known as the "Money Pit," and didn't return until nine years later, when they got together with other investors and formed the Onslow Company, so they could come back to the Money Pit with manpower and machines.


While digging, the team found charcoal, coconut fiber and putty. Coconut fiber was an especially surprising discovery, as coconut isn't native to Nova Scotia or anywhere near it, but the fiber was commonly used on ships as a packing material. The group of treasure-seeking friends also struck oak platforms every 10 feet until at last, at 90 feet, they found a flat stone with an encoded inscription they couldn't read at the time. They continued digging.

At 98 feet, they hit another oak platform and quit work for that day. By morning the pit was half filled with water. Bailing and pumping the water was fruitless, and the team had to give up. Supposedly, the discoverers soon brought the stone to a professor in Halifax, who claimed the inscription on the stone read, "Forty feet below two million pounds are buried" [source: Fanthorpe et al.]. The company returned the next year to tunnel under the Money Pit, but they hit water again when tunneling.

Was this a natural channel of water or had the diggers hit an engineered booby trap? Treasure hunters still debate this. The next discovery happened more than four decades later.

The Truro Company Discovers the Finger Drains

While the California gold rush drew thousands hoping to strike it rich, a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia was attracting its own group of gold diggers.
While the California gold rush drew thousands hoping to strike it rich, a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia was attracting its own group of gold diggers.
Historick Map Works LLC/Getty Images

In 1849, while gold rushers were flocking to California, the Truro Company came to the Money Pit to begin anew. After digging to 86 feet, they awoke to find the pit filled with water. So, they decided to drill down to see whether they could find verifiable evidence that something was buried. Supposedly, the drilling revealed various layers of spruce, empty space, oak, "metal in pieces" and clay [source: Fanthorpe et al.].

When the drill returned from the clay, the drillers allegedly found several links of gold clinging to the clay left on the auger. This encouraged them to attempt another tunnel to the treasure, but again they were flooded when attempting to connect it to the Money Pit. At this point they realized this was salt water flooding the pits, and that the water rose and sank with the tides.


Believing now that the flooding tunnels were connected to the sea, men scoured the island's shores. At an area known as Smith's Cove, they found a fascinating structure. The company built a temporary dam, called a cofferdam, to uncover a large overlay made of coconut husk, 145 feet wide and the length of space between low tide and high tide. Underneath the coconut husk was a layer of beach stones five feet deep. Beneath the beach stones were five finger-drains constructed of flat stones, converging into a single drain. The coconut husk worked as a barrier against sand to allow water into the drains.

However, soon after the company found the mysterious finger drains, a storm hit and destroyed the cofferdam. The company then decided to dig shafts between Smith's Cove and the Money Pit in an attempt to intercept and divert the seawater away from the Money Pit. However, after failing to reach water in this shaft, and after digging several more, the company ran out of funds and gave up.

Treasure Hunters Flock to Oak Island

As a young law clerk, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Oak Island. He would remain interested in the treasure hunt for decades.
As a young law clerk, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Oak Island. He would remain interested in the treasure hunt for decades.
MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Fueled by the legends and claims of discoveries, two groups came to find treasure in the 1860s – a time of frenzied treasure hunting across North America. The Oak Island Association arrived in 1863 and the Eldorado Company in 1866. These groups both tried to block the flow of water into Smith's Cove and dug numerous shafts and tunnels to attempt to access the treasure or intercept the water tunnel – all to no avail. These pits and tunnels, meanwhile, caused headaches for future treasure hunters.

In the 1890s, Frederick Blair arrived with the Oak Island Treasure Company. Blair attempted and failed to locate the water tunnel, so his next step was to drill into the Money Pit. He allegedly found evidence of loose soil and layers of iron, oak, sand, wood, coconut fiber and putty [source: Fanthorpe et al.]. He also supposedly unearthed a tiny fragment of parchment paper with writing on it (many people read it as the letters "v" and "i"). This parchment, unlike the earlier discoveries, is still around today, although skeptics question its authenticity. In 1897, Blair also discovered a triangle formation made of beach stones on the shore south of the Money Pit.


Countless more teams came to Oak Island, including American Capt. Henry Bowdoin in 1909, who brought with him a young law clerk named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an investor. As U.S. president three decades later, FDR expressed a longing to return to the island [source: Strochlic]. Subsequent treasure hunters include William Chappell in 1931, Thomas Nixon in 1934, Gilbert Hedden in 1935, Professor Edwin Hamilton in 1938, M.R. Chappell in 1951, George Greene in 1955, and William and Victor Harman in 1958. Next were the ill-fated Restalls.

In 1965, geologist Robert Dunfield built a causeway from the mainland to bring heavy machinery onto the island. Finally armed with heavy digging equipment, Dunfield was determined to end the treasure hunt, once and for all.

Discoveries on Oak Island Since the 1960s

Drilling down into the Money Pit has revealed tantalizing clues but no definite answers.
Drilling down into the Money Pit has revealed tantalizing clues but no definite answers.

Robert Dunfield dug out the Money Pit to a width of 100 feet and a depth of 140 feet [source: Polsson]. He kept most of his findings secret, and they didn't become public until 2003 [source: King]. Supposedly sifting through the dirt turned up only pieces of porcelain dishware, which dated to the early 1600s. Dunfield's machinery often broke down, and the sides of the Money Pit continually collapsed thanks to heavy rain. Finally resorting to drilling, Dunfield confirmed evidence of a cavern under a layer of limestone originally discovered by earlier explorer George Greene. In his determination, Dunfield unfortunately demolished many landmarks on the island, frustrating future treasure hunters' attempts to identify the exact location of the Money Pit.

In 1970, the Triton Alliance, consisting of David Tobias and Dan Blankenship, commenced work on the island. Finding tunnels that were thought to be natural to the island, the workers lowered a camera into Borehole 10x, located 140 feet northeast of the Money Pit. The water was so muddy and murky that visibility was almost nil. But in the grainy footage, treasure hunters believed they saw evidence of potential treasure chests and human remains. Dan Blankenship himself dived into Borehole 10x and believes he saw a human hand.


Meanwhile, Frederick Nolan, a professional surveyor and treasure hunter who purchased several plots on the island, revealed in 1981 that he had discovered five large cone-shaped boulders. These boulders, when observed from above, seemed to be positioned to form a cross on the island. The boulders also intersected a point where Nolan claims he discovered a buried stone in the shape of a human head. This mysterious formation is now known as "Nolan's Cross."

Dan Blankenship continued work on the island for the ensuing decades, finally handing the torch to Rick and Marty Lagina, who are the subject of today's reality TV series about the exploration. The Lagina brothers have utilized modern metal detection technology and sonar to search deep underground. So far they have discovered old coins and sonar evidence of a chest that has encouraged them in their search. In addition, they believe they have located the original Money Pit.

Myths and Theories About Oak Island

One theory is that Marie Antoinette's jewels are hidden beneath the mud of Oak Island.
One theory is that Marie Antoinette's jewels are hidden beneath the mud of Oak Island.
GraphicaArtis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In addition to the latest reality series, there are scores of magazine articles and books about Oak Island. These include historical fiction books that depict explanations for the mystery. The enigma of the island spurs many to speculate about what the treasure could be and new ways to approach the problems plaguing treasure hunters.

Of course, one popular theory is that pirates buried the treasure. According to one account, the infamous Captain William Kidd buried his treasure "east of Boston" [source: Conlin]. Others believe the complicated structure of Oak Island's treasure pit is beyond the capabilities of a pirate and his crew. Instead, a government body could have orchestrated the puzzle. For instance, during the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette supposedly entrusted her jewels to a woman who was reportedly seen later in Nova Scotia. So, some conclude that the French Navy could have been responsible for burying her jewels on Oak Island [source: Fanthorpe et al.].


Another theory revolves around Francis Bacon, a brilliant Renaissance man who was a contemporary of Shakespeare's. Some believe Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare's works and buried the original manuscripts in Oak Island. These theorists point to evidence that he was interested in ciphers and secret chambers, he owned land in Newfoundland and he knew how to preserve documents with mercury (flasks of which were supposedly found on the island) [source: Atherton].

Others adhere to the legend that the Knights Templar buried treasure on the island. As a military and religious order formed in the 12th century to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, the Knights Templar accumulated vast wealth in donations and are said to have possibly found the Holy Grail or even the Ark of the Covenant. After having fallen out of favor with the Catholic Church, however, they buried their treasure in a secret location, according to legend.

What compounds people's interest in this Knights Templar theory is the connection to the Freemasons, a secretive fraternal order that adopted the Knights Templars' symbols and rituals. Some say the island is riddled with symbolism associated with Freemasonry, such as the cipher stone, the triangle of beach stones and Nolan's cross. Theorists also point out that several treasure hunters on Oak Island were also Masons, including Frederick Blair, William Chappell, Gilbert Hedden, Edwin Hamilton and even FDR [source: Nickell].

What the Skeptics Say about Oak Island

Skeptics commonly claim the Money Pit is nothing more than a naturally occurring sinkhole.
Skeptics commonly claim the Money Pit is nothing more than a naturally occurring sinkhole.
Mike Grandmaison/All Canada Photos/Corbis

We've already mentioned the questions surrounding the early accounts of Daniel McInnis and his discovery of the Money Pit. Skeptics point to several contradictory versions of the original story concerning what McInnis found. Also, no written documentation exists regarding the excavations at Oak Island until 1849 [source: Joltes]. Early accounts of the pit mention some platforms near the surface, but not the fabled idea of platforms every 10 feet exactly [source: Joltes].

As for the discoveries allegedly unearthed, many have been lost, such as the inscribed cipher stone and links of gold chain. The inscribed stone disappeared around 1919, and neither rubbing nor photograph of the stone is known to exist. One can find depictions of the original cipher in books and websites, but skeptics believe these are unreliable approximations from memory or completely fabricated. Skeptics say the piece of parchment and other discoveries still around today were likely hoaxes that diggers planted on Oak Island hoping to convince investors to send more money.


Most skeptics contend that the Money Pit itself is really a natural sinkhole. They point out that other sinkholes have been discovered on the mainland of Nova Scotia that bore a resemblance to the Money Pit. The mainland has also been found to have natural underground caverns, dispelling claims that diggers have found man-made caverns near the Money Pit.

In 1878, Sophia Sellers sank into the ground while plowing a field between Smith's Cove and the Money Pit. While treasure hunters believe this is evidence of a man-made tunnel or booby trap underground, skeptics take this as evidence that sinkholes are natural to the island.

Skeptics have had a harder time explaining certain discoveries, like the finger drains at Smith's Cove, but they do point out excavations have revealed it to be a dead end [source: Joltes]. One skeptic, Joe Nickell, said that, while he believes the Money Pit itself is a natural sinkhole with no treasure, there's enough evidence to believe that Oak Island has been the site of elaborate Masonic rituals [source: Nickell].

Plenty still believe treasure is to be found under the earth on Oak Island, however. The island has such a captivating effect on treasure hunters that they will dedicate their lives to solving the mystery. Mildred Restall recognized this, saying, "Tell [men] a tale a of treasure hunting and there they sit, absolutely spellbound; but long before you get to the end of your story you will find that you have lost them. They have gone into a dream world all their own" [source: Fanthorpe et al.].

Lots More Information

Author's note: How Oak Island Works

I've always been a fan of the "Indiana Jones" movies, and I think there's a reason they resonate with so many people. There's something captivating, romantic and adventurous about hunting for valuable ancient artifacts. Firstly, everyone is familiar with the thrill of discovering something of value that had been lost — whether that's a $20 bill in your old jacket or an old, forgotten family photograph. There's also a human tendency to become obsessive over finding something that's missing. The Oak Island mystery feeds so well into these human tendencies. There's just enough intriguing evidence to allow oneself to get sucked in. The hard part for some is to not get obsessed to the point of ignoring reason.

Related Articles

  • Atherton, Jo. "Oak Island Treasure." (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Conlin, Dan. "Pirates of the Atlantic: Robbery, Murder and Mayhem off the Canadian East Coast." Formac Publishing Company Limited. Oct. 16, 2009. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Fanthorpe, Lionel et al. "The Unsolved Oak Island Mystery: 3-Book Bundle: The Oak Island Mystery/Oak Island Family/Oak Island Obsession." Dundurn. March 4, 2014. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Joltes, Richard. "History, Hoax, and Hype: The Oak Island Legend." Critical Enquiry. August 2006. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • King, Dennis J. "A Solution to the Mystery of the Oak Island Five Finger Drains." Critical Enquiry. 2010. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Lamb, Lee. "Oak Island Family: The Restall Hunt for Buried Treasure." Dundurn. June 9, 2012. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Nickell, Joe. "The Secrets of Oak Island." The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 24.2, March/April 2000. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Polsson, Ken. "Chronology of the Oak Island Treasure Hunt." Sept. 14, 2012. (Jan. 16, 2015)
  • Strochlic, Nina. "Treasure Hunt to Discover Oak Island's Mysterious Booty." The Daily Beast. Feb. 27, 2014. (Jan. 16, 2015)