Inside The Enduring Hunt For The Mysterious Oak Island Treasure

Published June 17, 2021
Updated July 16, 2023

For more than 200 years, treasure hunters have flocked to Oak Island in search of pirate gold — which is said to be buried in the "Money Pit" on the Nova Scotia isle.

Hundreds of years ago — as the story goes — someone buried treasure on Oak Island. Speculation has run wild ever since. Could Oak Island’s “Money Pit” contain Shakespeare’s original manuscripts? The Holy Grail? Tons of gold?

No one is sure. Maybe there isn’t any treasure at all. But that hasn’t stopped treasure hunters from seeking riches. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept an eye on the Canadian island.

Oak Island

Wikimedia CommonsOak Island’s Money Pit has drawn treasure hunters for centuries

But pursuing this possible treasure comes with risks. So far, six people have lost their lives in the attempt. That makes some wonder if Oak Island contains more than treasure — maybe it also contains a pirate curse.

How The Oak Island Treasure Hunt Started

The search for Oak Island’s treasure began around 1795. Then, a sixteen-year-old boy named Daniel McGinnis crossed the island during a fishing expedition. He noted a couple of things that struck him as odd.

Treasure Map

PinterestAn Oak Island treasure map.

First, he noticed some scars on an old oak tree. Nearby, he saw a depression in the ground. McGinnis put two and two together — he figured that the scars on the tree were from a rope and tackle system, which had been used to lower something into the ground.

Having been raised on stories of swashbuckling pirates, McGinnis immediately wondered if a couple of marauders had buried treasure.

He was sufficiently intrigued to return to the island the next day with two friends — and started to dig. Almost immediately, the boys noticed that the shallow clay had pick marks. But they couldn’t get much further than that. The pit contained flat stones and logs, and the boys had only picks and shovels.

But McGinnis never forgot about what he had seen.

Nine years later, he returned to the island and tried to search for the treasure again. This time, he and his team made a thrilling discovery — a stone inscribed with a strange cipher.

Oak Island Stone

PinterestA replica of the stone found by Daniel McGinnis.

But the explorers couldn’t translate the stone. One of McGinnis’s associates even used it as a brick in his fireplace. And, frustratingly, when they tried to dig further, the pit filled with water. Eventually, the project was abandoned.

However, treasure seekers got an important clue in 1865. Then, a linguistic professor named James Liechti claimed to translate the mysterious stone. He said that it read:

“Forty Feet Below Two Million Pounds Are Buried.”

And like that, the race for Oak Island’s treasure began.

Inside The Hunt For The Money Pit

Oak Island Treasure Digging

Wikimedia CommonsAn excavation taking place at Oak Island.

In the 200 years since Daniel McGinnis first stuck a shovel in the ground, numerous other people have hoped to find the Oak Island treasure in the so-called “Money Pit.” They’ve tried sealing off the flow of water and drilling other parts of the island.

Are treasure seekers chasing a phantom? Skeptics might say so. But the island has offered enough clues over the years to keep the legend alive. Treasure hunters have made thrilling finds like coins, whistles, pieces of china, ashes, scissors, pottery, and parchment in the Oak Island Money Pit.

Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted in on the action and kept tabs on the island’s activity. In 1909, he became affiliated with the Oak Island Association and another treasure-hunting group known as Old Gold Salvage. Though the groups left that same year, Roosevelt continued to keep up with island news into his presidency.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

National ArchivesFranklin Roosevelt and others at Oak Island in 1909.

But searching for treasure on Oak Island has proved surprisingly risky — which makes some people wonder if the treasure is protected by a curse.

The first occurrence of tragedy and death struck even before Liechti’s translation. In 1861, treasure-seekers brought an iron pump and steam engine to the island. They hoped to pump water out of the pit. But the boiler exploded and scalded one man to death.

He was the first to die — but five more men would follow in his footsteps. The most recent deaths were in 1965 when four men died from hydrogen sulfide fumes while trying to access the Oak island treasure.

This series of deaths has led to an ominous but beguiling prediction that seven people must die before the treasure is found. Six have perished. But the fear of death hasn’t stopped people from hoping to strike riches over the years.

Has The Oak Island Mystery Been Solved?

The Curse Of Oak Island

Wikimedia CommonsA still from a History Channel show following treasure seekers.

Is the Oak Island mystery solved? Far from it. But one determined team has been working to crack the Oak Island mystery for years — all for the History Channel.

The Curse of Oak Island has run for eight seasons. It follows two brothers, Marty and Rick Lagina, as they attempt to solve the Oak Island mystery. Starting in 2014, the brothers scoured the island and its lore. And, of course, they spent plenty of time examining the Money Pit.

Have the brothers found anything after eight seasons? Actually, yes. Some of their most intriguing finds include a 500-year-old garnet brooch and a lead cross that was made between 1200 and 1600 A.D. In season 6, they found another brooch that contained traces of gold (and copper).

But despite their years of searching, the Money Pit hasn’t offered up any massive treasures. The Oak Island mystery remains unsolved. But people have plenty of theories about what might be buried there.

Theories About The Oak Island Treasure

An Old Coin From Oak Island

YouTubeAn old coin discovered on Oak Island.

Whether or not the Oak island treasure exists has yet to be seen. But if it does exist, then who left it there? And what did they leave? Over the years, some treasure hunters have developed theories.

One prominent theory, first presented in a book called Oak Island And Its Lost Treasure, postulates that the treasure came from a British explorer named William Phips.

As the story goes, Phips came across a Spanish shipwreck in 1687 loaded with treasure. He brought some back to England, where it may have been used to overthrow the king, James II, in 1688. But Phips knew that there was more treasure to be had. He sailed back to the wreck, picked up more booty, and buried it for safekeeping on an island he knew about in Nova Scotia.

Engraving Of William Phips

Wikimedia CommonsAn engraving of William Phips recovering treasure from a shipwreck.

But Oak Island had other plans. As Phips’s men dug, water suddenly filled the pit — blocking them from retrieving their treasure. The British government got involved but also failed at digging up the loot. So they set booby traps in the Money Pit.

As Men’s Health points out, this theory is all the more convincing because of what has been found on the island. Core samples of the island’s swamp suggest human activity took place between 1674 and 1700. And Oak Island treasures seekers have found bones, wood, and even an ax which seem to come from the 17th-century.

So, what could possibly be buried on Oak Island? Maybe it is Phips’s gold. But maybe it’s something even more extraordinary. Other theories about the Oak Island treasure suggest that the Money Pit could contain Shakespeare’s manuscripts, the Holy Grail, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, or treasure buried by Freemasons.

So, is Oak Island’s mystery solved? No. Not yet. But the enduring quest ensures that treasure hunters will keep going to Oak Island — shovels in hand.

Enjoy reading about the Oak Island treasure? Next, read about the mystery of the Forrest Fenn treasure. Then learn about the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the biggest buried treasure find in U.S. history.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.