Fool’s Gold: why there’s no treasure in the Oak Island “Money Pit.” [Part I]

history pseudohistory Aug 16, 2017

See the video version of this blog, here:


For a long time now, I’ve wanted to do a series of articles about one of the greatest and most fun historical mysteries of all time: the famed “Money Pit” on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. This is a subject that has fascinated me for over 25 years, but I’ve never written about it, largely because I know that the response to my thoughts on the mystery will very likely be quite negative. It’s fun to believe in buried treasure, and fantasies on this order strike chords in all of us that go back to our childhoods and are parts of our deep identities. Explaining why there is no buried treasure on Oak Island—despite alleged searches for such a cache going back more than 200 years—is, in one sense, a fool’s errand: no one wants to believe there’s nothing down there. But it is 2017, and we’re being daily bombarded with falsehoods, spin and “fake history.” If truth is something we still value, it’s worth telling it about Oak Island, and in any event it’s still a thrilling story as well as a fascinating puzzle of logic and historical analysis.

First, let me cut to the chase, especially as this is going to be a lengthy article in a series of lengthy articles. There is no treasure buried on Oak Island. If there ever was—and I have serious doubts about this—it’s certainly not there now. Despite at least a century and a half of expeditions to recover the “treasure,” and despite a History Channel reality TV show (which I have not seen) that squeezed 44 episodes’ worth of blood from the stone of this rather crude 19th century scam, there is nothing of particular value buried under Oak Island to find.

Oak Island, in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, is fairly small. Here is the satellite image. Most of the treasure hunt action has occurred on the southeastern end (the light-colored splotch).

Here is how we know that there is no treasure on Oak Island. I’ll be dealing with all of these factors in-depth in this article and the three additional ones that follow, but here are the highlights:

1. The “flood tunnels” believed to be blocking the recovery of the treasure have never been found (despite what a popular TV show has claimed).

2. There is no physical evidence of an elaborate treasure hoard infrastructure on Oak Island.

3. Reliable documentary evidence of the early treasure searches, where much of the proffered “evidence” for treasure was supposedly discovered, does not exist.

4. Even if the legends are true, it’s not logical that whoever buried the treasure would have abandoned it. (In other words, if there ever was treasure there, it’s illogical to assume it’s still there now).

Before I get to these reasons, it’s worth sketching out what the legend is, because it’s invariably where believers in Oak Island treasure start—and they often don’t make it any farther than that.

The Legend

It’s difficult to know where to begin talking about Oak Island, because there is no one story, no single set of allegations that agree with each other about how it started and what supposedly happened in the past. I first encountered this legend in 1991 when I was a college undergraduate studying history. I came across it in a very fun but seriously fact-challenged book called The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries by Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson, which had the usual stories of Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, etc. The Money Pit article was easily my favorite because it’s the only one that seemed like it could be really true. Just for purposes of choosing one narrative, I’ll stick to the one as told in the Wilsons’ 1991 book.

According to them, in 1795, three teenagers—Daniel MacGinnis, Anthony Vaughan and John Smith—were exploring Oak Island, an uninhabited island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia when they noticed a depression in the ground beneath an oak tree, which is usually said to have an old rusty piece of ship’s tackle hanging from one of its branches. They started digging, and encountered several platforms of oak timbers, each 10 feet below the next, going down at least 30 feet. Realizing something big was buried here, they abandoned the search, but decided to come back years later with a more well-funded expedition.

This book, by Colin and Damon Wilson, was a lot of fun when I first read it 26 years ago, but it's seriously fact-challenged. I lost the dust cover long ago. It ignited my interest in Oak Island.

Several expeditions, some with the involvement of members of the original trio, are said to have occurred in the first half of the 19th century, usually dated as 1803 or 1804, and another in 1849. Supposedly the expeditions found the oak platforms went down at 10-foot intervals for at least 90 feet. However, the farther the dig progressed, the more the hole became saturated with seawater, occasionally rushing into the pit at high speed as if under pressure. Proponents of the legend universally state that this is due to two “flood tunnels,” specifically connecting the Money Pit site to the beach, evidently designed to thwart recovery of whatever’s buried there by anyone who doesn’t know the secret of how to shut off the “flood tunnels.”

This is the bare bones of the legend. There are numerous other rumored details, such as a claim, usually said to date from the 1849 expedition, that various wooden chests were found beneath the 98-foot level, and that a drill inserted (underwater) into the “chests” brought up pieces of wood and some small links of gilded metal, like a chain of some kind. There are also reports of stones found, either in the Money Pit or elsewhere on the island, bearing various inscriptions, most commonly “Forty feet below, 2 million pounds are buried” or something to that effect. All the various alleged details and discoveries could fill a book, and in fact they have filled numerous books written on the Oak Island legend over the years. While there are commonalities, few reports agree absolutely on these details.

Point One: No Flood Tunnels Have Ever Been Found.

One feature of the legend that all accounts do agree upon is the existence of the “flood tunnels,” which pipe seawater into the Money Pit whenever anyone digs for the treasure. Indeed, this is the linchpin of the entire story: the water pouring into the pit is the booby trap that confounds all attempts to recover the treasure. Every single expedition to get at the supposed treasure has, at its core, been a struggle against the water.

This photo--I'm not sure when it was taken--depicts one of the early 20th century expeditions to dig for treasure on Oak Island. The results? Bupkus, every single time.

But there’s just one feature, which astonished me when I realized it: the flood tunnels themselves have never been located. Although they appear in every single permutation of the Oak Island legend, and despite the false claims of the "History" Channel show, no one has ever actually found human-constructed channels leading from the traditional dig site to the beaches, which are some distance away in all directions.

Shouldn’t this be easy? If you’re digging a pit into the earth and are being thwarted by an influx of seawater from two directions—there are said to be two flood tunnels, sometimes even three—shouldn’t it be fairly simple to find the source of the water, then discover the channel it’s coming in from—especially since one would assume the channel, being human-engineered, would be lined with stone or a primitive pipe or something?

There is evidently some kind of resort on Oak Island. Here it is at sunset in 2011.

Nothing of the kind has ever been found on Oak Island. What has been found, at least once in 1897 and again by the "History" Channel people in the 2010s, are the clay-lined remnants of tunnels built in 1862/63 by previous treasure searchers--we know that because a workbook from this expedition has survived and clearly documents where they were digging (they had hoped to tunnel up and get the "treasure" from below. It didn't work). But those aren't the tunnels that supposedly channel the water in from the beach. They're different. Anyone who claims that the "flood tunnels" have been discovered is mistaking this discovery for the one they wish they had made: the tunnels themselves. Proof positive that this is the case: failure to trace these supposed "flood tunnels" to their source. If they in fact existed, they and their source would have been discovered long ago. They haven't, because there's nothing there to find.

To be continued!

In the next installment, I’ll explain why the “box drains” found on the beaches of Oak Island are not evidence of “flood tunnels,” and various other misconceptions about the physical artifacts found on the island. Stay tuned!
The photo of the Oak Island Resort is by Flickr user Stefani Woods and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. The other photos are either by me (the book), courtesy of Google (satellite image) or in the public domain/Creative Commons 0 license (all others).

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