The Mystery of Oak Island : Masonic connections to a real National Treasure site

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Steven L. Harrison 33°, PM, FMLR

"I'm going to steal the Declaration of Independence."

Accompanied by the thousand yard stare that comes free with every epiphany, that is how Benjamin Franklin Gates (a.k.a Nicholas Cage) matter-of-factly announces where he will find the key to wealth beyond imagination... a hidden map to the long-lost Masonic Treasure.

We all know Ben got the job done in the movie National Treasure, but that was fiction.  Fact is, there is no map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.  There may be, however, a place where that cache is real.  Treasure hunters have speculated that solid evidence about the place may lead them to nothing less than Solomon's treasure, the Holy Grail or the Arc of the Covenant; or maybe all three and even more.  The place is so captivating that, along with others, high profile Freemasons like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Wayne and Richard Byrd have contributed to the efforts to unearth the potential fortune there.  It has proven to be a stubborn place, not yielding its secrets easily.  Many have tried, some have died
What is it about this spot that has led to its link with the Freemasons? Let’s start at the beginning…

The Money Pit

The story or, if you prefer, legend goes something like this:

Oak Island
Along about 1795, eighteen-year-old Daniel McGinnis found a circular depression in the ground on a small Canadian island.  It was beneath an old oak tree with strange markings carved in it, and reports say a block and tackle was hanging from one of the branches.  He figured something had been buried there; something very big and very heavy.  He rounded up two friends, John Smith and Anthony Vaughan, and they started digging.  Today, nearly 220 years later, we're still digging.  Depending on the reports you can read, the effort has led treasure hunters through nearly 200 feet of muck, mud-caked chambers with oak floors, a cement vault with walls seven inches thick, tantalizing artifacts with strange symbols  and, of course, the mother of all booby traps that they still can't bypass.  This isn't the fiction of Benjamin Gates. It's all very mysterious, very real and, unless a bunch of 18th century guys played history's biggest practical joke, there may be something very important down there.  Legend has it that seven people will die before the treasure is recovered.  It also says the treasure won't be found until there is no living oak tree left on the island.  As of today six men have died in the quest and there is but one oak tree left.  Still, no one knows what is at the bottom of this mysterious place, now known as "The Money Pit," located on tiny Oak Island, a peanut-shaped dot tucked into Mahone Bay, about 40 miles southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia (or about 175 miles east of Bar Harbor, Maine).

It didn't take McGinnis and his friends very long to dig about three feet into the pit where they found a layer of carefully laid flagstones.  To them, this was clear evidence that the hole they had found was not a natural phenomenon and it spurred them to continue the dig, which became increasingly difficult as the hole — 13 feet wide — deepened.  At a depth of ten feet the young men discovered a layer of oak logs laid across the width of the shaft.  This second discovery also encouraged them to keep going.  They found another layer of logs at the depth of 20 feet, and another at 30 feet.  Having dug down 30 feet in a pit 13 feet in diameter was all they could take, and they gave up.

The Onslow Company and the Cipher Stone

The hole sat unattended for eight years until 1803.  Vaughan had a connection with the Onslow Company of Nova Scotia and, on behalf of the original trio, he arranged for it to bring in some heavy equipment to "finish" the dig.  Onslow workers went down another 60 feet before they, too, gave up.  At regular intervals of ten feet, just like the McGinnis group, Onslow found layers of oak logs. The crew speculated the wood layers were there to prevent the dirt filling the hole from sinking and crushing the contents below.  

Replica cipher stone
Onslow found no treasure, but the company made a couple of significant discoveries.  At about 60 feet, the crew found coconut fibers, which were commonly used as packing material; however, the nearest coconut trees were 1,500 miles south of Oak Island, indicating whatever was in the pit was not of local origin.  Perhaps more significantly, at the 90-foot level the men allegedly found a stone slab with strange markings.  Of course, no one could interpret the "cipher stone," as it is now known, but the crew did take it as an encouraging sign.  The stone has been lost, and most historians think it is nothing more than a legend.  Some accounts say the owner of Oak Island took it home and used it as part of his fireplace hearth.  Whatever happened to it, if it existed at all, the supposed inscription was copied.  Two independent scholars have interpreted its inscription to say, "Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried."  Legend or not, the Onslow crew figured it was on to something and kept digging... but not for long.

Booby Trap

Whether there was a cipher stone or not, digging through the 90-foot level activated a "booby trap" that flooded the pit back up to sea level (approximately the 32-foot mark).  Some researchers have speculated the trap worked on the same principle as a soda straw someone dunks into a glass of water, holding a finger against the top of the straw.  The inside of the straw remains filled with air until that person removes the finger, then it fills with water.  Removal of the cipher stone, or whatever was at that level, broke the seal.  It appeared whoever built the pit constructed a side channel out to the sea and, when the seal was broken, the water rushed in.  Upon being unable to drain the water, the Onslow Company gave up its search.

Reports on the nature of this water trap differ.  Some researchers claim to have found a series of five channels leading into the main channel that fed into the Money Pit.  During a 1995 survey, however, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution filled the main chamber with red dye.  They then observed the dye exiting into the ocean at three different locations.  The scientists there concluded that this meant the pit flooded due to a natural phenomenon, not because of a man-made trap.  Others refuted the findings saying they proved there were multiple water traps, proving the construction to be extremely sophisticated for something built prior to the end of the 18th century.  Adding to the confusion, in 1897, another group calling itself the Oak Island Treasure Company said it discovered the booby trap tunnel while excavating between the money pit and Smith's Cove to the east.

Later, explorers found a "five finger drain" coming out of the island at Smith's Cove, claiming this proved conclusively the booby trap was real.  Not so, claimed another researcher, speculating the unusual drain was part of a previously unknown salt works. 

More Digging

Many companies and individuals have made attempts to complete the dig since the Onslow company left.  John Wayne owned one of the companies that tried.  Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd also became involved in the project.  In 1910, a young Franklin Roosevelt made the first of two trips to the site, and maintained a lifelong interest in it.

One of the main goals of many of the digs since Onslow left has been to drain the shaft.  Even with some fairly sophisticated modern technology, no one has been able to do it and the Money Pit remains flooded to this day.  Other teams taking core samples gathered by drilling directly into the hole have found new intriguing artifacts.  At 98 feet searchers discovered a layer of spruce.  On below they discovered three links of a gold metal chain.  

The Oak Island Parchment
In 1897, during the same dig in which the Oak Island Treasure Company claimed to have found the booby trap tunnel, workers also drilled into the shaft for core samples.  At the 153 foot level they found seven inches of cement fragments, followed by another seven inches at the 160 foot level.  In between, they found a parchment fragment about the size of a dime, with the letters "w" and "v" written on it (others say the inscription is "VI").  The paper was treated with traces of mercury, assumed to be there for preservation.  Given the configuration of the cement samples, the company concluded the fragment was inside a concrete vault.  In the 1930s, the Chappell, Hedden, and Hamilton dig drilled through the same spot but didn't find any cement.

Contemporary Exploration

The dig site in 1931
Treasure hunters at the site have been less active in recent years.  The last significant dig took place in 2010.  At that time, explorers measured seismic activity and yielded results termed “interesting,” but the latest available published results stem from a 2008 exploration.  Oak Island, especially the area surrounding the Money Pit, may be the most extensively studied piece of real estate in North America.  Modern researchers have discovered metal buried in several places on the island and speculate there are multiple locations where additional treasure, or artifacts, may be buried.  Still, in over two centuries, except for a few tantalizing scraps, no “treasure” has been recovered.

Today, Oak Island is under private ownership.  Until 2011, the province of Nova Scotia scrupulously regulated treasure hunting applications and had a history of being slow to issue anyone a "Treasure Trove License.”  The province issued the 2010 license to the seemingly inappropriately named company, Oak Island Tourism, Inc.,  a consortium consisting of most of the property owners on the island along with a few others.  In 2011, the "Oak Island Act" came into effect which allowed treasure hunting to continue under the terms of the former license.  No reports of significant activity since then, however, have surfaced.

Another group, Friends of Oak Island (, actually arranges tours.  This group conducted several walking tours during the summer of 2013 and indicated it had plans of continuing to do so.  The island is otherwise closed to visitors. The province of Nova Scotia has considered developing the island as a major tourist attraction, but that project has yet to gain momentum.


It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say there are countless theories attempting to explain the contents or purpose of the Oak Island Money Pit.   As is usually the case, each of the theories has supporting documents, anecdotes and suppositions to back it up – as well as detractors.  Some think either the British or the French hid funds there to keep them away from their respective enemies during the American Revolution.  Others believe it to be Spanish or even Mayan treasure.  Given the fact that a video probe into a secondary pit revealed grainy scenes of what may be a body, there is speculation that it is the tomb of someone important.  One of the most prevalent theories is that the Money Pit guards the treasure of the infamous pirate Captain Kidd.  Alleged deathbed confessions from members of his crew may support that conjecture.  

Another theory claims the pit is nothing more than a sinkhole.  Those supporting this theory point to recent indications that the findings on the island are more in line with a natural phenomenon.  They contend the booby trap is the result of porous stone found elsewhere in the area.  They also say the oak logs found at regular intervals weren't as regularly laid out as some claim, and that they were just sucked in when the sinkhole was formed.  When it comes to artifacts found there, the gold chain for example, they contend they were planted to spur additional digging.

One of the more creative theories stems from claims William Shakespeare didn't write all of the plays attributed to him, but rather Francis Bacon did at least some of the writing (if not all of it).  Since no original Shakespearean manuscript has ever been found, some believe they will turn up at the bottom of the Oak Island pit where Bacon may have had them hidden.  Proponents of this theory point to the dime-sized, mercury-preserved paper fiber for support.

The speculation rolls on and on with some theories having degrees of credibility and some careening off the wall and flailing in from left field.  Various researchers have proposed the contents of the pit may have come from (among others): the Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayans, Vikings, Portuguese and even, yes... space aliens.  Take your pick.

And then there are the Freemasons.  Whenever there is a mystery, someone is bound to throw in a theory about how those scoundrels the Masons are behind it all.  The Oak Island treasure has all the ingredients – suspected treasure, mysterious and ancient origins, symbolism and complex construction that only some of history's greatest builders could have pulled off.  Many of the Oak Island researchers put the Freemasons right at the top of their list of suspects.

The Knights Templar

Historically, most Freemasons and independent scholars agree Freemasonry descended from the craft guilds of the medieval stone masons.  Still, there are connections some feel indicate Masonic origins stem from the order of warrior clergy known as the Knights Templar, a name which today's York Rite Commandery members have assumed.

Originally formed as a band of knights to protect the Holy Land, the Templars took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to God.  Some have suspected the members of finding Solomon's treasure while they resided at the site of his temple, although no signs of digging are apparent there. Along with that treasure, they also might have discovered the Arc of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.  Over the years the Knights Templar fought, won and seized the assets of their enemies.  Being a monastic order, the Templars paid no taxes and, despite their vows of poverty, became so wealthy they actually formed Europe's first continent-wide banking system.  Rumors swirled about their activities, with detractors claiming they had abandoned their original vows and were engaging in forbidden non-Christian practices. 

By the beginning of the 14th century, the order had become a weakened military group but was otherwise exceedingly rich and powerful.  The Knights Templar answered only to the Church, and King Philip IV of France became wary of their power and jealous of their wealth.  Philip kidnapped the Pope (who mysteriously died) and eventually replaced him with Pope Clement V, whom Philip controlled.  With the setup in place, Philip struck on Friday, April 13, 1307.  With the blessing of his puppet Clement, Philip orchestrated a simultaneous raid on all Templar centers.  He arrested the knights, confiscated their wealth, charged them with unspeakable crimes and tortured them to gain confessions.

Rumor supported by some evidence has it that some of the knights escaped, grabbed all or part of the great treasure and headed for the hills... the hills of Scotland, where they found refuge in the stonemasons’ lodges.  The treasure, some suggest, went directly to Oak Island, which is unlikely since Europeans didn't learn about the New World for another 185 years.  Others suggest the Templars took the treasure to Scotland where it was hidden in Rosslyn Chapel.

Some suspect the treasure is still hidden at Rosslyn, but searches have yielded nothing but more speculation.  Alternative theories say the Templars forged an alliance with the family of William Sinclair who built Rosalyn.  Later, they contend, Sinclair or one of his descendants had the treasure moved to Oak Island.  

So there you have it.  It's the Templar treasure on Oak Island because the knights bugged out of France with it and took it to an obscure place not yet discovered.  Or, they took it to Scotland with them and years later William Sinclair took it to Oak Island when, in fact, he apparently had a perfectly good hiding place for it at Rosslyn.  If you think there might be just a couple of holes in the Templar theory, fear not.  Other signs point to the Masons, too.

An Uncanny Similarity

The Bible tells us Enoch, seventh man from Adam and the great-grandfather of Noah, was a just and upright man who so pleased God that he did not die; rather, God took him directly to heaven (Hebrews 11:5).  We learn further from Jewish and Masonic legends that God saw Enoch as a man of such virtue he elected to reveal to him His true name.  Enoch dreamed God appeared to him and said, "Enoch, thou hast longed to know My true Name. Arise, and follow Me, and thou shalt learn it."  He transported Enoch to a mountain top where the true name of God was written in the clouds.  God then whispered the name to Enoch and forbade him to say it to anyone.  Afterward, God transported him into the earth through nine arches into a subterranean vault.  There, Enoch found a triangular gold plate containing the true name of God.  

When he awoke, Enoch took the dream as a sign from God and traveled to Canaan, where he dug the nine arch-covered subterranean apartments he had seen in his vision.  The lowest was made of solid rock.  There, upon a pedestal, he placed a triangular plate of gold containing the true name of God.  Above this excavation, he built "a modest temple of unhewn stones" with a secret passage leading into the apartments.  Underneath it all, the pedestal with the gold triangle waited for future generations to find.

And find it, they did.

The Scottish Rite's 13th Degree is a legend about "recovering that which was lost." Commonly known in the Scottish Rite's Southern Jurisdiction as "The Royal Arch of Solomon," this degree has also been called the "Royal Arch of Enoch." 

In the ceremony of this degree, three candidates emulating workers Adoniram, Yehu-Aber and Satolkin are on a quest to descend through the nine apartments into the lowest vault.   Upon reaching it they find themselves in complete darkness.  When the workers uncover a pedestal, a bright light fills the room.  In this mysterious light, they are able to see the Ineffable Name of God.

Likewise, in the Royal Arch, or 7th, Degree of the York Rite, three sojourners offer to help rebuild the temple.  Once the three prove themselves to be Most Excellent Masters the council members assign them to clear the ruins of the old Temple in preparation for the laying of the new Temple's foundation.  Eventually, the three workers discover a subterranean vault and two of them use a rope to lower the third into it.  There, on a triangular pedestal, the third sojourner finds "a curiously wrought box, on the top of which were three ancient squares."  Later, the squares are determined to be the jewels of office of Grand Masters Solomon, King of Israel, Hiram, King of Tyre and Hiram Abif.  The box contains a pot of manna, Aaron's rod and a scroll containing the long lost Book of the Law.

Although the items found in the two degrees differ, the existence of the pedestal and the pit are similar.  Additionally, historical commentaries indicate an earlier form of the Royal Arch Degree was more consistent with the 13th degree in the Scottish Rite.

In other words, legend says Enoch left the ineffable word in the 9th chamber of a subterranean pit to be discovered at a later date.  Then, in the 13th Degree of the Scottish Rite or (depending on your interpretation) the Royal Arch Degree, three workers discover it.  This legend of Enoch bears an uncanny similarity to many characteristics of the Oak Island money pit:

McGinnis, Smith and Vaughan discovered and began excavating the Oak Island pit, corresponding to the three workers,  Adoniram, Yehu-Aber and Satolkin who discover Enoch's apartments.

A temple of unhewn stones sat on top of the shaft in the Enoch legend.  The money pit was covered by a layer of "unhewn" flagstones.

Enoch left his treasure in the 9th subterranean chamber.  Beginning with the first layer of oak logs serving as its roof, to the bottom of the Oak Island pit, there are nine chambers.

The lowest of Enoch's chambers was made of stone. Core samples brought up in 1897 allegedly found a seven inch layer of cement at the 153 and 160 foot levels, indicating the lowest chamber contained a "stone" vault.

In the Royal Arch degree, part of the treasure found was the long lost Book of the Law, corresponding to, according to some, the parchment found within the lowest vault in 1897. 

The workers in the Royal Arch degree strike a rock with a crowbar prior to the discovery of the treasure.  The structure gives forth a hollow sound, which eventually reveals the underlying vault.  Likewise, just prior to ceasing operations, the Onslow Company — using a crowbar — dug up the cipher stone and reported striking a hollow sounding object just below.

Records indicate that very early on in the Oak Island digging process, workers found a rock with an iron ring embedded in it near Smith's Cove on the east end of the island.  In the 13th Degree, the subterranean vault's door is a stone with an iron ring to enable its opening.

The similarities between the Masonic degrees and the characteristics of the Oak Island dig appear to be more than coincidental.  Regardless of what may lie at the bottom, Masons may have, over time, highlighted or even added facts to symbolize the pit as a representation of the 7th Degree in the York Rite or 13th Degree of the Scottish Rite. 

Blue Lodge and other Symbols

Even if theories corresponding to the Templars and to Enoch seem a bit shaky, many are still determined to pin the origin of the Oak Island mystery on the Freemasons.  It seems there is Masonic symbolism, or perceived Masonic symbolism, all over the island.   However, the Masonic connections on Oak Island, if they are real, are somewhat unique.  Most other theories relating events with possible Masonic origins compare their symbolism to attributes of Blue Lodge Masonry.  Although there are traces of the symbolism of those first three degrees on the island, most of what is there relates to the York or Scottish Rites.

When Freemasons leave signs of their presence, they generally don't delve into the "higher" degrees for symbols.  Symbols from the first three degrees on Oak Island, however are rare.  For starters, there are claims that there were Masonic markings on the tree above the pit.  Unfortunately, the only surviving indication of what those signs might have been is that they were "signs by which Freemasons identify themselves."  Absent the knowledge of what those signs were, we can only speculate they may have been more standard representations of the Blue Lodge.

Other discoveries of symbolism on the island, pointing to the Blue Lodge and beyond are as follows:

Letter "G":  In 1967, workers unearthed a granite boulder with the letter "G" carved into it.  The letter is formed inside a rectangle and  was found on the east side of the island, all items of significance recognizable to Freemasons, with the "G" itself alluding to the core of the ritual with connections to deity and the geometry of operative Masons.

The point within a circle.
Point Within A Circle: A 1936 expedition turned up several stones on the north side of the island near Joudrey's cove.  Gilbert Hedden who was in charge of the dig, reported the stones bore Masonic markings, but was not specific as to what the markings were.  On one stone, however, Hedden found a carving of a point within a circle.  Other markings on the stone appear to be the letter H and a cross flanked by four dots, which some researchers have concluded bear similarities to the Portuguese flag.

The heart shaped stone.
Heart-Shaped Stone: Another author, Mark Finnin, describes the discovery of a handworked heart-shaped stone, which he believes alludes to the sword pointing to a naked heart in the Entered Apprentice degree. (Finnan, Mark. 1997. Oak Island Secrets, rev. ed. Halifax, N.S.: Formac.)

The equilateral triangle.
Equilateral TriangleThere was (most reports indicate it is no longer there), on the south side of the island, an equilateral triangle measuring about ten feet on each side.  Rocks laid out at about one foot intervals formed the shape of the triangle as well as a semi-circle beneath it.  Through the center was another line of rocks pointing due north, with the triangle itself pointing directly toward the money pit.  Some have said the triangle also resembled a crude depiction of a sailing ship.

The Cross: Five large conical stones on the north side of the island form the shape of a Christian cross with a sandstone marking the center point of intersection, apparently alluding to the connection between the Masons and the Templars.  The cross is situated from northeast to southwest with a span of 720 feet and a height of 867 feet.  Due to the distance between the stone markers and the fact they were partially hidden in island undergrowth, the cross was not discovered until the early 1980s.

The Cypher Stone: Reportedly found at the opening to the final deep chamber, the cypher stone itself bore no Masonic markings, but told of a treasure buried below.  Some ascribe Masonic symbolism to it just by the fact that it was encrypted, seemingly implying that where there is encryption, there is Masonry.  Most notably, however, they relate it to the use of the Royal Arch cipher, although the coding on the stone as described was not that of the Royal Arch.

Those are the main items, but there is even more.  Various workmen's tools, corresponding to the working tools of a Freemason, have been unearthed on the island.  Most notably, searchers found a square underneath the finger drains in Smith's Cove.  Of course all Masons are aware of the place the square holds in their ritual, but not all squares are Masonic.  Author Dennis J. King, a Freemason, postulates that separately, the tools might not mean much but together they seem to represent signs and symbols of Freemasonry.  (The Oak Island Legend: The Masonic Angle, 2010).

Oak Island is at the very least an intriguing mystery.  Buried within the legends that have built up around it are certain facts that have made it an enigmatic and captivating place.  From a discovery made by three curious young men over 200 years ago, to the technology fueled digs of today, we still know nothing for certain.  All we do know is there may be absolutely nothing in the pit, or it may be the greatest treasure of all time.  Where is Benjamin Gates when you need him?

[This article was originally prepared and published in The Working Tools Magazine]


Steve Harrison, 33° KCCH, is a Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is the editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine, author of the book Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, a Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research and also its Senior Warden. He is a dual member of Kearney Lodge #311, St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite, Moila Shrine and is a member of the DeMolay Legion of Honor.


  1. Absolutely enthralled by this one.

    Thank you, Bro. Harrison!

  2. I love the mysteries that come with Freemasonry. It's one of the many things that make our fraternity unique. I think it's a disservice to the craft when brothers say there are no secrets anymore. Thanks for this great piece!

  3. Apparently, that which is buried deep within the pit on Oak Island is a 10,000 year old matter remolecularizer (has to do with something akin to Alchemy/teleportation;

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  5. I know what the h and the circle and the 4 dots around the cross mean. Besides a basic meaning it also means other things that could help unlock the mystery

  6. How was the original shaft dug?


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