According to legend, a young man named McGinnis was wandering Oak Island, an island in the Mahone Bay off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada, in the year 1795 when he came upon an oak tree where an old rope was tied to a branch. In front of it was ground that appeared to be slumped. Believing there might be buried treasure, he and two friends began to dig in the depression. After several hours, they found what they thought might be a wooden chest. However, before they could continue, a flood came in and prevented them from any further excavating. The hunt has continued ever since. To this day, there are still people who are convinced that there is treasure somewhere waiting to be found on Oak Island. What is interesting about the stories regarding Oak Island is that they have a lot of motifs which appear to originate from Freemasonry. This has led some to suggest a Masonic connection to the legend.
Treasure Hunting on Oak Island
The earliest treasure hunt on the island is said to have been in 1795 when the aforementioned group of treasure seekers discovered a layer of flagstones, a shaft, and some rotten wooden logs. Despite this discovery, they abandoned the project because of a lack of manpower. Sometime later, either in 1803/1804 or 1810, they resumed digging with the help of a wealthy businessman. During the excavation, they discovered nine levels of the shaft marked by wooden platforms. At the lowest level, they discovered a plaque with a strange inscription on it and a container which turned out to be hollow when it was hit with a crowbar.
Oak Island, Nova Scotia. ( Farhad Vladia / Panoramio )
These earlier accounts are probably partly apocryphal. There is evidence that treasure hunting on the island actually goes back even earlier than 1795, to the 1780s at least. The earliest well-recorded attempt to find treasure on the island dates to 1849, when a treasure hunting company, the Truro Company, received a license from the governor of Nova Scotia to dig for treasure on the island.
After several years, the company was disbanded as no treasure was found. Related attempts were also made in 1861-1865 and 1866-1867, both of which turned up no evidence of a buried treasure chest. Since the 19th century there have been dozens of searches to find treasure all with the same result, nothing.
Creating the Oak Island Legend
Over the past two centuries, the legend has built up to one that is quite detailed. According to the earliest version of the tale, the treasure was said to have been placed there by Captain Kidd, a figure probably at least partially based on William Kidd (1654-1701). Kidd was a Scottish sea captain who was executed for piracy.
Buried Treasure : Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd overseeing a treasure burial. ( Public Domain )
The later, more detailed story mostly originated from a version told in newspaper articles published in 1861 and 1862. Articles published on the treasure prior to 1862 did not mention the nine platforms marking nine levels and articles prior to 1861 made no mention of the container that was found to be hollow once it was hit with a crowbar. Other elements of the story that were added since 1861 – include the discovery of three gold chain-links found between 1849 and 1850 and three oak trees forming an obvious triangle around the money pit.
Articles published prior to 1861 are much vaguer about the details of the treasure and the digging. Furthermore, the date of 1795 was first mentioned in a publication made in 1897. Because of these differing accounts and the resulting possibility of embellishment, it is uncertain what, if anything, was originally found at the site. There is even doubt about whether the supposed ‘money pit’ is even a man-made feature. Skeptical investigators have said that the pit is likely just a sinkhole and that the wooden planks originally found in the 18th century were probably fallen logs that got washed into the sinkhole.
The ‘Money Pit’ on Oak Island in 1947. ( Public Domain )
The sinkhole hypothesis makes sense in light of the local geology of the island which is principally composed of limestone where caves are known to form as water seeps into and dissolves the limestone country rock, creating near surface caves which can suddenly collapse and form slumps. Unfortunately, over a century of digging for treasure has rendered the original structure of the subsurface completely unrecognizable, so it is hard to reconstruct what the money pit originally looked like before digging began. This makes it more difficult to confirm whether the money pit was originally a man-made or natural feature.
Nine Levels and Other Ties to Freemason Legends
What also makes the case for the reality of the Oak Island treasure more difficult to defend is the fact that many elements of the Oak Island legend added since 1861 fit the allegorical stories behind the initiation ceremonies of certain degrees of the Scottish rite of Freemasonry eerily well. This suggests that some of the story may have been embellished by the treasure hunters, many of whom were Freemasons.
The two degrees in question are the Holy Royal Arch and the Royal Arch of Enoch. Let us look at the Holy Royal Arch first. In the allegorical story for this degree, when the Jews go back to rebuild the temple in 534-516 BC, they discover a secret vault of King Solomon. Within the vault, they discover a stone which turns out to be hollow when they strike it with a crowbar. They also discover a golden plate on which is inscribed the secret name of God.
A lodge room set out for use by a Holy Royal Arch Chapter. ( Public Domain )
The Royal Arch of Enoch is similar, except that it takes place around 1000 BC during the construction of King Solomon’s first temple. While building the temple, the workers discover the ruins of an underground temple built by Enoch, one of the pre-flood patriarchs mentioned in the Book of Genesis. They discover that it has nine levels. At the bottom level, they discover a gold plate bearing the secret name of God.
Both Freemasons and non-Freemasons have noted the similarity between the legend of the Oak Island treasure and these two Masonic tales. Just as nine levels were discovered in Enoch’s temple, nine levels were discovered while digging for the treasure at Oak Island. Just as a stone was found to be hollow once it was hit with a crowbar in Enoch’s temple, a wooden container was found to be hollow when it was hit with a crowbar in one of the shafts at Oak Island. Also, in the same way that a golden plate was found bearing the secret name of God in the Masonic story, a stone plaque with a mysterious inscription was found buried while digging at Oak Island.
Replica of the Money Pit inscribed stone. ( Oak Island Treasure )
There are many other parts of the story of Oak Island which match the allegorical Masonic myths. Another example is a stone with an iron ring that was found in a pit nearby the main pit. Likewise, the first level of Enoch’s temple contained a stone with a metal ring embedded in it. Furthermore, the three gold chain links found while excavating also have parallels in Masonic symbolism. Additionally, three oak trees forming a triangle around the money pit fits the motif where the secret name of God is inscribed within an equilateral triangle on a golden plate.
Photograph of a Third Degree tracing board dating from c.1876 showing some Masonic symbols. ( Public Domain )
Did a Freemason Create Much of the Oak Island Legend?
The one responsible for most of the seemingly Masonic elements of the story was likely Jotham Blanchard McCully (1819-1899), who wrote an article in 1862 in a Nova Scotia newspaper. He had been involved in the search of the treasure since 1849. In his article, he described all the evidence that had supposedly been found indicating that there must be treasure. Another article published the previous year by a gentleman named Patrick mentioned a few elements which could be interpreted as Masonic, but McCully’s article was more detailed and contained many more Masonic references.
Jotham Blanchard McCully fonds documenting a record of work on Oak Island. ( MemoryNS)
Although it is not in official records, McCully was probably a Freemason. There is a letter from 1874 sent to a Masonic lodge in Nova Scotia which asks someone with McCully’s name to take the letter for safekeeping after it is read. What is also interesting is that many of the wealthy treasure hunters interested in the Oak Island Mystery had Masonic connections. Considering this fact, the abundant Masonic symbolism suggests that the story may have been embellished and co-opted by certain Freemasons, namely McCully.
What could be the reason for this? One possibility that is speculative, but nonetheless reasonable in light of no known treasure having ever been found, is that the treasure was a scam from the beginning perpetrated by McCully – and that McCully, being a Freemason, used the symbols in his narrative to warn other Freemasons not to waste their time and money on it.
Another possibility is that McCully meant the references as some sort of Masonic in-joke with his fellow Freemasons. For example, he may have truly believed there was treasure but wanted to throw any rivals off track, so he presented fake evidence based on references to Masonic myths as a sort of prank.
Initiation of an apprentice Freemason around 1800. This engraving is based on that of Gabanon on the same subject dated 1745. The costumes of the participants are changed to the English fashion at the start of the 19th C and the engraving is colored, but otherwise is that of 1745. ( Public Domain )
Currently there isn’t much evidence for either possibility, though since McCully spent at least 18 years of his life (1849-1867) looking for the treasure, it is more likely that he believed that it really existed. Unfortunately for treasure hunters, it is unlikely that there is any treasure on Oak Island because of the conflicting narratives and the century of looking without evidence, but it is likely that a lot of the treasure hunters who happened to be Freemasons got a good laugh.