The Oak Island Mystery Solved!

By Joy A. Steele. 2014. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press. 142 pages. ISBN: 978-1-77206-008 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Kristina Downs, Indiana University

[Review length: 711 words • Review posted on March 30, 2016]

[Cover ofThe Oak Island Mystery Solved!]

The famous Money Pit and other unexplained features on Nova Scotia’s Oak Island have captured popular attention since the first pit was discovered in 1795. Millions of dollars and the lives of six men have been lost searching for treasure rumored to be buried on the island. Explanations for the mysterious formations have included everything from sinkholes caused by natural geological activity to booby-trapped pirate stashes. In The Oak Island Mystery Solved! Joy A. Steele provides a new and innovative theory. While not a work of folklore scholarship, this book definitely highlights the power of legend and its ties to history and tourism.

Before solving the mystery, Steele carefully lays out the elements of it by giving a short chronology of the discoveries on Oak Island and then discussing the unexplained features on the island one at a time. These include not only the two main pits, but also a stone inscribed with strange glyphs; a beach artificially constructed out of stone, eel grass, and coconut fiber; a crude cement vault; a wooden U-shaped structure; and a megalithic cross, among other strange findings. The benefit of Steele’s format is that it creates suspense about the forthcoming solution; the downside is that the combination of chronological and geographical arrangement becomes confusing at times, making the overall narrative of the island difficult to follow.

Steele pays so much attention to constructing the mystery that I feel I must warn readers of this review not to go further if they do not wish to know her proposed solution. Ultimately, she concludes that Oak Island was once used to manufacture naval stores for the British Navy and that the mysterious pits on the island are the remains of tar kilns. It is in the outlining of the solution that the book shines. The author’s extensive historical research is evident, and she provides convincing comparisons to similar sites of naval supply manufacture. Since no exemplar of eighteenth-century tar kilns exists today, she looks through early narratives of the exploration of both the Money Pit and Cave-In Pit and compares them carefully to descriptions of working tar kilns of the era.

After explaining the significance and process of naval-store manufacture in detail, Steele then builds her case from an historical angle, showing why this theory fits within the island’s known past. In order to support her argument Steele explores little-discussed aspects of history such as the economic importance of naval stores and Nova Scotia’s history of slavery. She then goes through the features and findings on the island one-by-one to show how each would be explained by her theory. The naval-stores manufacture idea not only explains the two largest pits on the island, but it also provides explanations for the box drains, the block-and-tackle found hanging from a tree above one of the pits, a wooden sled-like object found near one of the pits, and markings on trees near the pits. While the manufacture of naval stores in and of itself does not explain the presence of a megalithic cross on the island, Steele posits that it could be a reference to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPG) whose contemporary incarnation, the Central Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) uses an insignia with a cross oriented at a similar angle. Since the SPG was actively engaged with converting slaves, it is believable that it would have been present at an island where naval stores were being manufactured using slave labor.

In her conclusion, Steele also shows how her theory could relate to one of the older legends about Oak Island—that in the early-eighteenth century settlers on the mainland saw fires on the island late at night that suddenly ceased. These may have been tar kilns flaming up that would have stopped when the site was abandoned during an economic collapse around 1720. Overall, the book is an enjoyable read. The prose is straightforward and almost conversational. As stated above, this is not a work of folklore scholarship, but it may be of interest to folklorists due to its focus on the interplay of legend and history. If nothing else, folklorists will appreciate Steele’s contention that in many ways the true treasure of Oak Island is the legend and history surrounding the island’s mysterious features.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.