Lost Treasure – True Tales of Hidden Hoards
A narration on various treasures in the Americas
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Published 1930. Digitized by Doug Frizzle Jan 2011
The Mysterious Treasure of Oak Island
PROSPECTORS have a saying that "gold is where you find it" and the same is equally true of treasure-trove. It turns up in the most unexpected localities and under the most unexpected conditions. Of course the treasures of fiction call for deserted beaches, caves on lonely isles or caches on wave-lashed keys, with waving palms, with dark, mysterious, evil-looking villains and all the other accessories of any self-respecting treasure-trove. But in real life, as one might say, treasures have a most perverse habit of being most unconventional, and comparatively few authentic lost treasures are where the fiction writers would have them. Of course, when we come to think of it, this is quite to be expected, for sand beaches, caves and small islets are about the very worst places in which to hide treasure if the hider ever expects to return and find his treasure intact. Winds, waves and storms play havoc with sand beaches and sand dunes. Caves are easily discovered and are still more readily searched, and the smaller the area of land whereon a treasure is hidden the more easily it may be searched and the greater are the chances of some one coming upon the cache. And those who hide or rather have hidden treasures have or had no intentions of making it easy for some one else to benefit by their hoards.
While it is quite natural that the greater number of known treasures should be hidden in tropical and semitropical portions of America, the haunts of the men and people who possessed the most treasures and had the most reason for hiding them, yet many a treasure, real and imaginary, has been located far from the haunts of freebooters and conquerors, far out of the track of plate ships and galleons and, as I stated above, in the most unlikely and most un-romantic spots.
Oftentimes there is a very good reason for treasures being hidden or lost in some such locality—on the New England coast, on bleak shores in the Antarctic or elsewhere. Very often their history is well known and there is nothing mysterious nor puzzling about their presence. But now and then the reverse is the case and most fascinating conjectures may be formed as to the origin and reason for treasure hoards located where, as far as known, there never was any treasure nor any one to hide it.
This is the case with the famous Oak Island treasure, perhaps the most bafflingly mysterious treasure in the entire world, a treasure which, although known to exist, has never been recovered despite hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years having been spent in efforts to secure it; regarding which there is no plausible theory to account for its presence and which, to cap all, is undoubtedly the most remarkably concealed treasure ever known. Finally this mysterious, strange, inexplicable treasure—that might well be guarded by a Djin did we believe in such spirits—is not situated in some palm-fringed tropic land nor amid picturesque and romantic surroundings and associations, but in matter-of-fact Nova Scotia!
The history of the Oak Island treasure, as far as it is known, goes back to 1795 when three young men named Vaughan, MacGinnis and Smith—far from romantic names—started out for a day's holiday on Oak Island. In those days much of the island was uninhabited, wooded and wild, an ideal spot for three young fellows to hunt, explore and have a jolly good time by themselves. Landing in a sheltered cove in deep and calm Mahone Bay, the three started into the oak forests searching for game and adventure.
Presently, as they wandered about, they came to a spot that showed evidences of having been cleared at some time in the past. The big trees had been replaced by second growth, the earth was overgrown with weeds, shrubs and briars, and the three youths decided that it must have been the site of an Indian village. Then they noticed that near the center of the clearing there was a single gigantic oak tree standing like a sentinel above the smaller saplings, and upon approaching this patriarchal tree they discovered that its bark showed scars of ax marks that, to their imaginative eyes, appeared like numerals or marks with some meaning. Also, they found that one of the lower branches of the tree had been sawed off a few feet from the trunk and upon this was a deeply furrowed scar as if a rope or chain had been attached to it.
By now the boys were not only deeply interested in their chance discovery, but were feeling a bit uneasy and nervous. That stout, outjutting branch with the chafed marks upon its bark hinted of a gallows-tree, and in their imaginative brains they could picture a ghastly corpse swing back and forth from the sawed-off limb. It was a rather creepy, disquieting thought, there in the silent deserted forest, and the three stepped hastily back and glanced apprehensively about. And then they made another discovery. Almost directly under the lopped-off branch was a circular depression in the earth perhaps ten feet in diameter. They withdrew a bit farther, for might not that hollow mark the grave of the man who had been hanged? But Vaughan, perhaps less imaginative or more matter-of-fact than his companions, read in the gallows-like limb and the hollow in the earth a very different story. “Treasure!” he exclaimed. "Buried treasure! That's what 'tis. Maybe Captain Kidd buried his treasure here." (Vaughan, like others, associated all treasure with poor, persecuted Kidd who had never been near Nova Scotia in his life.) "See," he continued, "they used a block and tackle on the limb to hoist their treasure-chests into the hole. That's what 'tis; buried treasure."
Instantly the gallows theory was cast to the winds and the three became wildly excited. They had stumbled upon a cache of treasure they were sure, and forgetting their contemplated holiday they hurried to their boat with the idea of returning to their homes, securing picks and shovels and returning to unearth the treasure they felt sure was theirs for the digging. During their explorations, the tide had fallen, and as the three approached their boat they made another discovery. Exposed by the unusually low tide were an immense rusty iron ringbolt in a seaweed-coated rock, a ringbolt of old-fashioned design and large enough to serve as a mooring to a good-sized ship. Here was further proof of pirates' treasures, and as they searched about the three made two even more thrilling finds. One was a copper coin dated 1713, the other an old-fashioned boatswain's silver whistle. There was no longer any doubt in their minds. A vessel had been in Mahone Bay over eighty years before, a treasure had been buried under the solitary oak, and all they had to do was to come back and dig it up.
Equipped with picks and shovels, the three youths returned to their secret, spot the following day and fell lustily to work. Within a few minutes they found they were excavating in an old, clearly outlined circular shaft with walls of solid undisturbed earth in which the marks of picks and shovels could clearly be seen. Excited, now certain that they were close to riches, the three dug madly, and Smith shouted triumphantly when, ten feet below the surface, his shovel struck resonant oak boards. But when, with feverish excitement, they had uncovered the heavy planks and by their united efforts they had dragged the timbers from the earth, their faces fell. Instead of the pile of gold and silver they had expected to see disclosed, there was nothing but the same loose earth.
Still, as Vaughan pointed out, the presence of the old oak timbers proved something must be buried there and again they fell to at their labors. Five, eight, ten feet further they dug and again their picks struck wood. Once more with pounding hearts they pried the boards loose and once again found only the barren earth below.
Still they were not discouraged for, they reasoned, the treasure must be vast to have been buried so deeply and to have been so carefully protected. But when, at a depth of thirty feet, the three weary and sweating young men came upon a third oak bulkhead with nothing but earth beneath it they gave up in despair. Not that they had lost faith in the treasure, but for the simple reason that they had excavated to their unaided limit. To go deeper would require more men, blocks and tackles, winches and buckets.
They hated to tell others of their discovery, but they were by now convinced that the treasure was great enough to make a dozen men rich, and it would be far better to have a share of the treasure than none of it. But when they returned to the village and told their tale they found that the inhabitants showed no desire to join them in their treasure hunt. In fact, they did everything possible to discourage the three, and told them hair-raising tales of ghostly apparitions, mysterious, unearthly flickering lights and fearsome cries that for many years had been seen and heard in the vicinity of the sentinel oak. Not a man would consent to aid the three in their search, and at last, unable to secure reinforcements, they abandoned their idea of recovering the mysterious treasure.
For nearly ten years no one visited the spot; the three youths had almost forgotten their treasure search, when Dr. Lynds from Truro arrived at Oak Island. Somehow rumors of the trio's discovery had filtered through to Truro and Dr. Lynds, being a rather romantic soul and fond of adventure, had hurried off to the island to have a talk with Smith, Vaughan and MacGinnis. Eagerly they told him of their find and work ten years before and in company with Dr. Lynds they visited the scene of their abandoned labors.
The physician was almost as excited and interested as the three had been. He was thoroughly convinced that an immense treasure was hidden under the oak tree, and hurrying back to Truro he at once organized a company for the recovery of the treasure. Many prominent men bought shares, among them Colonel Robert Archibald, Captain David Archibald and Sheriff Harris. With the funds thus obtained a complete excavatory equipment was purchased, a gang of laborers hired, a camp established at the island, and dirt began to fly in earnest.
As the husky men dug deeper and deeper the same oak boards or other partitions were encountered at regular intervals of ten feet. One layer was of coconut-fiber matting covered with charcoal, another was of putty spread over sailcloth, and at ninety feet below the surface the laborers came to a flat slab of quarried stone three feet in length by sixteen inches in width bearing an inscription chiseled into one surface.
Unfortunately, when this had been removed and the elusive treasure was not disclosed, the slab was cast aside. Had it been preserved with care it might, undoubtedly would, have solved the baffling mystery of the treasure. To be sure, a few local people attempted to decipher the carving, but with no great success, and although one Halifax solon declared that it read "Ten feet below, two million pounds lie buried," he couldn't explain how he thus interpreted it, and his statement was regarded as largely guesswork or imagination. At all events the stone was cast aside, and one of the three original discoverers, the man Smith, took possession of it and used it as a hearthstone for the fireplace of his new house. Later it was taken to Halifax, where it still remains, and was used by a book-binder for beating leather until the inscription was entirely obliterated.
But to return to the laborers digging into the bowels of the island. At ninety-five feet they came upon still another wooden platform and then, overnight, the shaft, hitherto dry, was flooded with water to within twenty-five feet of the top. Every effort to bail out the shaft proved fruitless, and at last, convinced that such a task was hopeless, the shaft that had cost so much time and labor was abandoned and another was commenced nearby, the idea being that the water in their first pit could be drained into the second by connecting them with a tunnel, a scheme that proved that the treasure-seekers were far from competent engineers for, quite obviously, the result would have been to flood both shafts equally. This of course was precisely what happened and, moreover, the water flowed with such a rush into the new shaft that the men barely escaped with their lives. Once more the treasure hunt was abandoned. All the company's funds had been exhausted and the treasure still remained as mysterious and as safe as in the beginning.
Forty years passed by. Smith and MacGinnis had grown old and had passed away, but Dr. Lynds and Vaughan still lived, and to wondering grandchildren they related the narrative of their vain search for the mysterious treasure in their youth. The tale had become almost a legend when another company was formed, and once more the vicinity of the "Money Pit," as it was called, was alive with activity. By pumps and more modern methods than had been possible forty years earlier, the original shaft was cleared of water to a depth of eighty-six feet and all were elated when, with a rush, the water came back and put an effectual end to the work.
Then an entirely new scheme was devised. This was to bore for the treasure, to prospect for it exactly as if it had been a vein of coal or other mineral. Accordingly a strong platform was erected over the old shaft and a huge augur-drill was rigged and started on its exploratory descent. At ninety-eight feet the platform found by Dr. Lynds' diggers was again struck. Rapidly the drill penetrated the five inches of spruce timbers of which it was built, and then dropped suddenly for a foot. Then up came borings of oak, and for four inches the drill bit slowly through this. Then it slowed down and for twenty-two inches worked its way through loose metal none of which was brought up with the exception of three small gold links of a chain. Then again it penetrated eight inches of oak, then went through twenty-two inches of loose metal as before; then four inches of oak, six inches of spruce and at last into bed clay for seven feet.
Though no treasure had been obtained, every one was elated. Unquestionably the loose metal was the treasure—two great chests of it, each twenty-two inches in depth; for it was reasoned that the four inches of oak above and below the loose metal and the eight inches that separated the two lots were the tops and bottoms of oaken chests.
Moving the drill slightly to one side, a second boring was made. Once again the spruce platform was struck at ninety-eight feet. Passing through this the augur dropped about eighteen inches, and, moving with an irregular, jerky motion indicating that it was bearing against the side of some hard object, it brought up oak splinters from a cask, together with fragments of coconut-matting. For six feet this continued when the final or lowest platform was struck. Evidently, the people reasoned, there was a cask of treasure beside the chests, but as far as getting it was concerned, the treasure-seekers were no nearer success than before. Ninety odd feet of water separated them from the mysterious hoard at the bottom of the shaft.
Still, the fact that there were now tangible evidences of treasure in the pit was sufficiently encouraging to induce the company to continue work the next summer, when a third shaft was sunk to the west of the original pit. But this also was filled with water, which was salt and rose and fell with the tide. This was a discovery that elated rather than discouraged the treasure-seekers. If, they reasoned, the seepage was natural, then the men who had originally buried the treasure would have been unable to do the work. Hence it was obvious that the pirates, or whoever they were, must have arranged some entrance or tunnel from the sea for the purpose of flooding the treasure and safeguarding it. And, so the searchers reasoned, the original owners must have arranged some means for drawing off or stopping the water, for otherwise they never could have recovered the treasure themselves.
Careful search was made along the shore, and close to the spot where the ringbolt was secured in the rock, a bed of brown fiber—probably coconut-matting—was uncovered, and under this a mass of small rocks unlike the surrounding gravel. This, it was decided, was the hidden mouth of the tunnel that led the water to the pit and this supposition was borne out when, upon removing the rocks, a series of drains of carefully cut and laid stone were uncovered. It was then decided to build a coffer-dam about the spot, but before this was completed there was an abnormally high tide and the dam collapsed. Still undismayed, the tenacious treasure-seekers commenced a third shaft, intending to cut into the drains and thus dam the inlet from the shore. But the guardian spirit of the mysterious hoard was not to be so easily conquered. One disaster after another beset the workmen; shafts caved in or were filled with water, and at last the final funds were expended in purchasing a powerful pump and engine. But the more water pumped out the more came in, and in the end all work was abandoned and the treasure was left undisturbed.
Another forty years passed by. Earth and debris had almost filled the shafts, and grass and weeds grow over the piles of excavated material. All those who had tried their hands at the former treasure hunts had died; but there were records on file, and in 1896 Oak Island again echoed to the sounds of pick, shovel, hammer and anvil, the clank of pumps and (lie hubbub of a mining camp. Once more the mysterious treasure had lured men to put money into a new venture, and as all were confident that modern methods and machinery could succeed where all others had failed, there was no lack of funds forthcoming, and shares in the new company were in great demand.
This time up-to-date methods were to be used; competent engineers were employed, all the latest mechanical devices were installed, and work was begun in earnest. Almost twenty shafts were sunk in a circle about the now historic Money Pit, and a network of tunnels were driven between them, the idea being to intercept the underground inlet from the sea and also to drain the original shaft. Thousands of feet of planking and timber were used, hundreds of pounds of dynamite were employed, for the new shafts and tunnels were constructed like those of a real mine. But modern devices, engineering skill, up-to-date machinery, all failed to disclose the secret of the strange hiding place devised and carried out by some unknown, mysterious humans of bygone days. The company's funds were exhausted, and the guardian spirits must have chortled with demoniacal glee as they watched the disappointed and bankrupt treasure-seekers depart.
But their work had not been entirely barren of results. At a depth of one hundred and twenty-six feet the drill had passed through oak and had brought up chips, only to strike solid metal upon which the drill made no impression. A smaller drill was started at one side, and at one hundred and fifty-three feet below the surface it passed through a seven-inch layer of cement or mortar covering an oak platform beneath which was soft, loose metal. None of this, supposedly gold coins, was brought up, but the drill did bring up a fragment of parchment bearing illegible words in writing, only a single syllable of which, a "VI" or "WI" could be deciphered. Moreover, these borings had located seven chests or casks containing loose metal. Yet in all this time, during the entire century of treasure-seeking and the expenditure of over one hundred thousand dollars, not a single dollar's worth of treasure (if we except the three links of a watch chain) had been recovered from this incredibly mysterious treasure.
From time to time, efforts were continued to recover the hoard, and for all I know there may be men working to-day at the Money Pit on Oak Island. Even if the spot is deserted the visitor can find plenty of evidences of the work that has been carried on in the past. Everywhere are the mounds of excavated dirt and gravel, the dark, water-filled pits, the caved-in tunnels and shafts, the abandoned rusty tools and machines, the weather-beaten timbers and boards and, more than one hundred and fifty feet below the surface of the scarred and pitted ground, lip the chests and casks of the mysterious, inexplicable treasure.
Who could have buried the hoard in that out-of-the-way northern spot? Who could have had the lime, the men, the patience and the skill to have devised such a strange, efficacious and remarkable hiding place! Who could have dug a shaft for a depth of more than one hundred and fifty feet, connected it by a subterranean tunnel with the sea and have gone to such prodigious labor as to protect the treasure by more than a dozen layers of planks, limbers, cement, iron and other materials?
No one can offer a suggestion, no one can form a theory or an hypothesis that is tenable. If pirates buried the treasure, who were they, what were they doing in Nova Scotia, and why should they have buried the treasure in such a way that it would have been a tremendous, an almost impossible task to recover it? Yet who but pirates could have possessed such treasure in such a place? Some wild theories have been suggested. The treasure of Oak Island has been linked with the famous Cocos Island treasure, the treasure of Lima, but it is a far cry from the Pacific to Nova Scotia and with many a better hiding-place en route why should those who made off with the Lima treasure have taken the trouble to sail to the shores of Canada and there secrete their loot by such elaborate means? Moreover, the Oak Island treasure had been known and sought for years before the Lima treasure was taken to sea.
Others have linked the Oak Island treasure with the almost legendary though historically authentic eleven millions which the Jesuits had when they were expelled from Peru. But the Jesuits did not take their treasure with them; they did not visit Nova Scotia, and the date of the coin found on the Oak Island beach—although perhaps having no connection with the treasure—would place the date as later than 1715.
I doubt if there is a pirate or buccaneer of note whose name has not been suggested as the owner of this baffling treasure hoard; and yet there is not the slightest reason for suspecting that any of them had any connection with it. Neither Morgan, Montbars, nor any of the famous old buccaneers ever cruised or sailed within a thousand miles of Nova Scotia. None of the later pirates, who at times frequented the north Atlantic and the New England coast, had either the money, the time, the men or the ability to place such a hoard in such a place. They were mere pikers of pirates, little more than ocean-going pickpockets—Fly, Gibbs, Wamsley, Morley and their ilk, and their careers were brief, hectic and not one of them ever secured enough loot to be worth hiding.
Moreover, it is obvious that whoever placed the treasure at the bottom of that deep pit on Oak Island, and deliberately flooded the shaft, had no intentions ever of recovering it. Whoever buried it there buried it for all time, to be utterly beyond reach, and so far their efforts have met with entire success.
No doubt, with modern caissons and machinery, with the expenditure of a good-sized sum, and with competent engineers in charge, the Oak Island treasure could be recovered in a short time. As an engineering feat it is a simple matter. For a caisson to go down one hundred and fifty feet is nothing; but would the treasure thus recovered pay for the expenses? Who can say? Perhaps there are millions in gold, silver and gems in those oaken chests and casks at the bottom of the shafts—surely no one would have gone to such trouble to have concealed anything short of millions! Even if the monetary reward fell short of expectations, it would be a fascinating undertaking, a romantic and thrilling adventure to solve the mystery of the Oak Island treasure, for, undoubtedly, somewhere in those deeply buried chests and casks are the keys to the mystery of this most mysterious of all treasures.