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The Curse of Oak Island- Season 4, Episode 4: No Stone Unturned

The Curse of Oak Island– Season 4, Episode 4: No Stone Unturned

This week’s episode of The Curse of Oak Island requires a good deal of unpacking. Names were introduced, discoveries were alluded to, and artifacts were presented with as much backstory as the 42-minute program would allow (i.e. not a heck of a lot). Without further ado, here is a Plot Summary and Analysis of Season 4, Episode 4: No Stone Unturned.






Plot Summary

Rick and Marty Lagina, Marty’s son Alex, the Laginas’ nephew Peter Fornetti, Dan and Dave Blankenship, Jack Begley, and Charles Barkhouse watch as Mike Turnbull and Andrew Folkins of Irving Equipment Ltd. drive across the causeway to Oak Island, their 18-wheeler laden with high-tech excavation equipment. With this equipment, the Oak Island crew plans to fully excavate the Money Pit and solve the Oak Island riddle once and for all.

The narrator explains that the two areas of interest in the vicinity of the Money Pit which Oak Island Tours Inc. plans to excavate are the sites of drill holes labelled ‘Valley 3’ and ‘C1’, respectively. Valley 3 is the hole drilled in The Curse of Oak Island’s Season 2, Episode 4, in which clay, two perpendicularly-oriented fragments of old oak wood, and a substance which is either natural limestone or crude artificial concrete were found between the depths of 140 and 142 feet. The Oak Island crew speculated that Valley 3 might have intersected a concrete treasure vault believed to have been discovered by driller William Chappell in 1897. They named this hypothetical vault the ‘Tester Vault’ in honour of their fellow treasure hunter Craig Tester, the engineer who prescribed the drill hole upon analyzing archival maps.

The other drill hole, C1, was bored in the TV show’s Season 3, Episode 12 on the advice of Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse. This hole encountered a 21-foot void beginning at a depth of 171 feet. The following episode, a special camera revealed the presence what appeared to be a shiny gold-coloured object at depth.

After hearing veteran Oak Island treasure hunter Dan Blankenship express his desire to see the Oak Island mystery solved, the Oak Island crew meet in the War Room, where Oak Island researchers and historians Doug Crowell and Kel Hancock of Blockhouse Investigations inform them that they have identified the location at which Oak Island’s semi-legendary 90-foot stone was last scene: a building in Halifax which once housed a bookbindery called Creighton & Marshall Stationers. The narrator then describes how the stone was discovered at the 90-foot depth in the Money Pit in 1804, transported off the island in 1865, and eventually put on display in the front window of Halifax’s Creighton & Marshall Stationers. The narrator goes on to explain how the stone mysterious disappeared in the 1930’s, and how various Oak Island enthusiasts have been searching for it ever since.

Following the narrator’s explanation, Rick Lagina mentions that the last documented sighting of the stone was in 1909, when Oak Island treasure hunter Harry L. Bowdoin examined it. The narrator then briefly describes the  American treasure hunter, his remarkably unproductive stint on Oak Island, and his visit to Creighton & Marshall Stationers which left him convinced that the cryptic inscription on the 90-foot stone had been completely worn away resultant of its employment as a beating stone.

The Oak Island crew tasks Charles Barkhouse and Alex Lagina with accompanying Crowell and Hancock to the site of the old Halifax bookbindery in order to search for the 90-foot stone. Following the cessation of their meeting, these four men travel to Halifax and promptly locate the old building. Inside, they meet with Dr. Allan Marble, historian and former president of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, and building representative Joe Landry of Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. These two men lead Charles, Alex, Doug, and Kel to the building’s basement where, after exploring for some time, they discover the entrance to an underground military tunnel which had long since been boarded up.

After finding nothing else of interest in the basement, the men exit the building and congregate outside, where Dr. Marble informs them that a former member of the nearby Halifax Club headquarters told his son that he believed a particular stone set into the Club’s floor was, in fact, Oak Island’s 90-foot stone. The crew unanimously agrees that this lead is worth investigation, and so Dr. Marble leads the way to the Halifax Club building.

As the men approach the building, the narrator describes how the Halifax Club, which’s headquarters were built in 1862 by a famous Scottish-Canadian builder and stonemason named George Lang, was a male-only fraternity peopled by some of the city’s most prominent citizens.

Upon entering, the Oak Island crew learns that Halifax Club building is unfinished and under construction, and that the identity of the floor stone in question is a mystery. They meet with Ryan Burke and Zach Woodworth, members of the construction crew tasked with the building’s refinishing, who suggest that they look for the stone in the basement. A subsequent search of the basement reveals nothing of interest.


Back on Oak Island, Marty Lagina, Craig Tester, and Jack Begley, with help from metal detection and GPR experts Matt Savelle and Luke Malanson of Canadian Seabed Research Ltd., search for the infamous Smith’s Cove flood tunnel using ground penetrating radar technology. While the men work, the narrator recalls how men of the Truro Company, a 19th Century Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate, uncovered a set of five box drains under the beach at Smith’s Cove. These box drains- which were covered by layers of coconut fibre, eelgrass, and carefully-placed beach stones- converged like the fingers of a hand to form what they believed to be a single sloped flood tunnel- a boobytrap which fed seawater into the Money Pit.

The men conduct a ground penetrating radar scan of the Smith’s Cove area and discover a point at which they believe the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel might be located. The crew decides to excavate this point in the future.

Later, Rick and Marty Lagina and Craig Tester, while working to clear logs from the Money Pit area, are visited by Dave Blankenship, Lee Lamb, and Lamb’s two children, Claire Bradfield and Brook Helland. Lee Lamb is the daughter and sister, respectively, of Oak Island treasure hunters Robert and Bobby Restall, who lost their lives in what is known as the Oak Island tragedy on August 17, 1965. Lamb, who appeared in Season 1, Episode 3 of The Curse of Oak Island, has returned to the island to show the Laginas and their crew the artifact known as the ‘1704 stone’. As Lee retrieves the item from her car, the narrator describes how the stone was accidentally discovered by Lee’s mother Mildred in 1960 while she, her husband Robert, and her sons Bobby and Richard were living on the island.

Lee and her children accompany Rick, Marty, Craig, and Dave  to Smith’s Cove, where she points out the general location in which her mother discovered the 1704 stone. Lee mentions the ‘Vertical Shaft’, one of her father and brother’s most prominent discoveries on the island, and the fact that her brother Bobby documented its location on his own hand-drawn map of the island. Marty suggests that they use Bobby’s map to locate the Vertical Shaft, to which Lee replies “good luck with that.” The narrator then recounts how treasure hunter Robert Dunfield, who took over the Oak Island treasure hunt following Robert and Bobby Restall’s deaths, destroyed many of Oak Island’s landmarks, including the surface section of the Vertical Shaft, in a massive Money Pit-area excavation.

After Lee and her children conclude their visit to Oak Island, the Oak Island crew gathers at the Money Pit area. There, Vanessa Lucido of ROC Equipment explains how a newly-arrived piece of equipment, called an oscillator, will grind massive steel caissons into the Money Pit area. She asks that a member of the crew turn on the machine, and the crew unanimously nominates Dan Blankenship for the task. With the help of ROC Equipment operator Kent Peterson, the elderly veteran treasure hunter starts up the oscillator and the caisson begins its slow descent into the Money Pit.



Valley 3

In the summer of 2015, Oak Island Tours Inc. under the direction of engineer Craig Tester brought up a 2-foot-long core sample from a hole drilled in the Money Pit area, which they named Valley 3. This sample, which came from a depth of 140’-142’, contained clay, old wood, and a material which could be either natural limestone or manmade concrete. The facts that the core sample contained a concrete-like substance followed by two pieces of wood- the first bearing horizontal-running grain and the second bearing vertical-running grain- led the Oak Island crew to speculate that they might have drilled into the side of the vault discovered by the Oak Island Treasure Company in 1897.
At first glance, one obvious problem with the Oak Island crew’s speculation is the fact that the Oak Island Treasure Company reported drilling through the top of the concrete-wooden vault at a depth of 153 feet, not 140-142 feet. The 11-foot gap between the bottom of the Oak Island Tourism Inc.’s core sample and the top of the Oak Island Treasure Company’s shaft is not insubstantial. However, when comparing these two depths, one must take into consideration the heavy-duty excavations of Robert Dunfield, which significantly altered the elevation of the surface of the Money Pit area. According to Kevin Burns, the executive producer of the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island, Dunfield’s operation resulted in the Money Pit’s surface being roughly 10 feet lower than when it was originally discovered by Daniel McGinnis, John Smith, and Anthony Vaughan in 1795. If true, this means that the Oak Island Tours Inc.’s core sample was taken from a depth of about 150-152 feet below the original Money Pit level- the approximate level at which Frederic Blair and William Chappell discovered the vault in 1897. Perhaps the Oak Island Tours Inc.’s core sample is a piece of the Chappell vault after all. In any case, the men of Oak Island Tours Inc. have taken to calling the vault the Tester Vault, in honour of its discoverer Craig Tester.



During his 25 years of Oak Island research, Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse had come to the conclusion that the Money Pit was located at a spot just north of where the Oak Island crew drilled in Season 2, Episode 4 of The Curse of Oak Island. On Season 3, Episode, 12, the Oak Island crew drilled in the spot prescribed by Barkhouse- which they termed ‘C1’- and discovered some fragments of old oak wood at a depth of around 100 feet along with a 21-foot void beginning at the 171-foot depth. Since the entire Money Pit area is about 10 feet lower than it initially was following treasure hunter Robert Dunfield’s heavy duty excavations in the late 1960’s, this Barkhouse Void would have been located 161-182 feet below the pre-Dunfield surface. This finding is reminiscent of the Money Pit-area void discovered independently by treasure hunters George Green and Robert Dunfield, as well as a void discovered by former Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate Triton Alliance beneath a treasure shaft known as the Hedden Shaft.

In Season 3, Episode 13, a special camera was lowered down drill hole C1. Somewhere below the 171-foot depth, the camera picked up a shiny, gold-coloured object. The nature of this object has yet to be determined.


The 90-Foot Stone

In 1804, the Onslow Company, the current Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate, discovered a large, olive-coloured stone slab in the Money Pit at a depth of 90 feet. The stone- which measured 2.5 feet in length, 1.25 feet in width, and 10 inches in depth, and weighed about 175 pounds- is believed by some to be of either Swedish granite or porphyry, rocks not indigenous to Oak Island. Apparently, none of the Onslow Company members were able to make sense of the stone’s symbols or speculate as to their origin, although the company men unanimously interpreted the stone’s existence as a sign that the treasure they were seeking was close at hand. The Onslow Company workers laid the stone aside upon recovering it and retired for the day shortly afterwards. The following morning, the Money Pit was filled to 30 feet below the surface with water.


Many Oak Island researchers believe that Money Pit co-discoverer and Onslow Company shareholder John Smith took the 90-foot stone into his possession and had it built into the fireplace of his new Oak Island home in 1805, where he exhibited it to visitors to the island. In 1865, eight years after Smith’s death, the stone was removed from Smith’s fireplace and brought to Truro by Oak Island treasure hunter Jotham B. McCully. McCully kept the stone in his Truro home and showcased it to potential investors in his Oak Island treasure hunting scheme. Sometime after, the stone came into the possession of businessman A.O. Creighton, a hopeful Oak Island treasure hunter and partner in a Halifax bookbinding firm called A. & H. Creighton (or perhaps Creighton & Marshall Stationers). A.O. Creighton showcased the stone in the front window of his book bindery, hoping that it might attract investor interest in his Oak Island treasure hunting venture, the Oak Island Contract Company. When the Oak Island Contract Company failed to get off the ground, Creighton used the 90-foot stone as a base on which to beat individual sheets of paper. While the stone was employed for this purpose, the strange inscription on its face gradually wore away into obscurity. By the turn of the 20th Century, the inscription had faded completely. According to some unverified accounts, the stone was taken to Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1920, and was later returned to the bookbindery in Halifax in 1929. Then, sometime in the early 1930’s, the stone mysteriously disappeared, and has been missing ever since.

Shortly after the stone was taken from John Smith’s house and brought to Halifax in 1865, James Liechti, a linguistics professor from Halifax’s Dalhousie University, claimed that the stone was a cipher which, when decoded, read: “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried.” Although no rubbings were made of the stone’s inscription, some believe that the cryptic markings may have been copied down at some point. The only supposed copy of the inscription on the 90-foot stone surfaced in April 1949, in a letter written by Nova Scotian Reverend A.T. Kempton
to Oak Island treasure hunter Frederick Blair. Kempton, in his letter, maintained that he received a copy of the stone
inscription from an “old Irish School Master” who resided somewhere in Mahone Bay. That same year, the Kempton symbols found their way into Edward Rowe Snow’s book True Tales of Buried Treasure. The Kempton symbols form a simple substitution cypher which, when decoded, read the same message allegedly decrypted by Dalhousie Professor James Liechti in 1865: “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried.” It should be mentioned that many serious Oak Island researchers doubt the authenticity of the Kempton symbols, believing the substitution cipher they suggest to be too simplistic. IBM cryptoanalyst Stephen M. Matyas, upon analyzing the Kempton symbols, concluded they were “most likely a fraud” and “cannot be trusted.”

In 1971, Dr. Ross Wilhelm, a Michigan professor who worked as a code breaker during World War II, bolstered the plausibility of the veracity of the Kempton symbols by claiming they formed a double cipher which could be decrypted using a cipher wheel. More recently, Wilhelm’s theory has been supported and supplemented by cryptographer and Oak Island researcher Daniel Ronnstam.

In 1980, Barry Fell, a Harvard zoology professor and marine biologist with a passion for ancient languages, published his book Saga America, a sequel to his book America BC (1976), in which he proposed that ancient Old World peoples regularly made voyages to the New World long before Christopher Columbus’ 1492 discovery. In one small section of Saga America, Fell mentions that the Kempton symbols, allegedly inscribed on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone, actually spelled a Libyan Arabic message using a late Tifinagh script. This message, when translated, read, “To escape contagion of plague and winter hardships, he is to pray for an end or mitigation, the Arif: the people will perish in misery if they forget the Lord, alas.”


Harry Bowdoin


In 1909, a treasure hunter named Captain Harry (or perhaps Henry) L. Bowdoin decided to take a stab at solving the Oak Island mystery. Bowdoin was an American inventor, ex-diver, and marine engineer who was fascinated with the prospect of recovering lost underwater treasure. He claimed that “with modern methods and machinery, the recovery of the [Oak Island] treasure is easy, ridiculously easy.” In 1909, he made a contract with Frederick Blair (Oak Island’s landowner at the time) which allowed him to treasure hunt on Oak Island for a year, and promptly formed the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company. Interestingly, one of the company’s shareholders was a young New York law clerk named Franklin Delano Roosevelt- a man who would later go on to serve as the 32nd President of the United States.

Once Bowdoin had sold enough shares to become operational, he and his crew set up shop on Oak Island. He dubbed the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company’s island headquarters “Camp Kidd,” in reference to the theory that the Money Pit treasure is the long-lost treasure of pirate William Kidd- a theory to which he subscribed. Immediately, Bowdoin and his crew, through the use of divers, got to work searching for the Smith’s Cove box drains. When they were unable to find them, they sent a diver down the flooded Money Pit and learned that it was clear to a depth of 113 feet. Instead of draining the Pit, Bowdoin, who had not raised as much money for his venture as he had initially anticipated, decided to conduct an exploration drilling operation in the Money Pit. He reasoned that if he produced concrete evidence of the vault believed to lie in the Pit at a depth of 161 feet, he would have an easier time attracting investor interest.

Unfortunately for Bowdoin, the drilling results revealed precious little. Aside from blue clay between the 130-146-foot depths and 6-10-inch-thick layers of cement from 146-149 feet, the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company brought up no evidence of treasure or man-made structures from the Money Pit. These findings, or lack thereof, thoroughly discouraged investors, who quickly withdrew their support. Unable to raise the capital they needed to carry out additional exploration and excavation, the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company folded.

Following his ill-fated stint on Oak Island, at the end of which he and island landowner Frederick Blair had a falling out, Bowdoin wrote a bitter summary of his Oak Island experience in which he ultimately stated his belief that there is not, in fact, any treasure on the island to find. In his article, which was published in a Nova Scotian newspaper, Bowdoin asserted that he had travelled to Creighton & Marshall Stationers in Halifax to examine the 90-foot stone, and found it to be completely devoid of markings of any kind. Some Oak Island researchers believe that Bowdoin’s assertion indicates that the inscription on the 90 foot stone wore away as a result of its being employed as a beating stone, was deliberately defaced at some point, or never existed in the first place. Others suggest that the stone, in actuality, still did bear an inscription at the time Bowdoin wrote his article, and that Bowdoin lied about its condition in order to spite Frederick Blair, with whom his relationship was strained.

It is somewhat ironic that the main character of what is probably the most boring chapter of Oak Island history has one of the most interesting backstories. As mentioned earlier, Captain Harry (or perhaps Henry) L. Bowdoin was an inventor, ex-diver, and marine engineer who was obsessed with recovering lost underwater treasure. A number of
old articles have been written about the arrogant engineer’s many achievements, all of which assign Bowdoin a different hometown. Some claim he was a resident of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Others maintain he was a New Yorker who lived in Manhattan or Whitestone, Queens. Others still assert that he was a native of Bayonne, New Jersey. All, however, agree that he was an American citizen.

bowdoin-diving-suitBefore his death in 1935, Bowdoin invented a number of fascinating underwater treasure-hunting apparatuses. Before arriving on Oak Island in 1909, he had invented what he called the “Bowdoin Air Lock Caisson,” a subaqueous treasure-retrieval device which used positive air pressure to keep water out. In 1915, six years after leaving Oak Island, he invented a type of heavily-armoured atmospheric diving unit (a submarine suit designed for ultra-deep-water dives) with oil-filled rotary joints. And in 1930, he invented a type of controllable diving bell, a submarine
chamber which enabled occupants to do salvage work on the ocean floor. Bowdoin also invented a number of non-treasure- hunting-related devices, including a “Theatrical Apparatus”- designed “for use in giving exhibitions or performances whereby in connection with a tank of water, drowning, disappearing, rescuing and other scenes may be affected…” – a rudder lock for boats, and an ice cream cone-making machine.

Although Bowdoin’s brief and ill-fated stint on Oak Island was his first treasure-hunting adventure, it was not his last. In 1916, Bowdoin tested his new atmospheric diving unit in a failed attempt to retrieve the $120,000,000 Spanish treasure believed to lie at the bottom of Vigo Bay where, in a 1702 naval battle of the War of Spanish Succession, seventeen Spanish treasure galleons were sunk by English and Dutch warships. Years later, in 1932 and 1933, Bowdoin attempted to salvage the $2,000,000 treasure of the sunken SS Merida- an American steamer loaded with Yucatan aristocrats (and the contents of their safes) fleeing the Mexican Revolution- which sank off the Virginia Capes at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in 1911.


The Smith’s Cove Flood Tunnel

In the summer of 1850, a member of the Truro Company noticed that seawater trickled as if from underground at several places on Smith’s Cove during low tide. In the words of one of the Truro Company members, the beach “gulched forth water like a sponge being squeezed.” Upon further investigation, the Company learned, to their astonishment, that a large part of Smith’s Cove was actually a huge artificial filter designed to prevent box drains below from being clogged with debris.


This massive filter, about 145 square feet in area, was composed of several different layers of material. Below the layer of sand which covered its surface was a 2-inch-thick layer of coir, or coconut fibre. According to one account, the coir was topped with a thin layer of blue clay. Below the coconut fibre was a 4-inch-thick layer of decayed marine eelgrass. Below the eelgrass was a layer of flat, clean beach stones. And below the beach stones was a series of carefully-constructed box drains which apparently converged, like the folds of a hand fan, to a point somewhere along the Cove’s shore. The drains- which, according to some accounts, were eight inches wide- were graded so that they sloped downwards towards the shore.

The Truro Company members believed that the drains fed a flood tunnel which extended from Smith’s Cove to the Money Pit. This flood tunnel, they believed, was the reason the water level in the Money Pit could not be lowered via bailing. Accordingly, they built a cofferdam around Smith’s Cove so as to give them better access to the beach workings before systematically dismantling the box drains, working from the cofferdam towards the shore. Before the Truro Company was able to reach the point at which the drains apparently converged, however, the cofferdam was destroyed by the implacable Atlantic elements and the deconstruction project was abandoned.


The Restall Family

In October 1959, Mel Chappell, Oak Island’s landowner and Treasure Trove licence holder at the time, signed a contract with Robert Restall, a hopeful Oak Island treasure hunter who had been writing him persistently since 1955.
Restall- a plumber, steamfitter, tinkerer, and ex-motorcycle stunt rider from Hamilton, Ontario- was not a wealthy man. However, the financial support he received from his friend Fred Sparham, coupled with his keen analytical mind, his strong mechanical inclination, his honest character, and most of all his indomitable perseverance (as
evidenced by the many letters he wrote to Chappell from 1955- 1959), made him, in Chappell’s mind, the perfect man for the job. That month, Restall, along with his wife Mildred and his eighteen-year-old son Bobby, moved into a tiny tool shack on Oak Island near the Money Pit. Grateful for the rare and long-sought-after opportunity to search for Oak Island’s famous treasure, and eager to please the ever-restless Chappell, Robert and his son got to work preparing for a grueling winter excavation of Smith’s Cove.

Below is a video of Robert and Mildred Restall performing in the so-called ‘Globe of Death’. Before coming to Oak Island, Robert and Mildred worked seasonally as motorcycle stuntsmen. Video courtesy of Lee Lamb.

Throughout the fall of 1959 and the winter of 1959/60, Robert and Bobby Restall dug a number of test holes along the Smith’s Cove beach in search of the legendary flood tunnel that had thwarted Oak Island treasure hunters time and time again since 1804, when the Onslow Company first reached the Money Pit’s 90-foot level. Loath to destroy potential archaeological evidence left behind by the mysterious men responsible for the original Oak Island workings, the father and son eschewed the use of heavy machinery, opting instead to labour with pick and shovel as their Oak Island predecessors had done. While digging in Smith’s Cove, they uncovered the remains of the massive coir-eelgrass-stone filter first discovered by the Truro Company in the summer of 1850, and learned that it was far larger than previously believed.


Robert and Bobby Restall toiled on Smith’s Cove for several years, making a number of intriguing discoveries. They remained on Oak island until their untimely deaths in 1965.



Lee Lamb

Lee Lamb is Robert and Mildred Restall’s first child and only daughter. Although she spent relatively little time on Oak Island compared to her parents and brothers, her accounts of the Restall treasure hunt, which she details in her books Oak Island Obsession: The Restall Story (2006) and Oak Island Family: The Restall Hunt for Buried Treasure (2014), are nevertheless the best sources on this particular chapter of Oak Island history.

In Oak Island Obsession: The Restall Story, Lamb begins with a detailed backstory of Robert and Mildred. She goes on to describe her own childhood, and recounts anecdotes from her early life in Hamilton, Ontario, which illustrate her family members’ unique characters and personalities. Lamb describes her father’s struggle to secure digging rights on Oak Island and includes a number of the letters written between him and Mel Chappell. She includes some of her mother Mildred’s insightful accounts of Oak Island life, as well as a few stories written by her brother Ricky. She chronicles her family’s Oak Island treasure hunt by seamlessly weaving her own narrative with her father’s many letters to friend and investor Fred Sparham, and by including samples of Bobby Restall’s many journal entries, sketches and articles.

Oak Island Family: The Restall Hunt for Buried Treasure is a shorter summary of Oak Island Obsession specifically written for teenagers and young adults.

More recently, Lee Lamb has published Strange Legacy: A Memoir of Paranormal Events (2016), a brief autobiography in which she describes a number of her own strange experiences which she attributes to the supernatural. Some of these experiences include an out-of-body/ near-death experience, premonitions, episodes of clairvoyance, and other strange phenomena.

In October 2016, Lamb published another autobiography, A Kid on the Carnival: The Glory Days, in which she recounts her childhood experience of touring with the Conklin carnival.


The Oak Island Tragedy

Tuesday, August 17, 1965, began as just another day on Oak Island for the Restall family. In the early afternoon, Robert Restall peered into a flooded shaft to make sure that the pump was running smoothly (at that time, he and his son Bobby were sinking shafts along the hypothetical line of the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel, hoping that they might intercept the legendary booby trap and stem its water flow). Suddenly, he fell in. Robert Restall had gotten a whiff of some sort of toxic gas which filled the pit below. Some Oak Island researchers theorize that it was carbon monoxide, exhaust from the gas-powered pump which was running at the shaft’s bottom. Others maintain that it might have been methane, or swamp gas, a product of rotten underground vegetation. However, the facts that witnesses described the gas as having a pungent smell akin to the stench of rotten eggs, and that Robert Restall succumbed to the gas almost instantly, indicate that the gas was almost certainly hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a powerful, deadly gas sometimes encountered by oil drillers and underground miners.

Upon seeing his father topple into the pit, Bobby, who was gathering brush at the time, rushed to his
aid. He had barely begun to descend the shaft’s ladder when he, too, fell in. Karl Graeser, who had also rushed to help, similarly fell to the bottom of the shaft, along with Cyril Hiltz and Andrew Demont, two young cousins who worked as labourers on the Restall crew, and a worker named Leonard Kaizer. According to Andrew Demont in a later account, the last thing he remembered before passing out was a lucid Bobby Restall holding his father’s head above water.

Among the handful of tourists on Oak Island at the time was a firefighter from Buffalo, New York, named Edward White. White was certain that the six men had fallen victim to some sort of toxic gas. Despite the protests from his wife, he tied a handkerchief around his mouth and nose, secured a rope around himself, and asked a fellow bystander to lower him into the pit.

The handkerchief around White’s mouth and nose did little to protect him from the gas. In spite of this, the Buffalo native managed to rescue two men- Kaizer and young Demont- from the shaft before admitting that he could not take the gas any longer. By this time, the water in the shaft was rising fast; the pump was no longer working.

Tragically, Robert and 24-year-old Bobby Restall, Karl Graeser, and 16-year-old Cyril Hiltz drowned to death in that pit, bringing the Oak Island death toll up to 6. Although most attributed the tragedy to bad luck, some of the more superstitious locals suggested that the four men had fallen victim to a curse put on the island by the original builders. In time, this belief gave rise to what is now a popular Oak Island legend: that a total of 7 people must die before Oak Island will reveal its secrets.


1704 Stone

On November 6, 1960, Robert’s wife Mildred made an intriguing discovery which may shed some light on the mysterious origins of the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel. To give the story of this discovery some context, it should be noted that, starting in the fall of 1960, Mildred enrolled Ricky in a Government of Nova Scotia correspondence
course so that he could continue his education while living on Oak Island. In the mornings, she would help Ricky with his lessons and homework. In the afternoons, if the weather permitted, she would often accompany Ricky as he explored various parts of the island. On the afternoon of November 6, 1960, Ricky was spending his post-lesson time playing with fish in a tide-pool on Smith’s Cove not too far from where Robert and Bobby were working. Nearby
the tide pool farther down the beach was a dump pile at which, earlier that season, the two men had shoveled the rubble from one of their Smith’s Cove shafts. The pile’s dirt and debris washed away with the tide, leaving behind nothing but the rocks. While Ricky played in the pool, Mildred idly examined some of the stones in the pile. To her surprise, she gradually realized that one of the stones appeared to have some characters carved onto its surface… but she wasn’t sure. Curious, she retrieved the stone, washed it off, and sent Ricky to inform Robert and Bobby that she might have found something significant.


At first, the men were irritated at having been interrupted from their work. However, when they saw what Mildred had discovered, they immediately examined the rest of the rocks in the dump pile to see if there were any more like it. As it turned out, the rock Mildred had recovered was the only stone bearing an inscription.

In the beginning, the inscription on the stone was dark and hard to make out, although it had obviously been carved with some sort of chisel. As time drew on and the stone dried out, however, the writing on its surface became clearly legible. The stone read ‘1704’ in a style which, according to experts, was common in England around the turn of the 18th Century.


The Vertical Shaft

In the summer of 1961, Robert and Bobby Restall discovered what they described as a carefully-constructed
stone dome hidden among the rocks of Smith’s Cove at a location in line with the Money Pit area, an Oak Island landmark known as the Cave-in Pit, and two drilled rocks discovered on the island. Beneath the dome was a shaft about 1.5 feet in diameter which disappeared deep into the earth. When tested, it appeared that the hole led to some underground water. They called this shaft the Vertical Shaft.

The Restalls believed that the Vertical Shaft not only led to the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel, but was also the spot at which the original Oak Island builders meant for the flood tunnel to be shut off. Robert Restall theorized that the original builders might have designed the shaft so that the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel would shut off once it was stuffed with a ship’s sail and packed with clay. Accordingly, he tried to pump cement down the Vertical Shaft so that it might similarly shut off the flood tunnel. Unfortunately, the cement Restall purchased from Western Shore was of inferior quality, and did not make a good seal; the cement was washed away with the tide.


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The Curse of Oak Island- Season 4, Episode 3: Swamp Things

The Curse of Oak Island- Season 4, Episode 3: Swamp Things

Rick and Marty Lagina and the crew are back in the bog in this week’s episode of The Curse of Oak Island. For Americans looking for a refresher, and for Canadians hungry for a sneak peek, here is a Plot Summary and Analysis of Season 4, Episode 3: Swamp Things.






Plot Summary

Treasure hunters Rick and Marty Lagina, Craig Tester, Dave Blankenship, Jack Begley, Marty’s son Alex, and Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse meet in the War Room following the funeral of veteran Oak Island treasure hunter Fred Nolan. In honour of the Nova Scotian surveyor who had dedicated so much of his life to the Oak Island quest, Marty reads a poem entitled The Surveyor, by Don W. Thomson. The narrator follows up on Marty’s reading by briefing Nolan’s long Oak Island history and describing some of his most prominent discoveries, including the giant cross-shaped pattern of Oak Island boulders styled ‘Nolan’s Cross.’


Rick Lagina states that, while Nolan’s passing has elicted grief, it has also hardened his resolve to get to the bottom of the Oak Island mystery. The rest of the crew echo Rick’s sentiments. The crew then briefly discusses the possibility of future excavations in the Oak Island swamp (formerly Nolan’s property), and the upcoming Big Dig in the Money Pit area.

The following morning, Rick Lagina and Charles Barkhouse meet at the Money Pit area, where heavy equipment operators of Brycon Construction, a Nova Scotian contracting company, are levelling the Money Pit area for the Big Dig, and building an access road to the worksite. While the two men examine wooden debris the contractors have dug up- likely timbers from previous searcher shafts- the narrator recounts treasure hunter Robert Dunfield’s heavy-duty operation in the late 1960’s which ultimately transformed the entire Money Pit area into a massive backfilled crater.

While sifting through the freshly-exposed earth in the Money Pit area, Rick discover small fragments of pottery- likely relics of previous treasure hunting syndicates. Shortly thereafter, Charles discovers a small flat stone, which he believes to be a piece of tile. Upon closer inspection, the two men identify a vague marking on the tile, which Charles suggests might be an “‘X’ with a hook.” The narrator then describes how forensic geologist Scott Wolter- host of the H2 TV series America Unearthed– has recently posited that this particular symbol is a medieval rune adopted by the Knights Templar, whom some theorists believed buried their most valuable treasure on Oak Island following the suppression of their Order in 1307. Rick suggests that they ought to have a geologist take a look at the inscribed tile to determine whether it is natural or worked by man.


Later, Rick and Marty Lagina, Marty’s son Alex, Craig Tester, Dave Blankenship, and Charles Barkhouse meet in the War Room with Matt Savelle, a metal detection expert of Canadian Seabed Research Ltd. This is not Sevelle’s first Oak Island experience; the metal detection expert’s The Curse of Oak Island debut took place in Season 2, Episode 8, in which he, along with co-worker Pat Campbell, used the MALA Rough Terrain Antenna System (a Ground Penetrating Radar device) to survey the southwestern section of the Oak Island swamp, the Mercy Point area (situated at the apex of the Oak Island swamp), and the so-called Enochean Chamber area (situated at the central-western edge of the Oak Island swamp).

The narrator reveals that Savelle returned to the island earlier that year to conduct additional tests in the Oak Island swamp with a Geonics EM-61 MK IIA metal detector. At the Mercy Point area at the swamp’s apex- at which professional diver Tony Sampson, in Season 2, Episode 1, discovered an old oak stump- and in the swamp’s southwestern section, the metal detector got ‘big hits’.

Back in the War Room. Savelle explains that the Mercy Point reading indicates that the metal in question might be located beneath the point at which Tony Sampson discovered the stump. He also explains that the metal in the southwest section of the swamp appears to be long and flat. The crew decides to task diver Tony Sampson with exploring these two locations.


Later, while brothers Rick and Marty Lagina discuss the upcoming swamp exploration, the narrator explains how, in the summer of 2014, the Oak Island crew discovered a 1652 copper Spanish 8 maravedis at the Mercy Point area. He goes on to briefly summarize the theories that Oak Island’s mysterious underground workings are attributable to the crew of a lost Spanish treasure galleon and European buccaneers, respectively.

At the swamp, Rick and Marty Lagina and Jack Begley meet with Tony Sampson. The four men travel to the Mercy Point area, whereapon Sampson manually examines the area at which Savelle’s survey indicated the presence of metal. Sampson, equipped with a hand-held metal detector, soon discovers discovers some sort of metal object which appears to be encased in a large stump rooted to the swamp floor. Sampson pries the object loose, revealing it to be a survey marker placed decades ago by Fred Nolan.

Following the discovery, the narrator launches into a brief history of Fred Nolan’s swamp excavations, and his belief- also held by a number of independent researchers- that the Oak Island swamp is artificial. The narrator also recounts the theory espoused by some researchers that Oak Island was once actually two islands, and that the men who built the Money Pit and the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel joined the two islands together in an effort to conceal something between them. According to the narrator, Nolan believed that this ‘something’ was a treasure galleon, which is now buried beneath the Oak Island swamp.

The narrator goes on to describe the theory, presented by writers Alan Butler and Kathleen McGowan in Season 2, Episode 7, that a chamber reminiscent of the Chamber of Enoch from ancient Hebrew scripture lies at the central-western edge of the Oak Island swamp. He also alludes to Scandinavian cyptographers Petter Amundsen and Daniel Ronnstam’s theory that a Rosicrucian (i.e. pertaining to the Order of the Rosy Cross, a mysterious Renaissance-era secret society) vault lies at the Mercy Point in the Oak Island swamp.

Back at the swamp, Marty Lagina expresses his disappointment that Sampson’s investigation did not produce a more significant discovery, as well as satisfaction that Savelle’s data was accurate. Without further ado, the Lagina brothers, Jack Begley, and Tony Sampson proceed to the second area of interest in the swamp indicated by Savelle’s survey.

At this new location, Sampson promptly unearths a long wooden plank. Although the crew initially fears that the hits from Sampson’s metal detector are attributable to nails or bolts embedded in the plank, a thorough examination by Jack Begley reveals the board to be devoid of metal. Sampson fails to uncover anything else in the area, and the crew eventually calls off the operation.


In an aside, Rick and Marty explain that Sampson’s failure to uncover any metal in the area is an indication that the metallic object revealed by Savelle’s survey is buried beneath the swamp floor. If true, it is likely that whatever lies at that location is relevant to the Oak Island mystery.

Following the diving operation, Rick and Marty Lagina, Tony Sampson, and Jack Begley examine the long wooden plank Sampson uncovered in the swamp. The treasure hunters suggest the plank might be a fragment of the ship Fred Nolan believed lay beneath the Oak Island swamp, and agree that a carbon dating is in order.

Later, Rick Lagina and Craig Tester meet with geologist Phil Finck and present him with the flat stone piece Rick discovered in the Money Pit area which Charles Barkhouse suggested might be a tile inscribed with a hooked ‘X’. Finck informs the treasure hunters that the slab is sandstone, and that most of the markings on its surface are natural glacial striations. However, he concludes that the hooked ‘X’ inscribed on its surface is likely man-made.


After concluding their meeting with Finck, the Oak Island crew congregates in the War Room, where Craig Tester informs them that the plank of wood Tony Sampson unearthed in the Oak Island swamp was carbon dated from 1680-1735 with a 95% degree of accuracy. Marty Lagina remarks that the carbon dating is consistent with a number of Oak Island theories, including Fred Nolan’s theory that a ship laden with treasure was buried in the Oak Island swamp. Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse remarks that the plank’s carbon dating is but the newest of a succession of discoveries supporting Nolan’s theory, which include Nolan’s discoveries of “parts of a spar… and also a section of a ship called a ‘scuppers'” in the Oak Island swamp.

Talk then turns to the mysterious metal object in the southwest section of the swamp, apparently located beneath the plank Tony Sampson unearthed. Marty states his desire to excavate that particular section of the swamp- an interesting turn of events considering his historic aversion to the Oak Island swamp. With that, the meeting is concluded.


Fred Nolan

stone-triangleFrederick G. Nolan, a one-man treasure hunting company and professional Provincial Land Surveyor from Bedford, Nova Scotia, had been looking for Oak Island treasure since 1966. Nolan first came to Oak Island as a tourist in the late 1950’s. In 1962, after receiving permission from Mel Chappell (who owned Oak Island and its Treasure Trove licence at the time), he returned to conduct a comprehensive survey of the island while Robert and Bobby Restall (contemporary Oak Island treasure hunters) laboured in Smith’s Cove. While conducting his survey, Nolan recorded the positions of various Oak Island landmarks, including the stone triangle on the South Shore Cove. In this way, he preserved a number of potentially significant landmarks that were later destroyed in Robert Dunfield’s heavy duty excavations, carried out in the late 1960’s.

After persistently urging Mel Chappell to allow him to partake in the treasure hunt and being sharply rebuffed, Nolan made a trip to the Registry Office in nearby Chester and learned that Oak Island’s Lots 5 and 9-14- all but one of them situated around the Oak Island swamp- were not owned by Chappell but rather by the heirs of the late Sophia Sellers, who had inherited Oak Island property from her father Anthony Graves. Nolan quietly approached the heirs with an offer and succeeded in purchasing seven lots of Oak Island real estate for $2,500. Ever since his purchase and subsequent acquisition of an Oak Island Treasure Trove licence, there has been two official treasure hunts on Oak Island. Once Mel Chappell got wind of Nolan’s purchase, a friendly rivalry ensued, which quickly devolved into a bitter feud. This feud between Fred Nolan and his rival Oak Island treasure hunters (which spilled over from Chappell to Dan Blankenship’s Triton Alliance to Oak Island Tours Inc.)- involving a series of financially-draining legal battles and malicious pranks in which both parties were equally culpable- continued for four decades, greatly hampering the progress of the Oak Island treasure hunt. While not engaging his treasure hunting rivals in court or on the Oak Island battlefield, Nolan made a number of interesting discoveries on his property. These discoveries include:

  • Four stone cairns, located on Oak Island’s northeastern hilltop, which appear to form two triangles, one pointing west towards the swamp, and the other pointing northwest towards Joudrey’s Cove.
  • A number of drilled rocks similar to the ones discovered by Oak Island treasure hunter Gilbert Hedden in 1937.
  • A number of rocks with metal ringbolts embedded in them.
  • The Old Well, a well located at the edge of the Oak Island swamp.
  • Parts of a ship’s spar in the Oak Island swamp.
  • A ship’s scuppers in the Oak Island swamp.
  • Sandstone survey markers.
  • The remains of three ancient oak chests in theOak Island swamp.
  • Various marked rocks and stone strutures.
  • Nolan’s Cross.

In the summer of 2015, Fred Nolan made peace with Dan Blankenship, Dave Blankenship, and Rick and Marty Lagina of Oak Island Tours Inc., effectively ending a bitter feud that had greatly hindered the progression of the Oak Island treasure hunt for 40 years. This peace pact was manifest in a formal agreement between Nolan and his former rivals, in which Nolan granted the Blankenships and Oak Island Tours Inc. access to his incredibly detailed survey maps, much of his property, and the various places of interest on Oak Island he has pinned down over the years based on his interpretation of the orientation of the various landmarks he recorded on his survey maps. According to Rick Lagina in an “Ask Me Anything” thread which he Marty Lagina submitted to in November 2015, “being able to work with Fred Nolan” was one of Oak Island Tours Inc.’s biggest successes on Oak Island to date. On June 4, 2016, one month and one day before his 89th birthday, Frederick G. Nolan passed away, leaving behind his wife Ora, his son Thomas J., his granddaughters Catherine and Shannon, his brother Frank, and a number of nieces and nephews.

Nolan’s Cross


In 1981, Fred Nolan made what is arguably his most important discovery on Oak Island. That year, he discovered that five conical granite boulders on his property, each of them approximately 8 feet wide and 9 feet high, formed a perfect Latin cross. Upon this discovery, Nolan dug a hole at the centre of the cross and unearthed a large sandstone boulder which bears vague resemblance to a human head. This cross- dubbed ‘Nolan’s Cross’- has an 867-foot-long stem and a 720-foot-long crossbeam and has been fodder for countless theories regarding the nature of the Oak Island treasure, including the Templar theory, the Rosicrucian theory, the Freemason theory, and others.

Hooked ‘X’



In this episode of The Curse of Oak Island, Rick Lagina comes across a small, flat piece of stone upon which Charles Barkhouse suggests is inscribed a ‘hooked X’. Later, geologist Phil Finck determines that the supposed inscription on the rock’s surface is indeed man-made.

The notion of the historical and archaeological significance of the ‘hooked X’ character is most prominantly espoused by Scott Wolter, a forensic geologist and fringe historian who hosts the H2 TV series America Unearthed. Wolter first came across the symbol of the hooked X while examining the Kensington Runestone -a large stone inscribed with runic markings discovered on a farm near Kensington, Minnesota in 1898, which some researchers believe is evidence of a 14th Century Scandinavian expedition deep into the American continent- as a geological professional. Wolter was intrigued by the presence of a recurring ‘hooked X’ character on the runestone, which runic scholars were unable to identify. Upon further investigation, Wolter discovered what he believes to be variations of this same hooked X inscribed on a disparate variety of seemingly unrelated stones and documents, including:

  • The Copiale Cipher, an encrypted 18th Century manuscript which, upon its decipherment in 2011, revealed the existence of a secret sub-Freemasonic society called The Oculus Order of Wolfenbuttel  (seriously)).

  • The Larsson Papers, the 1883 notes of then-16-year-old Edward Larsson, a Swedish tailor’s apprentice who had immigrated to America. Larsson’s notes suggest that the hooked X character represents the letter ‘A’. It should be mentioned that the Larsson Papers appear to call into question the authenticity

    of the Kensington Runestone, suggesting that the inscription on its surface be written in a 19th Century secret runic alphabet favoured by Swedish craftsmen.

  • The Talpiot Tomb, an ancient rock-cut tomb in the Old City of Jerusalem around which a controversial theory revolves.
  • The signature of Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus, whom some Oak Island researchers believe had a hand in the Oak Island mystery.
  • The walls of Rosslyn Chapel, which features prominantly in the theories that the Knights Templar or members of some Freemasonic Lodge are responsible for Oak Island’s underground workings.
  • The Spirit Pond Runestones, three stone allegedly inscribed with runic inscriptions which were discovered in Phippsburg, Maine, in 1971.
  • The Narragansett Runestone, a 2.5 tonne stone inscribed with allegedly runic markings which, prior to its theft in 2012 and resurfacing in 2013, was situated between the high and low tide lines on the shores of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

Wolter has used his findings to weave a bizarre, controversial conspiracy theory involving the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Catholic Church, and the Holy Grail, which he outlines in his books The Kensington Runestone: Compelling New Evidence (2005), The Hooked X: Key to the Secret History of North America (2009), From Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers: the Mysteries of the Hooked X (2013), and Templar Sanctuaries in North America: Sacred Bloodlines and Secret Treasures (2016). Charles Barkhouse’s suggestion that the small flat stone discovered by Rick Lagina in the Money Pit might be inscribed with a hooked X appears to be an effort to establish some sort of connection between Wolter’s theories and the Oak Island mystery.

Wooden Plank


In this episode of The Curse of Oak Island, diver Tony Sampson discovered a long wooden plank submerged at a particular section of the Oak Island swamp at which metal detection surveys revealed the presence of a large quantity of buried metal. This board was later carbon dated from 1680-1735 with a 95% degree of accuracy. This carbon dating is congruent with a number of prominent theories regarding the nature of Oak Island’s underground workings, including:

  • The Spanish theory, which holds that the Money Pit and Smith’s Cove flood tunnel were built by the crew of a shipwrecked Spanish treasure galleon laden with New World silver.
  • The William Phips theory, which involves New English treasure hunter and privateer William Phips, the treasure of the sunken Spanish treasure galleon La Concepcion, and a British conspiracy revolving around the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
  • The Captain Kidd theory, which posits that Oak Island’s underground workings are attributable to the crew of privateer captain William Kidd, who was hanged for piracy in 1701.
  • Fred Nolan’s theory

Fred Nolan’s Theory

In this episode, the narrator reveals that the late Oak Island landowner and treasure hunter Fred Nolan believed that the eastern and western ends of Oak Island were, at one point, actually separate islands, and that those who constructed the Money Pit and the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel sailed a treasure-laden ship between the two islands, joined the two islands together in a massive earthworks project, and sank the treasure ship beneath the artificial swamp that was created.

In The Curse of Oak Island’s Season 3, Episode 7, Fred Nolan explained his belief that Oak Island’s artificial swamp, the Money Pit, and the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel were constructed by the British during the American Revolution, and that the treasure they buried was bullion and specie from the Thirteen Colonies.


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The Curse of Oak Island, Season 4, Episode 2: Always Forward

The Curse of Oak Island- Season 4, Episode 2: Always Forward


Last night, American fans of the History Channel were able to watch the newest chapter of Canada’s greatest and longest-running treasure hunt. For my fellow Canadians who don’t feel like waiting until Sunday, and for our American friends who want to learn a little more about what they just watched, here is a Plot Summary and Analysis of Season 4, Episode 2 of The Curse of Oak Island, entitled Always Forward.





Plot Summary

The episode begins where Season 4, Episode 1 left off: at the location on the western end of Oak Island at which New Yorkish Knights Templar researcher Zena Halpern’s mysterious map suggests a ‘hatch’ might be found. Treasure hunters Rick and Marty Lagina, Dave Blankenship, and Craig Tester look on as their fellow treasure hunter Jack Begley clears the area of brush.


As Begley works, the narrator recounts how Halpern, in the previous episode, presented Oak Island Tours Inc. with three old documents which came into her possession by chance, and which she believes are connected with the Oak Island mystery. The first of these documents, now popularly known as ‘La Formule’, bears a strange inscription

containing many of the same characters as the Kempton symbols, believed by some to have been inscribed on the long-lost ’90-foot stone’ (which was discovered in Oak Island’s Money Pit at a depth of 90 feet in 1804). The second document Halpern presented to the team was a map of what appears to be Nova Scotia, labelled in French and dated 1179. The third document Halpern came forward with- the aforementioned map of Oak Island- bears the date ‘1347’, and is similarly labelled in French. Specifically, the French labels on Halpern’s map of Oak Island indicate the presence a number of landmarks on the island. Some of these landmarks, like ‘the swamp’, the Money Pit, and ‘the stone triangle’, are familiar to Oak Island researchers. Others, like ‘the valve’, ‘the anchors’, and, most relevantly, the ‘hatch’, are entirely new pieces to the Oak Island puzzle. In this episode, Oak Island Tours Inc. hopes to investigate ‘the hatch’, one of the most intriguing of these new puzzle pieces.

After clearing the area in question of vegetation, Jack Begley starts digging by hand. His manual excavation reveals an angular cavity in the underlying rock. Marty Lagina speculates that the cavity might be artificial, prompting his elder brother Rick to express his concern that a more rigorous excavation might compromise the integrity of what, if anything, lies below. Both brothers agree that an archaeologist ought to examine the structure before any more digging is done.

Later, Rick Lagina and Jack Begley meet with Lorne Flowers, Perry Power, Andrew Folkins, and Mike Lynch of Irving Equipment Ltd. (a contracting company based out of Saint John, New Brunswick), and with Allan Sutherland of Brycon Constructions Ltd. (a similar company headquartered in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia). The men congregate at the Money Pit area, where they discuss how best to prepare the area for the long-awaited ‘Big Dig’ with which the men of Oak Island Tours Inc. hope to liberate the Money Pit of its precious contents. Due to a particular treasure-hunter’s heavy-duty excavations in the Money Pit area in the late 1960’s, the earth in which Rick, Marty, and their crew plan to dig is unstable, and unable to support heavy machinery. In order to rectify this problem, the men decide to level the area surrounding the Money Pit, reinforce it with layers of gravel, and construct an access road to the work site.

knights-templarAfter the meeting, Rick Lagina and Oak Island historian and tour guide Charles Barkhouse accompany local researcher Doug Crowell of Blockhouse Investigations to New Ross, Nova Scotia where, in Season 4, Episode 1, the three of them had done some investigation. As they drive, the narrator explains how Zena Halpern’s mysterious map of Nova Scotia- labelled in French and dated 1179- suggests the importance of a place called “RhoDon”, apparently situated at what is now New Ross, templar-castleNova Scotia. After summarizing a belief, held by some local researchers, that a particular New Ross property was once the site of a Knights Templar castle, he goes on to explain how Rick, Charles, and Doug, in the previous episode, had studied a mysterious stone-lined water well on that property and discovered strange lines on its bottom, a finding which they believed warranted further investigation.

In New Ross, Rick, Charles, and Doug meet with authors and property owners Alessandra Nadudvari and Tim Loncarich, as well as with professional diver Tony Sampson. It is decided that Sampson will dive to the bottom of the well to see if, as Nadudvari and Loncarich suspect, the well bottom is merely the entrance to a secret underground chamber.

As Sampson prepares for the dive, the narrator describes the fringe theory, hitherto unsupported by anything aside from folk legend and circumstantial evidence, that outlawed Templar knights visited the New World sometime after the suppression of their order in 1307, bringing with them some of their most valuable treasure including, perhaps, the Ark of the Covenant. He goes on to describe three pieces of evidence proponents of this theory have used to support their claim.


The first of these items suggesting a pre-Columbian Templar voyage to the New World are two of the carvings that adorn the interior of Rosslyn Chapel, a 15th Century Scottish castle commissioned by the grandson of Scottish-Orcadian nobleman Henry Sinclair (whom some researchers have proposed sailed across the Atlantic in 1398 on some sort of Templar-oriented mission). One of these carvings depicts what some claim to be Indian corn, a New World crop which would not have been known in Europe (except, perhaps, by the Norse Vikings, who

established temporary settlements on the Canadian Atlantic coast as early as the mid 10th Century) during the mid 1400’s, at the time of the chapel’s construction. The other Rosslyn carving cited by proponents of the Templar theory depicts what some maintain is a three-petalled trillium flower, another plant endemic to the New World.

The second piece of evidence the narrator cites as verification of a 14th Century Templar voyage to the Americas are the legends of Glooscap, a hero of Mi’kmaq (a Nova Scotian First Nation) mythology. Some Oak Island researchers have argued that Glooscap shares some characteristics with Henry Sinclair, whom some believe brought the Templar treasure to Oak Island in the late 1300’s. The supposed similarities between these two individuals seems to imply that the legendary Glooscap may be based on the real-life Henry Sinclair, who, according to this theory, apparently interacted with and thoroughly impressed the Nova Scotian Mi’kmaq during his alleged 14th Century voyage to the New World.

The third and final piece of evidence the narrator brings up is the claim that the flag of the Mi’kmaq Nation is the reverse image of a Templar battle flag, suggesting that the Mi’kmaq borrowed the image from visiting Templars in the 14th Century.


At the New Ross property, diver Tony Sampson and his team construct a sturdy wooden frame around the well, from which they suspend a bosun’s chair. During a preliminary safety inspection of the well, Sampson discovers a rock bearing a triangle-shaped carving. Upon close inspection, the crew discovers another obscure marking inside the triangle which Sampson, a Freemason, suggests might be an eye.


The narrator follows up on Sampson suggestion by explaining that the symbol of a pyramid with an eye in its centre- also known as the ‘Eye of Providence’ or the ‘All-Seeing Eye’- was adopted by late 18th Century Freemasons, and that some researchers believe it was also employed by the Knights Templar. He goes on to state that the symbol of the triangle is a recurring motif on Oak Island, being the shape of the Oak Island swamp and one of the Kempton symbols (believed by some to have been inscribed on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone).


broad-arrowFollowing the discovery of the carved triangle, Tony Sampson dons his diving gear and descends into the New Ross well. Near the well’s bottom he discovers another stone in which the image of a broad arrow appears to have been carved.

Following this discovery, the narrator explains that the broad arrow, also known as the ‘King’s Mark’, is an English heraldic symbol which can trace its origins back to 14th Century English King Edward III, and which was used by the British Empire to mark Crown property.

Eventually, Sampson ascends from the well, whereupon he informs the crew that the bottom of the well is not, as Nadudvari and Loncarich had hoped, a flat flagstone layer. The crew then discusses the potential significance of the broad arrow carving, recounting that an arrow is one of the symbols believed by some to have been inscribed on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone. With that, they pack up their gear and return to Oak Island.

The following day, Rick and Marty Lagina, Dave Blankenship, and Jack Begley meet with archaeologist Laird Niven. After briefly explaining its backstory, the crew leads Niven to the partly-excavated angular cavity situated on the spot at which Zena Halpern’s map indicates the presence of a hatch. After inspecting the anomaly, Niven agrees with the treasure hunters that the cavity is likely man-made. With that, Rick and Marty decide to apply for a permit from the Canadian government allowing them to legally excavate what appears might be an archaelogically-significant structure.

One week later, Marty Lagina, his son Alex, and his business partner and fellow treasure hunter Craig Tester meet in the War Room, Oak Island Tours Inc.’s on-site headquarters, to discuss the engineering problems regarding the upcoming Big Dig in the Money Pit area. They are soon joined by Rick Lagina and Dave Blankenship, who inform them of the death of 88-year-old Oak Island veteran Fred Nolan. Frederick G. Nolan, a surveyor whose relationship with Oak Island began in 1966, passed away on June 14, 2016, one month and one day before his 89th birthday. The crew expresses sadness at Nolan’s passing, and at the fact that they will no longer have the opportunity to work alongside the seasoned treasure hunter with whom they had so recently made peace.

As a tribute to the treasure hunter who had spent nearly six decades of his life working to solve the Oak Island riddle, the narrator relates some of the discoveries Nolan made over the years, including the famous Nolan’s Cross, various stone inscriptions, and submerged structures hidden in the Oak Island swamp.


The crew unanimously agrees that Dan Blankenship, Oak Island’s other long-time treasure hunter who feuded with his rival for more than half a century before making peace with him in the summer of 2015, ought to be informed of Nolan’s passing. Although Blankenship’s true sentiments regarding the death of his long-time rival are difficult to interpret, Rick Lagina asserts his believe that Dan and Fred are more similar than perhaps they realize/d. In his words, “… they both persevered in the face of all kinds of adversity. They risked, they sweated, they worked, they labourered towards the common goal. You don’t get any closer than that.”

As they leave Dan Blankenship’s house on Oak Island, the crew reflects on how Nolan’s passing is a sort of passing of the Oak Island torch from the old generation of treasure hunters to the new. David Blankenship agrees, but insists that they must look to the future, to which Rick replies “sempre avanti”– always forward.



Rosslyn Chapel

rosslyn-chapelIn this episode of the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island, the narrator suggests that several stone carvings inside Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel- commissioned in the mid 1400’s by Scottish-Orcadian nobleman William Sinclair, grandson of Sir Henry Sinclair whom various theorists have attempted to connect to Oak Island- might be evidence that the Knights Templar sailed to the New World long before Christopher Columbus’ 1492 discovery. One of these carvings appears to depict stylized ears of maize, or Indian corn. Corn is endemic to the Americas, and would not have been known in Europe (except, perhaps, by the Vikings) during the mid-1400’s, at the time of the chapel’s construction. Another plant unique to North America which makes a lithic appearance inside Rosslyn Chapel is the three-petalled trillium flower. Some believe that the existence of these carvings in a church constructed decades before Christopher Columbus’ first voyage suggest that the designers of Rosslyn Chapel were privy to very unique knowledge. Some people believe these carvings are evidence that the Knights Templar sailed to the New World and later returned to Scotland, where they informed members of the Clan Sinclair of their findings.


Whether or not the carvings inside Rosslyn Chapel are proof that the Templars sailed across the Atlantic and back is up for debate. However, an enigmatic letter sent in 1546 from French Regent Mary of Guise- the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots- to William Sinclair- son of the William Sinclair who built Rosslyn Chapel- suggests that Rosslyn Chapel may be, at the very least, connected with a secret of one kind or another. A line from this letter reads: “We bind us and oblige us to the said Sir William and shall be a loyal and true mistress to him. His counsel and his secret shown to us, we shall keep secret.”


The Mi’kmaq Nation Flag

Perhaps one of the most striking clues supposedly connecting the Knights Templar with Oak Island is an observation made by Oak Island researcher Mark Finnan. Finnan, in his 1999 book The Sinclair Saga, claims that the flag of the Mi’kmaq Nation, a Canadian First Nation indigenous to the Maritime Provinces, is the mirror image of one of the many battle standards used by the Knights Templar.


There are at least two potential problems with Finnan’s theory. The first is that the most prominent vexillum belli, or battle standard, used by the Knights Templar was the beauseant, a half-black half-white banner sometimes adorned with a red cross. If Finnan’s ‘Templar battle flag’ was truly a military flag used by the Knights Templar, it was a relatively obscure one. However, to Finnan’s credit, the ‘Templar battle flag’ he espouses incorporates a number of known Templar symbols; the red cross on a white field, a symbol reflecting the Crusaders’ call to martyrdom, adorned the surcoats and mantles of the Templar knights, and the symbol of the sun and moon, curiously evocative of the Islamic star and crescent, is known to have been used in at least one 13th Century Templar seal. The second potential problem with Finnan’s theory is that the design of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council Flag (pictured above), also known as the Sante Miwiomi flag, is widely attributed to the influence of the French Jesuits who converted many Mi’kmaq to Roman Catholicism in the 1600’s.


The All-Seeing Eye

In this episode, professional diver Tony Sampson, while exploring a mysterious water well situated on an equally mysterious property in New Ross, Nova Scotia, discovered a stone featuring a vague marking which he suggested might be the Eye of Providence, or the All-Seeing Eye. The narrator suggested that this finding might somehow link the Oak Island mystery with Freemasonry, and perhaps fortify its supposed connection with the Knights Templar.


Although the All-Seeing Eye, in recent years, has increasingly been associated with the New World Order conspiracy theory [which proposes that a small, secret group of powerful elites- perhaps members of some Freemasonic Lodge or the (long-defunct) Bavarian Illuminati- are conspiring to bring about a global authoritarian government], its historic origins are much less sinister. During the Renaissance, the symbol of an eye encased within an equilateral triangle came to represent the concept of Divine Providence, or God’s Hand in worldly affairs. The triangle’s three sides represented the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which holds that God is a single entity comprised of three distinct persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit.


In the late 18th Century, the symbol of the All-Seeing Eye was adopted by the Freemasons, for whom it represented God’s omniscience. Today, in non-English-speaking countries, the All-Seeing Eye serves as a universal, non-sectarian Freemasonic representation the Grand Architect of the Universe (i.e. God; the letter ‘G’, sometimes encased in a square and compass, often performs this function in English-speaking countries).

In 1779, Benjamin Franklin (a Freemason), Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and artist Pierre Eugene du Simitiere incorporated the All-Seeing Eye into their design of the Great Seal of the United States so as to represent God in their seal. This symbol was placed atop an unfinished 13-leveled pyramid- representing God’s role in the formation of the embryonic 18th Century United States, the Thirteen Colonies- and flanked by the Latin phrases Annuit Coeptis– meaning “He has favoured our undertakings”- and Novus Ordo Seclorum– which translated to “New Order of the Ages.”


Broad Arrow

In this episode, diver Tony Sampson uncovered another interesting rock in the New Ross well bearing what he believed to be an inscription of an arrow, perhaps a broad arrow, or a ‘King’s Mark.’

The broad arrow has, since the 17th Century, been used to mark British government property. Initially adorning British Army and Royal Navy equipment, the broad arrow symbol spread throughout the Empire, from Australia to India to British North America.


In colonial North America, the British Royal Navy laid claim to lumber by scoring a tree’s bark with three hatchet slashes, forming a crude broad arrow. British colonists largely ignored these broad arrow claims and felled whatever trees they pleased, often selling their lumber to the French and Spanish, Britain’s colonial rivals, who paid much more for the wood than their English counterparts. When British authorities attempted to enforce their broad arrow policy, New Hampshire colonists revolted in what is known today as the Pine Tree Riot. This act of resistance against the British Crown was the first of a succession of revolts which would ultimately culminate in the Revolutionary War.


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The Curse of Oak Island Season 4 Premiere: Going for Broke

Michigan brothers Rick and Marty Lagina and their crew are back in Season 4, Episode 1 of the History Channel’s TV series The Curse of Oak Island… for the viewing pleasure of our Yankee neighbours, that is. Although American fans of this reality TV show- which chronicles the latest developments in Canada’s greatest treasure hunt– were able to watch the Season 4 premiere last night at 9:00 Eastern, 8:00 Central, we Canadians have to wait until 10:00 Eastern, 7:00 Pacific on November 20, when the episode first airs in Canada. For those of you Canucks who can’t bear the wait, scroll down to see a plot summary and analysis of this first episode of the season, entitled Going for Broke.






Plot Summary


The episode opens with Rick and Marty Lagina- the two brothers from Northern Michigan heading the current Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate, Oak Island Tours Inc.- driving across the causeway from Crandall Point, in the town of Western Shore, Nova Scotia, to Oak Island. As they drive, the narrator explains that the brothers have decided to invest $2,000,000 in a “go-for-broke” assault on the infamous Money Pit- a major, long-awaited excavation project termed ‘The Big Dig’ by Oak Island enthusiasts.


On the island, members of the treasure hunting crew congregate in their on-site headquarters, which they

affectionately refer to as the ‘War Room’, to review their plans for the season. After the crew unanimously agrees that the time has come to dig in the Money Pit, Marty recounts how, in the summer of 2015, the crew bored a 142-foot hole in the general vicinity of the Money Pit (the precise location of the original Money Pit has long been lost to history) under the direction of their fellow treasure hunter and engineer Craig Tester. A core sample taken from the 140-142 foot depth revealed what appeared to be old wood and crude limestone concrete- materials which members of the crew believe suggests the presence of a treasure vault at that depth. Oak Island historian and tour guide Charles Barkhouse took this find as an affirmation of his long-held theory that the original Money Pit lay at a location just north of this new drillhole. The crew bored a hole at thbarkhouse-voidis location prescribed by Barkhouse and encountered a 21-foot void beginning at the 171-foot depth. Hoping that they had drilled into a chamber containing the elusive Money Pit treasure, the crew lowered a camera into this new drillhole. At the 171-foot depth, the camera picked up a shiny, gold coloured object, the nature of which has yet to be determined.

The crew also discusses the possibility of draining the triangular swamp that sits in the middle of the island, which some researchers have suggested is artificial, and conceals the entrance to an underground chamber or tunnel system leading to the Oak Island treasure. In the summer of 2014, the crew had unearthed a copper 8 meravedis- a New World Spanish coin minted in 1652- in spanish-8-meravedisa particular section of the swamp, and hoped to explore the area further. Unfortunately, up until recently, the Oak Island crew had been unable to do any serious excavation or draining operations in the swamp due to the long, bitter rivalry between veteran Oak Island landowners and treasure hunters Dan Blankenship and Fred Nolan. Nolan, who owned much of the swamp, refused to co-operate with Oak Island Tours Inc., which had entered into a partnership with Blankenship in 2005, and denied them the right to conduct any sort of treasure hunting operation on his property. However, in the summer of 2015, the Lagina brothers brokered a peace between Blankenship and Nolan, ending the feud that had severely hampered the Oak Island treasure hunt’s progress for half a century.

Lastly, the crew discusses the possibility of further exploring Borehole 10-X, a 235-foot shaft located approximately 180 feet northeast of the Money Pit area which Dave Blankenship, his son Dan Blankenship, and fellow treasure hunter Dan Henskee had hand-dug in the 1970’s. Although Dave Blankenship hopes to make 10-X a priority this season, Marty Lagina expresses his reluctance to spend more time and resources on the pit, stating that the shaft “is not dead, but at least on life support.”

The narrator follows up on Marty’s statement by explaining how Dan Blankenship, through the controversial process of dowsing, suspected he had identified a subterranean tunnel- perhaps connected somehow with the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel (a booby trap which flooded the Money Pit with seawater)- 180 feet northeast of the Money Pit area in 1969. After a subsequent exploration drilling operation in the area revealed cavities at the 140 and 235-foot depths, along with fragments of oxygen-starved low-carbon steel carbon dated to pre-1750 at the 165-foot depth, Blankenship decided to dig a shaft on the spot. He labelled this shaft ‘Borehole 10-X’.

Blankenship promptly drilled 10-X to a depth of 235 feet and lowered a camera into it. In the chamber at the bottom of the shaft, the camera revealed what appeared to be a severed hand floating in the water, along with a wooden chest, tools, two outgoing tunnels, and a headless human corpse. The results of this underwater camera operation prompted Blankenship to manually widen Borehole 10-X with the assistance of his son Dave and fellow treasure hunter Dan Henskee.


In 1976, a section of Borehole 10-X imploded, nearly entombing Dan Blankenship beneath the island. In 1978, Dan Blankenship, Dave Blankenship, and Dan Henskee began to re-excavate the collapsed shaft, stabilizing it with an impromptu casing made from railway tank cars. They postponed their work on 10-X in 1980 before resuming in 1986.

In recent years, Oak Island Tours Inc. has re-explored Borehole 10-X using remote controlled underwater cameras and sonar scans. Although the data from the underwater camera operations was largely inconclusive, the sonar scans appeared to validate Dan Blankenship’s belief that the cavern at the bottom of Borehole 10-X contains a chest, a vertical timber (or perhaps two vertical timbers), outgoing tunnels, and a human corpse. However, professional diver John Chatterton, who manually explored the cavern in the summer of 2015, expressed his belief that the chamber at the bottom of 10-X is natural, and that all the items of interest indicated by the 1971 remote camera operation can be attributable to natural phenomena. Marty’s skepticism regarding 10-X is attributable to Chatterton’s bleak analysis.

Dan Blankenship, who has dedicated nearly 50 years of his life to excavating 10-X, responds to Marty’s skepticism by presenting him with bits of chain, wire, and low-carbon steel- artifacts that he, himself, has taken out of 10-X. Out of respect for Blankenship and his convictions, Marty concedes that further exploration of 10-x may be in order. With that, the meeting is ended.

Later, at the Money Pit area, Rick, Marty, Dave Blankenship, and Craig Tester’s step-son, treasure hunter Jack Begley watch as drilling contractors attempt to extract old drill casings from previous exploration drilling operations. After overcoming some initial difficulties, the contractors are able to extract the casings without incident.

Three days later, Rick, Jack, Dave Blankenship and Charles Barkhouse meet in the War Room with acclaimed Oak Island researcher and historian Doug Crowell of Blockhouse Investigations. They are joined by Marty and Craig Tester via Skype. Crowell explains how Zena Halpern, a Knights Templar researcher from New York with whom he had been in contact, had presented him with evidence supporting the popular Knights Templar theory. According to this theory, members of the Knights Templar, a medieval Christian monastic-military order, following the infamous suppression of their organization in 1307, transported their most valuable treasures across the Atlantic Ocean and buried them on Oak Island. It should be mentioned that this theory, while popular, is not generally supported by mainstream historians. Without further ado, the crew phones Halpern up.

While speaking with Halpern over the phone, Crowell shows the crew in the War Room a copy of a map of Nova Scotia, a copy of a map of Oak Island, and a copy of a scrap of paper bearing a strange inscription which Halpern terms La Formule.


As Crowell and the Oak Island crew study the documents, Halpern explains that one of the documents came with “a mention… dated 1178 to 1180… that the Templar voyage to the northeastern part of America… took place… and that the Templars had made landfall… on an island of oaks… When I found the map, which is dated 1347, I began to put the pieces together.”

Crowell directs the crew’s attention to La Formula– a scrap of paper bearing a strange inscription- explaining that, upon learning of the strange inscription, he immediately recognized many of the symbols to be the same as those on the Kempton symbols (believed by some to have been inscribed on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone).

Back in the early 1800’s, when the first Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate, known as the Onslow Company, first dug the Money Pit to a depth of 90 feet, the workers uncovered a large, olive-coloured stone slab at the 90 foot level. Carved on the underside of the stone was a strange inscription which none of the company members could decipher, or thought to copy down. At first, this stone was set into the fireplace of John Smith, one of the three men who first discovered the Money Pit in 1795. Then, in the mid 1800’s, the stone was brought to Truro, and shortly thereafter to Halifax, where it was displayed in the window of a bookbindery. During this time, a professor from Halifax’s Dalhousie University claimed that the inscription on the stone was a cipher which, when decoded, read “Forty feet below, two million pounds are buried.” Then, in the 1930’s, the stone mysteriously disappeared. It has been missing ever since.

In 1949, Frederick Blair, the Oak Island treasure hunter at the time, received a letter from a well-respected Nova Scotian reverend named A.T. Kempton. In his letter, Kempton included what he claimed was a copy of the inscription on the 90-foot stone, which he allegedly recieved from an old Irish schoolmaster. Cryptographers who later studied this cipher determined that it was a simple substitution cipher, in which each character stood for a letter in the Latin alphabet, which, when decoded, read the same message put forth by the Dalhousie University professor in the mid 1800’s: “forty feet below, two million pounds are buried.”

Doug Crowell, upon first receiving La Formule from Zena Halpern, knew immediately that many of the characters on La Formule were the same as those on the Kempton symbols. After Crowell explains this to the Oak Island crew, Zena states that she first learned of La Formule upon finding a copy of the cipher “hidden in the back pocket of a book which was given to [her] several years ago.”

Crowell continues to explain how, after running the code through deciphering programs, he determined that the code revealed the words “grayware” (a term for pottery); “gold”; “Sofala,” the name of the chief seaport of the Monomotapa Kingdom (situated in present-day Mozambique) and the location of the first Portuguese fort in East Africa; and “Joab”, a general in the ancient Israeli King David’s army. After Halpern interrupts Crowell to assert to that code “has to do with gold in North Africa,” Crowell states his theory that Joab, while battling the Philistines, “made it safe for the transport of the Ark [of the Covenant]”, a religious artifact which many theorists believe was buried on Oak Island, perhaps by the Knights Templar.

After briefly discussing the cipher, the crew turns their attention to Halpern’s map of Nova Scotia. Crowell observes a series of Roman numerals in the top right-hand corner of the map which appear to date the document to 1179. Halpern then points to a dot located at the intersection of two perpendicular lines. The dot is located in the general vicinity of Oak Island.

Halpern goes on to point out another dot on the map directly north of the Oak Island dot. This point is labelled “RhoDon,” which Crowell speculates might have some sort of connection with New Ross, a Nova Scotian community situated on the location at which some researchers believe Scottish-Orcadian nobleman Henry Sinclair constructed a fortress following his alleged voyage to the New World in 1398.

henry-sinclairThe narrator goes on to explain how some researchers have suggested that the Templar treasure was brought to the New World not by the Templars themselves, but rather by a Scottish-Norwegian nobleman named Henry Sinclair, the grandfather of the William Sinclair who built the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel in Rosslyn, Scotland. Using supposed evidence gleaned from a book published in 1558 by a Venetian named Nicolo Zeno, some argue that Sinclair, under the alias ‘Prince Zichmni’, sailed to what is now Nova Scotia, or “New Scotland”, in 1398 with the help of two brothers, Italian navigators Nicolo (the author’s ancestor and namesake) and Antonio Zeno. Many historians have criticized this theory, challenging the authenticity of Nicolo Zeno’s story. Others have shown that members of the Clan Sinclair were among those who had testified against the Scottish Templars in 1309- stating that if the Templars were good and innocent, they would not have lost the Holy Land- and that the Sinclair family would not likely be friendly towards the Templars. However, the fact that Henry Sinclair was the Earl of Orkney, an archipelago north of Scotland which has strong ties to the Norwegian Vikings, gives credence to the notion that he might have had some knowledge of the existence of the New World; it is a fact that 10th Century Viking explorer Leif Erikson founded a colony on Vinland, present-day Newfoundland, more than five hundred years before Christopher Columbus’ first voyage.

Finally, the crew turns their attention towards Halpern’s third document, a French map of Oak Island, which is dated ‘1347’. The map clearly depicts Oak Island, and is labelled with various French words describing aspects of the island. Although many of these labels clearly reference well-known elements of Oak Island- including its swamp, the Money Pit, and an artificial triangle of stones which once stood on Oak Island’s South Shore- some of the others are more enigmatic. Specifically, these three labels, when translated into English, are “the anchors”, “the valve,” and “the hatch.”

Crowell explains to the crew that, according to the late George McGinnis (a descendant of Daniel McGinnis (one of the three co-founders of the Money Pit)), an old McGinnis family legend tells of a shallowly-buried hatch on Oak Island which led to an underground labyrinth. Crowell suggests that there might be a connection between the hatch from this McGinnis family legend and the hatch on Zena Halpern’s map.

Although it is not mentioned in the episode, this McGinnis family legend is expanded upon in a 2016 book entitled Oak Island Connection: Go Back Over 200 Years to the Mysterious Beginning. This book, written by Kerrin Margiano- a descendant of Daniel McGinnis, the man who discovered the Money Pit along with John Smith and Anthony Vaughan in 1795- tells the tale of a branch of the McGinnis family which’s male members, for generations, preoccupied themselves with getting to the bottom of the Oak Island riddle. In her book, Margiano explains that her great uncle George McGinnis, while suffering from dementia, told her mother Jean about the hatch. In Jean’s words:

“I have always been interested in anything to do with Oak Island, but this information came scattered [among] hysterical laughing and other stories. [Uncle George] said, ‘I told my son, but I am going to tell you too, Jeanie, there is a secret hatch near [Daniel McGinnis’ old cabin on Oak Island]. Send your son to find the hatch and find what’s inside. Warn them not to get lost in there.’ He did not explain where to find it, but said the entrance was just a few inches beneath the surface.”

In light of this new information, the crew members agree that it would be unwise not to follow up on Halpern’s theory. With that, they say goodbye to Zena and hang up the phone.

The following day, Rick Lagina, Charles Barkhouse, and Doug Crowell travel to New Ross, Nova Scotia, where they meet with researcher and author Alessandra Nadudvari and her husband Tim Loncarich. Nadudvari and Loncarich explain to the men that they believe their newly-purchased property in New Ross was once the site of a Knights Templar fortress. Loncarich recounts how, in the 1970’s, author Joan Harris, one of the property’s previous owners, while digging up the backyard in order to install a garden, uncovered what she believed were the foundations of an ancient castle. Upon further investigation, Harris discovered an old well constructed from small stones, and uncovered the remains of what she believed to be the entire foundation of a castle.

Loncarich shows the crew a particular stone on his property which Joan Harris maintained was a Celtic “herm”- or man-shaped- stone. Nadudvari them points out an indentation in the stone which she suggests is a very faded engraving of a cross pattee, a particular style of Christian cross often associated with the Crusades and the Knights Templar. Nadudvari goes further to suggest that the cross she believes was carved into the ‘herm’ stone is not just any Templar cross, but specifically a cross of the Knights of Christ, a Portuguese branch of the Knights Templar which survived the 1307 crackdown and thrived during the Age of Discovery.

After examining the cross, Loncarich guides the crew over to the old water well, which Joan Harris styled the ‘holy well’. Loncarich relates the unverified rumour that chambers branch off from the well. In order to determine the validity of this rumour, Doug Crowell lowers an underwater camera into the well. The camera hits the well floor at a depth of 18 feet without picking up any sign of a chamber. The crew turns the camera so as to get a good view of the well floor and discovers that the floor appears to be crisscrossed with lines. Loncarich and Nadudvari both insist that the odd appearance of the well floor is due to the fact that it is composed of flagstones, reminiscent of the layer of flagstones Daniel McGinnis, John Smith, and Anthony Vaughan allegedly uncovered in the Money Pit area two feet below the surface in 1795. According to the legend of the Money Pit’s discovery, McGinnis, Smith, and Vaughan determined that the Money Pit flagstones came from nearby Gold River on the mainland, the same river which runs through the town of New Ross.


The crew concludes that the findings on Loncarich and Nadudvari’s property in New Ross are intriguing, and agree to keep in touch and collaborate in the future if further inquiry reveals a connection between the New Ross stones and Oak Island.

After concluding their visit with Loncarich and Nadudvari, Doug Crowell and the Oak Island crew congregate at the Mug & Anchor Pub in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. There, they discuss their most recent theories and discoveries.

Jack Begley brings up the hatch marked out in Zena Halpern’s French map, and corroborated by an old McGinnis family legend, stating his belief that it would be in the crew’s best interest to devote some serious time and effort into locating the hatch. The crewmembers agree that the best way to go about searching for this hatch, which Halpern’s map asserts is located on the west side of the island, is to search for depressions in the soil. They decide to investigate a particular depression on Oak Island’s Lot 22 which eerily corresponds with the ‘hatch’ indicated on Halpern’s map.

Back on the island, Jack Begley projects the image of Oak Island from Halpern’s map onto a satellite image of the island. The depression the crew has decided to investigate and the ‘hatch’ on Halpern’s map are vaguely accordant. Equipped with picks and shovels, the crew travels through the brush to this depression. The episode ends as the crew prepares to excavate the depression.



La Formule (a.k.a. The McGinnis Code)


In this particular episode of The Curse of Oak Island, New York Knights Templar researcher and historian Zena Halpern presents the Oak Island crew with three strange documents. One of these documents is a cipher which bears close resemblance to the aforementioned Kempton symbols, believed by some to have been inscribed on the Money Pit’s 90-foot stone. Halpern explains that she first discovered this cipher, which she termed La Formule, “hidden in the back pocket of a book which was given to [her] several years ago.” Nova Scotian historian Doug Crowell, upon analyzing this cipher, suggests that it might have some sort of connection with the Portuguese, whom some believe to be responsible for Oak Island’s underground workings, and the Ark of the Covenant, a long-lost sacred Jewish artifact described in Hebrew scripture which many Oak Island researchers believed is buried somewhere on the island.









oak-island-connectionIt is intriguing that, although Halpern did find La Formule and her two Oak Island maps in the back of a strange book, the image is also featured in another, much more recently published book entitled Oak Island Connection: Go Back Over 200 Years to the Mysterious BeginningThis book was written by Kerrin Margiano, a descendant of Daniel McGinnis (one of the three co-discoverers of the Money Pit). In her book, Margiano describes how the McGinnis family retained a strong interest in the Oak Island treasure hunt long after the discovery of the Money Pit in 1795. Drawing from anecdotes recounted by her mother Jean, and her aunts Joan and Joyce (the three ‘McGinnis sisters’ who make an appearance in Season 3, Episode 13 of The Curse of Oak Island), Margiano explains how her great uncle George, while suffering from dementia, showed her aunt Joan La Formule. He claimed that the McGinnis family, for generations, had kept the code hidden behind a stone in the wall of Daniel McGinnis cabin on Oak Island, and that it, along with other similar papers, were the keys to unlocking the Oak Island mystery. Margiano included an image of La Formula in her book.


This summer, while working on an ebook on Oak Island for this particular website (which you can access here), I (the author of this article) came across La Formule in Kerrin Margiano’s book. Like Doug Crowell, I immediately made the connection between this new cipher and the Kempton symbols. After some fiddling around, I discovered that when the simple substitution from the Kempton symbols is applied to La Formule, and when the remaining 5 characters are solved, a French message emerges.


The shape of the scrap of paper indicates that the edges likely wore away in the past, leaving a truncated message. Artist and translator Alizee Zimmermann ( made an
educated guess as to the nature of the truncated words and determined that the message likely

“Halte ne deterrer pas creuser a quarante pied avez a angle quarante cinque degree la hamper a cinquente. Vignt deus pied a vous entre le reidor a une ile distante cinq ph (possibly ‘phare’ or ‘phi’) atteinte lache”

When translated into English, the message reads:

“Stop do not (un)earth( ?) dig 40 feet away with a forty-five degree angle (,) shaft at fifty (degree angle?) Twenty-two feet between you and the ?Corridor?? (really not sure of this word) / On an island 5 lighthouses/phi (the pic only displays ‘ph’ which I’ve figured could be ‘phare’ as in lighthouse or the Greek letter phi) distance (away) / Vile attempt {‘lach(e)’ means cowardly but ‘une atteinte lache’ is used in France to refer to cowardly but vile attack – e.g terrorist attacks are referred to this way.}”

The first part of the message- “stop, do not (un)earth,” appears to be a warning not to remove the 90-foot stone or the oak logs beneath. When the Onslow Company removed the 90-foot stone and the platform of oak logs beneath it in 1804, they apparently triggered the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel; the following day, the Money Pit was flooded with sea water. The next section of the message- “dig forty feet away with a forty-five degree angle”- seemingly instructs the reader to dig 40 feet from the 90-foot stone level at a 45 degree angle. It does not specify in which direction to dig.

After that, the message seems to suggest the presence of a shaft at a distance between the treasure hunter and some other object. The last section of the message is difficult to interpret, but seems to suggest the importance of some sort of nearby island located “five lighthouses away”, as if a ‘lighthouse’ is some sort of unit of measurement.

Interestingly, ancient Greek-Egyptian Ptolemaic mariners sailing into the Port of Alexandria from the Mediterranean Sea were unable to see the tip of the city’s great lighthouse before they were 21 nautical miles away from shore, due to the curvature of the earth. One could argue that this distance might be termed a ‘lighthouse’.


If you draw a circle around Oak Island with a radius of 5 Ptolemaic ‘lighthouses’ (105 nautical miles), the edge of the circle touches two islands: Prince Edward Island, and Grand Manan Island. It is interesting that Grand Manan Island, like Oak Island, has long been associated with buried treasure.


This potential connection between La Formule and the Egyptian city of Alexandria is interestingly congruent with two prominent (if controversial) Oak Island theories.

The first is late Harvard professor Dr. Barry Fell’s theory, outlined in his 1980 book “Saga America.” Dr. Fell- a Harvard zoology professor with a passion for ancient scripts- believed that Oak Island’s underground workings are attributable to 5th Century Coptic Christian refugees fleeing persecution from the Vandals who made the voyage across the Atlantic one thousand years before Christopher Columbus. He came to this conclusion after studying the Kempton symbols, believed by some to have been inscribed on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone. Fell maintained that the inscription on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone formed a Libyan-Arabic message using a Late Tifinagh script. The image included here is a reproduction of what Fell claimed was the inscription on Oak Island’s 90-foot stone, first published in Fell’s book “Saga America” in 1980. This version of the 90-foot stone inscription can be produced by subtly altering the Kempton symbols and flipping them upside down. Dr. Fell claimed that this message reads:

“To escape contagion of plague and winter hardships, he is to pray for an end or mitigation, the Arif. The people will perish in misery if they forget the Lord, alas.”

Fell believed that this inscription, along with a similar stone inscription discovered in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, was evidence that Oak Island’s underground workings were attributable to 5th Century Coptic Christian refugees fleeing persecution from the Vandals. Although Fell believed the Coptic Christians who he claimed constructed the Money Pit hailed from the deserts of Libya or the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, it is interesting to note, when considered in conjunction with the aforementioned interpretation of La Formule, that the epicentre of Coptic Christianity- historically, contemporarily, and currently- is Alexandria, Egypt.

fama-fraternitatisThe other Oak Island theory which appears to correspond with this interpretation of La Formule is the theory that the Rosicrucians were behind Oak Island’s underground workings, a theory most recently championed by Oak Island researcher Petter Amundsen . The Rosicrucians were members of a (possibly fictional) Renaissance-era secret society which published two documents, called the ‘Rosicrucian Manifestos,’ in the early 17th Century in Kassel, Germany. The first of these documents, called ‘Fama Fraternitatis,’ tells the story of the secret society’s legendary founder, ‘Father C.R.’, who allegedly made a round trip around the Mediterranean sometime in the Late Middle Ages. Throughout his travels, he learned widsom from the scholars and ‘wise men’ of Damascus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Fez, Morocco. In this way, Rosicrucianism is tied, at least symbolically, with North African/Egyptian/Levantine wisdom. One could argue that the Libyan-Arabic language, Late Tifinagh script, an ancient Ptolemaic unit of measurement, and Coptic Christianty- elements of both this interpretation of La Formule and Barry Fell’s theory- might be considered elements of North African/Egyptian wisdom.



Doug Crowell

 Doug Crowell, an Information Services Specialist at the Nova Scotia Community College and Centre of Geographic Sciences in Sydney and Lawrencetown Nova Scotia, respectively, is one of Oak Island’s foremost researchers and historians. Along with fellow researcher and Oak Island enthusiast Kel Hancock, Crowell heads Blockhouse Investigations, a team of Canadian Maritimes historians and researchers who, according to their website, “spend [their] time investigating many aspects of history related to Atlantic Canada and beyond.” Throughout 2016, the Blockhouse Investigations team has independently developed a number of well-researched theories related to Oak Island based on historical and genealogical records they have unearthed. Many of these theories were formerly championed by the late Oak Island researcher Paul Wroclawski.


New Ross Castle

a-castle-in-nova-scotiaIn this episode of the Curse of Oak Island, it is revealed that writers Alessandra Nadudvari and Tim Loncarich purchased a property in New Ross, Nova Scotia, which is believed by some to be the location of an ancient castle, perhaps a fortress constructed by the Knights Templar. The couple hope to conduct further excavations on their property in order to get to the bottom of this New Ross mystery.

The theory that this particular piece of New Ross land is the site of an ancient castle was first developed in the 1970’s by the late Joan Harris, a writer who owned the property at the time along with her husband Ron. Harris, who outlined her theory in her book A Castle in Nova Scotia (which she self-published under the pseudonym ‘Joan Hope’), first began to speculate that her home was once the site of a 13th Century Viking castle when, while landscaping the yard, she and her husband uncovered a succession of large stones. More specifically, Harris was convinced that she had stumbled upon the long-lost ruins of Norumbenga, a legendary 16th Century city said to lie somewhere on the North Atlantic coast. Harris also made the claim, without any evidence to support it, that an exiled 17th Century noble of the Scottish House of Stewart built a sumptuous mansion atop the ruins of the dilapidated Viking stronghold which either eventually fell into disrepair or was deliberately destroyed.

In the early 1980’s, Harris’ theories came to the attention of Michael Bradley, an author with a fondness for tales of pseudo-historic pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic voyages. Bradley took Harris’ theories and twisted them to form his own fringe history regarding her supposed ‘Castle in Nova Scotia’. In his books Holy Grail Across the Atlantic (1987) and Grail Knights of North America (1998), Bradley posits that Harris’ alleged castle was built not by the Norse Vikings, but rather by the Templar-derived crew of Scots-Norwegian nobleman Sir Henry Sinclair, popularly rumoured to have sailed across the North Atlantic in 1398. It appears as if Nadudvari and Loncarich have espoused this particular narrative regarding the stones of New Ross.


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 3: John Healy

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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3. John J. Healy

Every good western story needs its heroes and villains. If the history of the Canadian Wild West was dramatized in print or film, the officers of the North West Mounted Police would almost certainly be the good guys, while Montanan whisky traders would probably be the bad guys. Undoubtedly, the most powerful and prolific of the Montanan whisky traders to ply his trade north of the border- indeed the man who first brought American firewater to the Canadian plains in 1869, the man who might quite justifiably be considered the arch-nemesis of the early North West Mounted Police- was a fearless, wiry Irishman named John J. Healy. As is the case with all characters of the Canadian Wild West, however, John Healy was neither all bad, nor all good, but rather a bit of both.

John Jerome (or perhaps Joseph) Healy was born on January 24, 1840 in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, into a family of millers. Like his Canadian-American Wild West counterpart Kootenai Brown, his childhood was dominated by the horrors of the Great Famine which ravaged Ireland in the latter half of the 1840’s and early 1850’s. Although John Healy, in latter-life reminiscences, would talk openly about his exploits on the Canadian-American frontier, he remained understandably tight-lipped about his early life in Ireland.

In the winter of 1853, John’s father Thomas decided that it was in his family’s best interests to leave the Old World for the New. Together with both his parents, his five siblings, and a flood of fellow Irish immigrants, 13-year-old John travelled across the Atlantic to New York City. His mother died shortly upon arriving in America and his father quickly remarried, prompting John to leave his father and siblings and take to the streets. According to some historians, Healy, not finding New York street life to his liking, left the city shortly thereafter and enlisted in the irregular freebooting army of American filibuster William Walker. If true, Healy would almost certainly have accompanied Walker and his soldiers to Nicaragua, where the mercenary army ultimately succeeded in capturing the city of Granada, effectively taking control of the Latin American country at the height of a political revolt.

Although historians are divided on whether or not John Healy really joined the mercenary army of William Walker in 1854, they generally agree that he eventually wound up in Buffalo, New York, where, in the spring of 1858, he enlisted in the Second Dragoons of the U.S. Army. The eighteen-year-old Irishman lied about his age in order to join the Force, declaring that he was “21 years and two months of age” (at that time, the U.S. Army accepted soldiers no younger than 21). He also declared that he had spent the past few years apprenticing in the saddlery trade. After completing basic training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Healy was dispatched to Camp Floyd, a U.S. Army post about 60 kilometres southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he and his company relieved the post’s garrison in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Utah War,’ a conflict between Mormon settlers of Utah Territory and the Washington government.

After doing garrison duty at Camp Floyd, Healy was posted in the Rocky Mountains to the west. There, he was tasked with patrolling a stretch of the wagon-rutted Oregon Trail, a settler trail which connected the American West Coast with the Missouri River. It was in the American Rockies that the eighteen-year-old soldier got his first taste of the western frontier, participating in Cheyenne buffalo hunts and meeting paragons of the American West like adventurer John Wesley Powell and legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. By 1860- when he was discharged from the Army on account of the War Department’s discovery of his true age- John Healy had fallen in love with the American Wild West.

Immediately upon his discharge, John Healy decided to prospect for gold. Instead of following in the wake of the Fifty-Niners- the hoard of prospectors who flocked to Kansas and Nebraska Territory in 1859- and pan the creeks of Pike’s Peak Country for gold, however, he decided to travel to what is now Clearwater County, Idaho, where gold had oregon-trailbeen discovered that year. In order to earn his passage to the goldfields, he traded in his blue coat for buckskins and hired himself out as a guide to a wagon train traversing the Oregon Trail. En route to its destination, the wagon train was constantly harried by Shoshone warriors. Healy, being the only member of the train with anything approaching frontier experience, found himself thrust into a position of unofficial authority. Through the use of wit, nerve, and sheer dumb luck, Healy managed to guide the wagon train safely through hostile Indian territory, earning himself an ample paycheck and an arrow wound in the leg.

John Healy used his the money he earned to outfit himself in Portland, Oregon, and purchase steamboat tickets up the Columbia River to the Idaho goldfields. While on the trail, he partnered up with John Kennedy, a railroader and fellow ex-soldier from Ohio, along with a handful of prospectors from Portland. The company reached their destination with little incident, did some panning, staked a claim, and set about clearing their land of trees and brush so that they could excavate it. Before the prospectors had even started a shaft, Healy crushed his leg in a tree-felling accident. During his recovery, he heard tell of new prospects not far from the Clearwater area and left with Kennedy and  another party for the new diggings.

panning-for-goldHealy and company had difficulty reaching their new destination due to a series of aggressive yet largely non-violent encounters with Nez Perce Indians strongly opposed to white men trespassing on their hunting grounds. After joining with other similarly-plagued prospecting parties, however, John Healy and his fellow prospectors managed to muscle their way through to their destination. At the new diggings, panning proved fruitless, and the company soon dissolved. Soon, only Healy, Kennedy, and a handful of members of the original company remained. Although these men succeeded in finding better prospects that warranted an excavation, they decided not to exploit their unstaked claim due to lack of game in the area. They travelled to Orofino, a mining boomtown in Clearwater Country, before travelling to a location about 160 kilometers south. There, they staked a claim and purchased provisions before heading back to the site and sinking a shaft. Word of their find got out, and in no time the area was crawling with prospectors. These prospectors founded the boomtown Florence, Idaho, in the vicinity of Healy and company’s find.

In the spring of 1862, Healy took a break from digging in order to follow up on a lead indicating a bonanza a good distance away on the Salmon River. Along with a party of twenty lightly-equipped prospectors, John Healy travelled down the Salmon River. What was initially expected to be a brief, exploratory jaunt quickly devolved into a truly grueling ordeal as Healy and company found themselves battling impassable rapids, severe privation, and hostile Bannock Indians. The party’s most formidable foe, however, was starvation, an obstacle the prospectors would all almost surely have succumbed had they not been rescued by a wagon train of fresh prospectors bound for Florence, Idaho.

missouri-riverUpon being nursed back to health, Healy, along with Kennedy and a handful of companions, joined another wagon train bound for Montana Territory. The prospectors took part in another gold rush and saw the beginnings of the burgeoning boomtown of Bannack. When their prospecting efforts were unsuccessful, Healy and company travelled northeast to the fur trading frontier town of Fort Benton, Montana, on the banks of the Missouri River. There, Healy, Kennedy, and a number of fellow prospectors, eager to visit their families back east, boarded a steamer and headed down the Missouri.

Near the confluence of the Missouri and Milk Rivers, the steamboat happened upon a band of friendly Gros Ventre Indians. No sooner had the steamboat arrived at that location, however, when both it and the Gros Ventre band were surrounded by a large raiding party of Sioux. Although the Sioux and Gros Ventures engaged in a number of skirmishes over the next few days, the mounted Sioux made no move to attack the steamboat passengers.

During this siege, Healy and Kennedy, along with a seasoned Metis trapper named Louis Dauphin, sneaked into the Sioux camp under the cover of darkness and stole a horse without incident. The three men gifted the animal to the Gros Ventures. Shortly thereafter, the Sioux retreated onto the prairies, and the steamboat continued on its way.

22-year-old John Healy returned to New York in the fall of 1862, whereupon he married 18-year-old Mary Frances Sarsfield, the daughter of a well-to-do Irish weaver. In order to avoid the Civil War and conscription in the Union Army, John Healy and his brothers Joseph and Thomas headed for Fort Benton, Montana, in the spring of 1863, leaving the newlywed Mary Frances behind in New York.

The Healy brothers travelled to Montana Territory by way of the Missouri River. In the middle of the prairies, the steamboat they rode became grounded in shallow water and had to be winched along from the shore. During this slow and painful process, the steamboat was set upon by a war party of Sioux braves. A number of passengers- including hopeful prospector and future Montana Indian agent George Steell, American Fur Company baron Charles Chouteau, an Indian scout named “Little Dick”, and Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman Jerry Potts– mounted a successful counterattack that drove the Sioux back, and the steamboat was up and running again in no time.

Upon reaching Fort Benton, Healy set out for the North Saskatchewan River, where a minor gold rush was underway. He scouted the area out before returning to Fort Benton with a Blackfoot half-breed scout named Piscan (or “Buffalo Jump”) Monroe. On the way, the two men were captured and released by a Kootenay raiding party, and later joined a friendlier band of Kootenay Indians who accompanied them all the way to Fort Benton. John Healy, who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, was greatly impressed when the missionary-influenced Kootenay, despite an obvious food shortage, refused to hunt on the Sabbath.

Upon arriving in Fort Benton, Healy gathered together a prospecting party and sent them north to the North Saskatchewan River while he returned east- where his wife and newborn daughter Maria were waiting- for particular supplies. After some fruitless panning and conflict with the Hudson’s Bay Company employees of the nearby Fort Edmonton, the American prospecting party headed back to Montana. William Gladstone, a young carpenter from Montreal from nearby St. Albert, accompanied the Montanans on their return journey.

When Healy returned west with supplies in the summer of 1864 and learned of his men’s conflict with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he made it his life’s mission to “make [the HBC] abandon [Fort Edmonton].” Instead of taking up that mission right away, however, Healy and his prospecting companions made another foray into British possessions, joining a prospecting party fresh from the Wild Horse Creek goldfields (near present-day Fort Steele)- consisting of Sam Livingston (a prominent prospector sometimes dubbed “Calgary’s First Citizen”), James Gibbons, Cass ‘Big Tex’ Huff, Charlie Thomas, and Joe Kipp- who crossed the Rockies by way of the Kicking Horse Pass and were bound for the supposed goldfields of the North Saskatchewan river. After some unsuccessful prospecting, all but Livingston and Gibbons returned south to Montana.

Upon returning to Montana, Healy made the journey east to Virginia City, Nevada, where another gold rush was underway. At the same time, John Healy’s brother Joseph travelled east to New York, where he picked up his brother’s pregnant wife Mary Frances and 1-year-old daughter Maria and brought them with him to Fort Benton. Mary Frances was hailed as “the first white woman in Fort Benton.” When she finally gave birth, her newborn daughter Sarah was the first white baby born in Fort Benton. Unfortunately, Sarah died only nineteen days after being born. When Mary Frances recovered from the tragedy, she and Maria travelled southwest by stagecoach to join John Healy in Virginia City.

After some unsuccessful prospecting in Nevada, the Healy family travelled to Sun River, Montana, where John Healy made a living for some time as a farmer, trader, ferry operator, and Indian Affairs Department agent. During the ensuing years, Healy and his family lived in relative peace in spite of the American Civil War which raged in the east and the bloody Blackfoot Wars, a series of skirmishes and revenge killings between local South Peigan Blackfoot and white Montanan settlers. During this time, John Healy was appointed the commanding officer of the Sun River Rangers, a Montanan vigilante force formed for the purpose of defense against hostile South Peigan.

One night in the spring of 1869, a large band of friendly Blood Blackfoot camped near John Healy’s Sun River trading post was attacked by a large raiding party of Pend d’Oreille Indians. Healy’s post was caught in the crossfire, and the Irishman and his employees engaged with the raiders in a deadly shootout. After the incident, Healy tracked down the fleeing raiding party and, through tact and bravado, managed to both retrieve the herd of horses the Indians had stolen from his coral and make peace with the Pend d’Oreille.

During the Blackfoot Wars of the 1860’s, white settlers and the U.S. Army gradually drove the Blood and South Peigan Blackfoot- Healy’s primary customers- north into the Dominion of Canada’s North-West Territories. In time, John Healy decided to follow his patrons. In the winter of 1869, John Healy partnered up with fellow trader and former prospector Alfred Baker Hamilton, formed the Saskatchewan Mining, Prospecting, & Trading Outfit, secured $25,000-worth of trading stock on credit from Fort Benton wholesaler Tom Powers, and started north for what is now Alberta with a crew comprised of he and Hamilton, frontiersman Jerry Potts, and a handful of others. The crew, after successfully smuggling their goods into British possessions and receiving permission from local Blood chief Buffalo Back Fat, built a trading post on the banks of the Belly (now Oldman) River near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta (a popular winter camp area for the Bloods). This post, formally dubbed ‘Fort Hamilton’ after co-founder Alfred Hamilton, would come to be known colloquially as Fort Whoop-Up.

That winter of 1896/97, Healy, Hamilton, and their employees made more than $50,000 (a small fortune in those days) at Fort Whoop-Up selling goods to the local Blood Indians in exchange for valuable buffalo robes. Although the Montanans sold a number of conventional trading items- including repeating rifles and ammunition, woolen blankets, various metal tools and utensils, flour, sugar, and tea- to the Blackfoot, they also purveyed another commodity which would, in time, cause the Indians considerable grief: whisky.

The whisky sold at Fort Whoop-up was a boiled-down rotgut concoction termed ‘firewater’, or ‘bug juice,’ which consisted of American whisky, river water, tobacco plugs, blackstrap molasses, red pepper, red ink, lye soap, Jamaica Ginger, and a dash of strychnine. This beverage was irresistible to the local Blackfoot, who would “undergo every hardship and fatigue to procure a [cupful of it].” Its widespread usage among the Indians had disastrous consequences. Many Blackfoot, under its influence, would murder friends and family in drunken arguments or wander alone out into the prairie and freeze to death, while others would succumb to the toxic beverage itself. Said Siksika Blackfoot chief Crowfoot on the effect of this beverage on his compatriots:

“The whiskey brought among us by the Traders is fast killing us off and we are powerless before the evil. [We are] totally unable to resist the temptation to drink when brought in contact with the white man’s water. We are also unable to pitch anywhere that the Trader cannot follow us. Our horses, Buffalo robes and other articles of trade go for whisky; a large number of our people have killed one another and perished in various ways under the influence.”

After a profitable season on British territory, John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a number of Montanan companions returned across the 49th parallel, traded in their season’s take of buffalo robes at Fort Benton, and returned to Fort Whoop-Up the following year. This time, they brought with them carpenter William Gladstone, who built a formidable palisaded fort a short distance from the original post designed to withstand potential Indian raids. Other enterprising Montanan traders, including Joe Kipp and Charlie Thomas, followed their advice and similarly established trading posts on the Belly River.

John Healy would continue to trade whisky and other goods to the Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes at Fort Whoop-Up until 1874. During this time, he helped broker a peace between the South Peigan and Pend d’Oreille, witnessed the Battle of Belly River (the world’s last great inter-tribal Indian battle; fought between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies), and single-handedly stood off an angry militia of wolfers who styled themselves the Spitzee Cavalry at Fort Kipp (another whisky fort on the Belly River). He also made good on his earlier vow to get back at the Hudson’s Bay Company by buying huge quantities of pemmican from the Blackfoot and Crow Indians, effectively starving Fort Edmonton into dissolution. When the North West Mounted Police formed up and marched west in 1874 with the aim of suppressing the whisky trade that Healy and his Montanan counterparts had brought to Canada, Healy returned south to Montana and spent the summer at Fort Benton. John Healy rode north to Canada the following year, his whisky-peddling past behind him, and acquainted himself with the newly-arrived Mounties.

In the following years, John Healy divided his time between Fort Benton, where he established a grain mill, and Whoop-Up Country, where he continued to trade various goods (aside from whisky) with the Blackfoot and North West Mounted Police. In 1877, he left Canada for good and took up permanent residence at Fort Benton with his family (which, in time, included six children), whereupon the town residents elected him as sheriff of Montana’s Chouteau County. That spring, he was tasked with guarding frontiersman Kootenai Brown, a fellow Irishman who had murdered wolfer Louis Ell in the heat of a dispute over wolf pelts. Several months later, he worked as a scout and interpreter for a volunteer United States militia during the Nez Perce War. In October of that year, John Healy served as an interpreter and consultant for U.S. Army General Alfred Terry during his meeting with Hunkpapa Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who had fled north with his people into Canada following the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Throughout his tenure as sheriff of Chouteau County, John Healy- Irish to the core- exhibited contempt for his British-esque, red-coated counterparts north of the border who had displaced him and his whisky-trading lot in 1874. In 1879, when the North West Mounted Police implored him to extradite a young Blood warrior suspected of murdering the 19-year-old Mountie Constable Graburn who, following the murder, had apparently fled south to Montana, John Healy haughtily offered to do so for $5,000. The Mounties declined the outrageous offer and later captured the Blood fugitive when he returned to Canada to visit relatives.

In the early 1880’s, John Healy traded his sheriff’s badge for pick and shovel and once again took up prospecting, this time in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary. After his brother Joseph discovered copper and silver in promising quantities in the Bow River Valley, John and Joseph Healy, and a number of Canadian and Montanan investors founded Silver City, a boomtown on the Bow River across from Castle Mountain in what is now Banff National Park. Prospectors who flocked to the area soon learned that the area’s precious minerals were in short supply, and Silver City soon devolved into a ghost town.

By that time, the days of the Canadian Wild West were numbered. The bison that had dominated the plains since time immemorial had been hunted to near extinction, the last of the indigenous Plains peoples had been corralled into reserves, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the country, opening up the North-West Territories to settlers. Ever the frontiersman, John Healy, following his and his brother’s financial setback at Silver City, returned briefly to Montana before setting out for the last frontier- the Canadian-American north.

In Juneau, Alaska, Healy acquired a loan which he used to establish a fur-trading and outfitting post on the Dyea Inlet at the  end of Lynn Canal, at the base of the Chilkoot Pass. There, he traded various goods to the local Tlingit in exchange for furs, and outfitted the handful of prospectors who trickled over the Chilkoot Pass into the interior in search of Yukon gold. That trickle of prospectors grew to a steady stream during the Fortymile Gold Rush of the late 1880’s. During this time, in which Healy made a respectable profit outfitting hopeful gold miners, Healy’s trading post was the site of a deadly duel between rival Tlingit and Tagish packers. Shortly thereafter, after marrying his second wife Isabella “Belle” Boyd (Mary Frances had succumbed to an illness in Montana back in 1883), John Healy and his new bride were made honourary members of the Crow and Eagle Clans, respectively, of the Tlingit First Nation.

In the 1890’s, John Healy moved inland to the boomtown of Fortymile, where he established an outfitting post. The hard-nosed, no-nonsense entrepreneur did not get along well with many of the boomtown residents. In 1893, he took offense to the verdict of a miner’s meeting- the northern frontier equivalent of a courtroom trial- which stipulated that he compensate one of his female employees for a slight, and sought the assistance of his old enemies, the North West Mounted Police. Due in part to Healy’s entreaty, the North West Mounted Police came to the Yukon to establish law and order.

After the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, John Healy expanded his northern empire. In addition to his trading posts at Dyea and Fortymile, he opened another store at the boomtown Circle City, Alaska (located at the edge of the Arctic Circle), and another at the old coastal port town St. Michael, Alaska (located on the Bering Sea at the mouth of the Yukon River). He also purchased a steamboat, which he used to ferry passengers and freight the length of the massive Yukon River. These expansions served him well; in the late 1890’s, the steady stream of northern prospectors which characterized the Fortymile and Circle City gold rushes of the previous decade swelled into a veritable flood during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890’s. John Healy and his family, several members of which had accompanied him north, made a small fortune during these years, using the considerable profit from their various enterprises to purchase interests in mining claims.

In 1900, 60-year-old John Healy travelled to Nome, Alaska, where another gold rush was underway. Instead of panning for gold, as he was wont to do in the past, the seasoned frontiersman contented himself with observing the operations of a younger generation of adventurers and entrepreneurs before co-founding the Yakutat Fishing Company, which quickly evolved into the Central Alaskan Exploration Company.

In the early 1900’s, after going through a nasty divorce with Isabella, Healy took on his biggest project yet. Along with a number of international partners, he contrived to construct a railway bridging North America with Siberia by way of the Bering Strait- a hypothetical railway dubbed the Trans-Alaskan Siberian Railroad. John Healy and his North American partners founded the Alaska Northern Railway Company, which would be in charge of the construction of the Alaskan stretch of the trans-continental railroad. After six years of seemingly-successful negotiation with Russian authorities, the venture fell through.


Broke and now in poor health, John Healy retired to San Francisco, where he lived with his daughter Maria and her husband. He became bedridden quite suddenly, and passed away on September 15, 1908, due to liver failure.


  • Healy’s West- The Life and Times of John J. Healy, 2014, Gordon E. Tolton


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

1) Jerry Potts

2) Kootenai Brown

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 2: Kootenai Brown

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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2. Kootenai Brown

If you’ve ever driven through Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta #5 Highway, you might have noticed a sign labelled “Kootenai Brown” directing you off the main drag. If you take the sign’s advice, you’ll find yourself walking on a small paved path which leads to an even smaller trail through the brush. At the end of this smaller trail is a tiny cemetery in the middle of the woods. One of the cemetery’s three graves is that of John George Brown, known in later life as Kootenai Brown, Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger.

Although perhaps best known for being Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger, Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, and the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, John George “Kootenai” Brown has a rich and colourful Canadian Wild West history. Indeed, he is one of the greatest frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West.

Kootenai Brown’s story began in Ireland in 1839, when he was born into a long line of Scottish-English military men. Having lost both his parents in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, who fought tooth and nail for him to attain an officer’s rank in the British Army. In those days, officers of the British Army attained their rank by purchasing it. Brown’s grandmother, being of modest means, wrote incessantly to the Commander-in-Chief of he British Army, asking that her grandson be granted a commission pro bono on account of his father and grandfather’s dutiful service to the Crown. Her persistence paid off. In 1858, Brown was granted a gratuitous commission in British Army at the height of the Sepoy Mutiny, a bloody revolt in India which left the British Army in desperate need of officers. Brown left for Calcutta  on January 14, 1858 with a command of 21 private soldiers.

In India, Kootenai Brown acquired an appetite for adventure which, as he soon learned, would not be satiated by British military life. After returning to Ireland in 1860, he left the Old World for the New, never to return. With his friend Arthur Wellesley Vowell- a man who would one day serve as Gold Commissioner for British Columbia’s Kootenay district- Brown traveled to Panama in the hopes of eventually reaching the Cariboo goldfields of British Columbia. He and Vowell crossed the Panama Isthmus by train and traveled up the West Coast by steamer to San Francisco. There, they worked odd labour jobs, earning enough money to buy steamer tickets to Victoria, the present-day capital of British Columbia which, according to Brown, “in 1862 had no idea of ever becoming a capital of anything.” There, Brown and Vowell worked as lumberjacks for some time in order to raise money for a prospecting venture. When they each had enough to purchase an outfit, they traveled up the Fraser River to Port Douglas, up the Lillooet Trail to Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet), and up the rugged Old Cariboo Road to the Cariboo goldfields of Williams Creek.

Like most of the prospectors who flocked to British Columbia’s Cariboo region to hunt for gold, Brown and Vowell were unsuccessful. After a season of fruitlessly panning the Cariboo River, the two partners split up. Vowell returned downriver to civilization. Brown decided to spend the fall and winter at the lawless Williams Lake, where he witnessed a deadly shootout between two rival prospectors.

Later that winter, Brown decided to temporarily abandon the search for gold and try his hand at trapping. Together with a partner, Brown succeeded in bringing in a season profit of $3,000 (current equivalent to about $70,000 Canadian). He used the money to outfit himself for another year-long prospecting venture which was, like the first one, completely unsuccessful. When the season was over, Brown, totally broke and down on his luck, found work as a swamper hauling canoes over a particularly rough stretch of the Fraser River.

After earning himself enough money to buy himself a hat, coat, and pair of suspenders, Brown traveled down the Fraser to New Westminster, where he found work as a Constable for the Colony of British Columbia’s Civil Service. His employers immediately dispatched him to Wild Horse Creek (near present-day Fort Steele), where a new gold rush was underway. Brown made the journey from New Westminster to his new post via the route that would one day become the Dewdney Trail.

As it turned out, Wild Horse Creek was just as wild and lawless as the Cariboo. Brown’s first act as Constable was to arrest three counterfeiters, who were making purchases with their imitation gold dust. When the Colony of British Columbia, on account of budget cuts, reduced his pay, he quit the service and took up prospecting once again. Brown and his new prospecting partners, after a fruitless season panning Wild Horse Creek, sold their claim to a party of Chinese prospectors and traveled east, hoping to try their luck on the North Saskatchewan River near Fort Edmonton, where it was rumoured that another gold rush was underway.

Brown and his partners had no idea where Fort Edmonton was aside from that it was somewhere to the east. Without a map or compass, the party traveled through the mountains, eventually stumbling upon the Kootenai Pass, located near the Waterton Lakes region. There, they crossed the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains over into the western Canadian prairies.


Brown and his three companions traveled further east along the prairies, running into all manner of prairie animals including huge herds of buffalo and prairie wolves, prairie grizzlies, coyotes, and “hundreds of rattlesnakes.” At Seven Persons Creek, near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta, they were set upon by a war party of 32 young Blackfoot braves, all of them armed with either bows and flint-tipped arrows or hand-to-hand weapons. The prospectors, who were armed with muzzle-loading percussion rifles, drove back the warriors, killing two of them in the process. During this skirmish, Brown received an arrow in his lower back which narrowly missed one of his kidneys. He pulled the arrow out himself, and allowed his companions to dress his open wound by emptying half a pint of turpentine into it.

kootenai-brown-4Following the skirmish, the party traveled down the creek to the South Saskatchewan River. There, they had a falling out. Two of the prospectors rode north to Fort Edmonton. Brown decided to follow the river, hoping that it might lead to civilization. The third companion, a man with a gold tooth who had lost his horse during the skirmish, would have to travel on foot through extremely dangerous territory. Feeling sorry for his companion, Brown killed a nearby buffalo, constructed a bull boat from its hide, and pushed him off in it so that he, too, might travel downriver.

Brown quickly outstripped his waterborne companion as he rode downriver. In time, he came to the French Metis winter village of Duck Lake, just downriver of present-day Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The village’s Metis inhabitants invited Brown to stay with them for the winter. The frontiersman gratefully accepted. Shortly thereafter, one the Metis approached Brown, telling him that a newcomer named Mr. Goldtooth was looking for him. Mr. Goldtooth, as it turned out, was the man Brown had made a bull boat for. He, too, stayed the winter at Duck Lake.

portage-la-prairieIn the spring, Brown and his companion rode southeast to Fort Garry, present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba. From there, they they split up. ‘Mr. Goldtooth’ traveled east towards civilization, while Brown entered into the whisky trade. At various Indian camps, he sold clothes, blankets, and whisky to the local Cree and Ojibwa in exchange for muskrat, mink, fox, coyote, and wolf pelts. On one occasion, while he was trading in his furs at a post at Portage la Prairie, Brown found himself caught in a ferocious shootout between the post’s white owners and thirty angry Ojibwa from Red Lake, Michigan. During this firefight, one Indian and one white man were killed.

Following the shootout at Portage la Prairie, Brown continued to trade with the First Nations for over a year. During this time, while on a business trip to Fort Garry, he chanced upon a U.S. recruiter for the Pony Express. After hearing what the recruiter had to say, Brown decided to leave Manitoba for the American frontier. There, in North Dakota, he ran mail for the U.S. Army.

In the fall of 1867, Brown was captured by a band of Sioux, who warned him that he and other white men were not welcome in the territory, before releasing him. Despite the warning, he continued to ride for the Pony Express through hostile Sioux territory.

In the spring of 1868, Brown and fellow courier, a Sioux half-breed named Joe Martin, were captured by a Sioux war party led by Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa chief whose warriors would, in eight years, massacre U.S. General George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Sioux braves stripped the two couriers completely naked and debated amongst themselves on how best to torture them. While the warriors argued, Brown and Martin inconspicuously rolled down a hill into nearby Strawberry Lake, where they hid underwater. By this time, it was getting dark, and the Sioux were unable to find the two men. After hiding out in the water for several hours, the naked, barefoot couriers made their way on foot back to the safety of Fort Stevenson, from which they had come.

While under the employ of the U.S. Army, Kootenai Brown’s work took him to the Red River Valley. There, he married a French-Cree girl named Olivia D’Lonais and decided to quit his position and live among the French Metis. The Irishman enjoyed many happy years living with the semi-nomadic, devoutly-religious French-Cree Metis, immersed as he was in a tight-knit community which revolved around the annual buffalo hunt and the music and dance-filled winter camp.

By the mid 1870’s, the buffalo that had dominated the prairies since time immemorial were quickly disappearing. The First Nations and the Metis who depended on buffalo for sustenance began to break up into smaller bands in search of food. In 1877, Brown, his wife, and their two daughters left the Metis camp and headed west in search of better opportunity. There, in Montana, Brown made his living as a wolfer, or wolf hunter.

Wolfers were a hard breed of men largely despised by white traders and Indians alike. Instead of shooting wolves with bullets or snaring them with traps and damaging their pelts in the process, wolfers typically acquired their pelts by killing a buffalo, dressing its carcass, and rubbing the raw meat with toxic strychnine. Prairie wolves would flock to the carcass and gorge themselves on the poisoned meat before collapsing. Then the wolvers would return to the carcass to harvest the pelts.

In the spring of 1877, after hauling the season’s take of pelts to Fort Benton, Brown and his family camped with a Metis band a short distance from the fort on the Teton River. There, Brown was approached by a wolfer named Louis Ell, who asked him to accompany him to the fort. Brown obliged. En route, Ell insited that Brown owed him a debt. Brown denied the allegation. In the heat of the argument that ensued, Brown drew a knife and stabbed the wolfer in the gut. Ell died shortly thereafter. A Metis who had witnessed the stabbing rode to Fort Benton to report it, while Kootenai Brown rode north for the Canadian border.

The Fort Benton sheriff apprehended Brown about 110 kilometres north of the fort and interred him in the jailhouse. There, the sheriff’s successor, Sheriff John Healy, a fellow Irishman and other great frontiersman of the Canadian Wild West, watched over him until his trial. During his trial, Brown pleaded that he killed Ell in self defense. The Territorial Grand Jury agreed and rendered a verdict of not guilty.

Upon being set free, Brown reunited with his wife and daughters and traveled north into Canada. He and his family made their new home in the Waterton Lakes area, which was, at the time, called the Kootenay Lakes region. There, he earned the nickname by which he is known today: “Kootenai” Brown. Kootenai Brown spent the rest of his life in the area, working as a trader, fisherman, hunter, guide, and packer. In 1885, during Riel’s North-West Rebellion, Kootenai Brown served as the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a ragtag militia of ranchers, cowboys, ex-Mounties, remittance men, and old-timer frontiersmen who guarded the narrow-gauge Galt Railway bridging Medicine Hat with Lethbridge. Later, in 1889, he became Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, using the crude oil he produced in the Waterton Lakes area as lubricant for his wagons. In his later years, Kootenai Brown was instrumental in turning his beloved Kootenay Lakes area into the Kootenay Forest Reserve, which would later become Waterton Lakes National Park. Kootenai Brown became Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger, and served that function until his death in the summer of 1916.


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

1) Jerry Potts

3) John Healy

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 1: Jerry Potts

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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1. Jerry Potts


When the sun-burnt, mosquito-bitten officers of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) rode into Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1874, they were disheartened, saddle-weary, and lost. The previous winter, they had first come together as a unit in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. That summer, after months of training, they rode out west bound for the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, determined to bring law and order to the Canadian Wild West. Unfortunately, some of the Metis guides they hired had a less than complete knowledge of the western territory’s geography. By early fall, the Mounties found themselves straddling the Boundary Commission Trail on the Canadian-American border with no idea where they were in relation to their destination, Whoop-Up Country.

The Force’s Assistant Commissioner James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton, Montana, in the hopes that they might find some directions. They found better. Two of the town’s most prominent businessman hosted the Mounties. During dinner, the Montanan merchants suggested that Macleod and company hire a short, bowlegged Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman named Jerry Potts as their guide. Despite learning that the unimposing mustachioed plainsman was a man of few words who had an enormous appetite for whisky, the commodity which they hoped eliminate from the Canadian plains, the Mounties took their suggestion and hired Jerry Potts as their chief scout. They couldn’t have been happier with their decision.


Jerry Potts returned with Macleod to Writing-on-Stone, took up a position at the head of the column, and led the bedraggled Mounties northwest over prairies and coulees. Said Mountie Sam Steele of the quiet, mysterious guide, “he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.” In no time, Potts led the Mounted Policemen to Fort Whoop-Up, on the banks of the Oldman River. Shortly thereafter, he led them upriver to the location at which they would build Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters.

In the ensuing months, Potts, who was fluent in a number of Indian languages, also served the Mounties as an interpreter and Indian ambassador. While the Policemen were building Fort Macleod, he traveled throughout the territory to speak with the local Blackfoot chiefs, on whose lands the Mounties encroached. Potts informed the chiefs that the red coats were there to suppress the whisky trade which had brought the Blackfoot people so much grief, and that they had their interests at heart. The officers who accompanied Potts on these excursions noticed how the powerful Blackfoot chiefs treated the wiry half-breed with deference and respect and took him at his word. The scout, they soon realized, was well-known and highly respected among the people of the plains.

Over the years, various Mounties got the taciturn frontiersman to open up and reveal his mysterious past, which, if the manner in which the Blackfoot treated him was any judge, had evidently earned him a ferocious reputation throughout the Canadian-American plains. As it turned out, Jerry Potts was a man of two worlds. He spent half his time among his father’s people, the predominantly-white traders and ranchers of Fort Benton, Montana, working for various fur trading companies. While at the Fort, one of his favorite past-times was to fortify himself with whisky before playing a gutsy game with his co-worker and fellow half-breed George Star, in which the two of them, armed with revolvers, would stand 20 paces apart and literally trim each other’s mustaches with bullets.

In the white man’s world, Jerry Potts’ primary function was that of a scout. As a result, he often found himself far from the Fort in hostile Sioux territory. One time, while on a scouting expedition with two white men, Potts and his charges were set upon by a war party of about 200 well-equipped Sioux braves. At first, the half-breed ordered his charges to flee on horseback. When he realized that some of the warriors mounted on faster horses would inevitably catch up to them, however, Potts suddenly ordered his two clients to wheel around and ride through the Sioux ranks. After passing through the horde unscathed, Potts had his clients take shelter in a nearby abandoned cabin, where he, armed with nothing more than a revolver, managed to fend off the enterprising braves who rushed their location. That night, after sneaking into the Sioux camp and stealing three of their best horses, Potts and his two charges rode back to the Fort, escaping certain death.

When he was not working for the fur traders of Fort Benton, Jerry Potts lived among his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. He participated wholeheartedly in various raiding parties and war parties against the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, Cree, and Assiniboine, and quickly established himself as a formidable warrior and horse thief. On October 25, 1870, Potts participated in the Battle of Belly River, the last great battle between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies and the last great inter-tribal Indian battle in the world. It was due to Potts’ leadership that the Blackfoot were able to take advantage of a Cree-Assiniboine retreat, turn the tide of the battle in their favour, and completely route their enemies. Due to his martial prowess, and the fact that he, despite his extensive combat experience, was never wounded in battle, the Blackfoot began to regard him with superstitious awe. Potts himself was imbued with the superstitious nature of a Blackfoot and, due to instructions he received in a dream, wore a catskin amulet around his neck day and night for good luck.


In 1869, Jerry Potts guided John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a handful of American whisky traders from Fort Benton to a place on the Oldman River. There, the whisky traders built Fort Whoop-Up, the notorious whisky fort which’s calamitous traffic, in essence, became the main reason for the formation of the North West Mounted Police. Throughout he early 1870’s, Potts watched in horror as the Canadian whisky trade, which he helped establish, succeeded in all but destroying his mother’s people, the Blackfoot.

In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother and brother were killed in a whisky fueled argument. When Potts received word of the incident, he avowed to avenge their murders. About two months later, while watering horses near a Canadian whisky post called Fort Kipp, Potts spotted his mother and brother’s murderer riding out from the fort. The half-breed, furious, pursued the Indian and killed him just a short distance from his own camp.


Following the death of his mother and brother, Potts sought an end to the whisky trade, and was more than happy to assist the Mounties when they rode into Fort Benton in search of a guide.

After joining the Mounties, Jerry Potts performed the functions of scout and interpreter. By all accounts, he was a magnificent scout, and an abysmal interpreter. In the winter of early 1875, he led his respective Mountie charges through blizzards on two different occasions, during one of which he was rendered snow-blind. Said Sam Steele of his scouting ability,“he possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars.” On the other hand, during the signing of Treaty 7, during which the Blackfoot Nations made an agreement with the British Crown, Potts served as interpreter between the Blackfoot chiefs and Government of Canada representatives… that is, until called upon to translate Governor of the North-West Territory David Laird’s eloquent speech into Blackfoot. Potts, a man of limited frontier vocabulary, had no idea what the well-educated governor was saying, and said as much when called upon to interpret.

As a scout and Indian ambassador, Jerry Potts proved to be an invaluable asset to the Mounties. However, his love of whisky often strained his relationship with his superiors. For example, during the early days of the suppression of the whisky trade, Potts and a few officers of the NWMP accosted a pair of bootleggers smuggling whisky across the 49th parallel. The half-breed, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the prisoners in the back of their wagon, broke into the contraband and shared it with the men he was supposed to be guarding. In the words of Constable Robert Wilson, one of the Mounties who accompanied Potts on this mission, “the two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk…” The three men promptly quaffed all the evidence of their wrongdoing, much to the displeasure of Potts’ superiors once they got wind of the incident.

During the North-West Rebellion of 1885- fomented by Metis revolutionary Louis Riel; in which the Metis people of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys, and their Cree and Assiniboine allies fought against the Canadian government- Jerry Potts served as a peacemaker. While Metis and Cree ambassadors rode into Blackfoot reserves imploring their old enemies to take up arms with them against the Canadian government, Potts reminded his Blackfoot friends of their century-long feud against the Cree and Metis, and the good decade-long relationship they had enjoyed with the North-West Mounted Police. Due in part to Potts’ efforts, the Blackfoot refrained from joining the rebellion, thereby preventing what would likely have a huge amount of bloodshed. In the words of North-West Mounted Police physician Dr. George Allan Kennedy, “had the Blackfeet forgotten their own enmity and joined hands with the Crees, it is hardly possible to calculate the enormous loss of life and property that would have followed…”

On July 14, 1896, 56-year-old Jerry Potts succumbed to throat cancer, which was likely attributable, at least in part, to his life of hard drinking. This paragon of the Canadian Wild West was buried in the North-West Mounted Police cemetery in Fort Macleod with full military honours. His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:

“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

2) Kootenai Brown

3) John Healy

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

Five Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

Thanks to Hollywood Westerns, the world will not forget icons of the American frontier any time soon. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) immortalized Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Cochise County Cowboys. John Wayne’s starring role in The Alamo (1960) made Davy Crockett a household name. And after Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant (2015), the name Hugh Glass will long survive in posterity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the heroes and villains of Canada’s slightly-less-Old, slightly-less-Wild West. Today, few Canucks, if pressed, would be able to list off any of the prospectors, whisky traders, wolfers, or adventurers who made their marks on Western Canada prior to the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874. This is completely understandable, and not at all surprising. The golden age of Western cinema predates Vancouver’s ‘Hollywood North’, and the Ottawa-centric education systems adopted by the western provinces have historically done little in the way of educating their students on local history. Aside from a handful of obscure streets bearing their names, the frontiersmen of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have all but disappeared from our cultural memory. 

Luckily, historians like Hugh Dempsey of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and Rodger Touchie of the Heritage House Publishing Company work hard to keep the stories of the Western Canadian frontier, and the memories of the colourful characters who lived them, alive. Through books and articles born from archival research, archaeological study, and interviews, these scholars have painted a picture of Canada’s Wild West which is every bit as unique and arguably every bit as interesting as its American counterpart. With our country’s 150th birthday only a year away, it’s important that we Canadians take advantage of their work and remember our country’s western lineage.

Without further ado, here are five of the Jesse James’s and Billy the Kids of the Canadian Wild West:


1. Jerry Potts

2. Kootenai Brown

3. John Healy

4. Joe Kipp

5. Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


By Hammerson Peters


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The History of Albertan Oil and Gas

The Texas of Canada?

Alberta has often been called ‘The Texas of Canada’, and with good reason; like its American counterpart, so-called ‘Wild Rose Country’ has traditionally been a bastion of cowboy culture, conservative values, and perhaps most importantly, the oil and gas industry.

For as long as it’s been a province, ‘The Texas of Canada’ has been a favorite place for ranchers to set up shop, and for as long as it’s had ranchers, Alberta has had a strong cowboy culture. The province boasts the Raymond and Medicine Hat Stampedes, two of the oldest rodeos in the world, as well as the world-famous Calgary Stampede. Calgary itself, with its sprawling herd of cow sculptures and popular country bars, bears the nickname ‘Cow Town’.

In fact, one of the most popular bars in Calgary is actually called Cowboys. Calgary boasts a professional hockey team, the Calgary Flames, which plays in a saddle-shaped arena called the ‘Saddledome’ (the Flame’s former barn is called the ‘Corral’). All throughout the province, you’ll find “I Love Alberta Beef” stickers pasted on truck bumpers, relics of the wave of province-wide solidarity which emerged in wake of the mad cow crisis of 2003. One need only drive a kilometre or two down any stretch of the Albertan Trans-Canada to see why cowboy culture is so locally prominent. No matter where you go on the Alberta #1, it seems, you’ll find huge herds of horses and cattle grazing behind barbed wire. Alberta is Canada’s largest beef producing province, and it contains about 41% of the nation’s cattle.

In addition to its cowboy culture, Alberta, like Texas, is famous for its social conservatism. Since the 1930’s , Alberta has repeatedly elected right-wing political parties to govern itself. The conservative Alberta Social Credit Party reigned in Alberta from 1935-1971, and the centre-right Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta governed the province from 1971-2015.

Last, but certainly not least, Alberta resembles Texas in that it is the undisputed centre of the Canadian oil and gas industry. ‘Wild Rose Country’ lies at the heart of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, a massive geological region which contains the world’s third largest reserves of oil and natural gas (eclipsed only by the oil sands of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). As such, Alberta accounts for about 80% of Canada’s oil and gas production. Up until quite recently, you could find pump jacks all over the province working day and night, pumping oil from completed wells. Here and there, you’d come across massive derricks on which crews worked around the clock to drill new wells. Due to the incredible revenue generated by the oil and gas industry, Alberta has traditionally had the strongest provincial economy in the country.

Similar to the ranching industry, the oil and gas industry has made a profound mark upon Albertan culture. Edmonton, the capital of the province, is the home of the Edmonton Oilers, a professional ice hockey team with an impressive list of alumni, including Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers got their name from the nickname of the local junior hockey team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, which’s similarly-named successor plays in the Western Hockey League today. Calgary, the epicenter of the Albertan petroleum industry, is the home of the Calgary Roughnecks, a professional lacrosse team. “Roughneck” is another word for the floorhand of either a drilling rig or a service rig.

Throughout the 20th century, Alberta has been shaped, more than almost anything else, by these three elements. However, events of the past two years have indicated that, although ranching remains as strong in the province as it’s ever been, Alberta’s staunch sense of social conservatism and internationally-prominent petroleum industry may be going the way of the Albertosaurus. On May 5, 2016, Alberta departed from its traditional right-wing path by electing the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) to form a majority government. This was the first time in eighty years that Albertans have elected a left-leaning political party to govern their province. And in June 2014, the price of crude oil plummeted, and along with it the oil and gas industry which has dominated Alberta for over a century. Companies in all areas of the oil and gas industry, from seismic exploration companies to those offering well fraccing services, have gone bankrupt. Others have hacked at their budgets to stay afloat, and as a result, thousands of Albertans have lost their jobs. Pump jacks all over the province have slowed to a halt. No longer are drilling derricks a common sight on the horizon.

Some alarmists, looking to the future, fear that the Albertan oil and gas industry might be history. Perhaps one of the ways to address this fear is to look to the past, and examine the history of Albertan oil and gas.


Early Canadian Petroleum Industry

In order to put the history of Alberta’s oil and gas industry into context, it helps to take a look at the early history of the Canadian petroleum industry.

The first Canadian oil company, the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, was founded by Charles Tripp in 1851 near present-day Sarnia, Ontario. Tripp’s company searched for surface crude in the oily swamps of what is now southwestern Ontario. Not only did Tripp’s company extract oil from asphalt beds; it also dug for salt springs -underground reservoirs of saltwater from which salt can be extracted- and manufactured its own fuels and oil-based paints. Because Tripp’s company did its own petroleum exploration, extraction, and refining, it is considered the world’s first integrated oil company.

In 1857, a carriage maker named James Miller Williams took over Tripp’s company and named it the J.M. Williams & Company. Under Williams’ direction, the company used the crude oil it extracted to produce asphalt along with a relatively new substance: petroleum-based kerosene.

Ever since the 1700’s, Europeans, Americans, and residents of European colonies around the world used whale oil (rendered whale blubber) and sperm oil (a liquid wax obtained from the heads of sperm whales) as indoor lamp oil. The whaling industry peaked in the mid 1800’s, and then began to decline rapidly as whales around the world were hunted to near-extinction. Fortunately for both whales and lamp-users, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a coal-based lamp oil in 1846. He called the substance “kerosene”. Several years later, in 1851, an American inventor named Samuel Kier developed a method of producing kerosene from crude oil. In no time, this petroleum-based kerosene eclipsed whale oil in popularity as a lamp oil. Demand for this product, more than anything else, was the catalyst that first set the North American oil and gas industry into motion.

Buoyed by the growing demand for crude oil, Williams & Company began to dig around the gum beds of what was once called Black Creek, on the western end of the piece of land which separates Lake Huron from Lake Eirie. In the summer of 1858, one of the company’s wells struck oil. It was to be one of North America’s first commercial oil wells (along with Pennsylvania’s 1859 Drake Well). Williams’ discovery triggered North America’s first oil rush, and in no time the area around Black Creek swelled to a town of 4,000. The town was named Oil Springs.

In 1860, Williams’ company, which was renamed the Canadian Oil Company that year, dug the world’s first “blowout”. A blowout, or gusher, is a geyser-like explosion of crude oil which occurs when an oil well penetrates a high-pressure underground reservoir. Dangerous, wasteful and destructive, blowouts would become a hallmark of the early oil and gas industry of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Ever since that first gusher of 1860, blowouts would occur with some regularity until blowout preventers were developed in the 1920’s. Said the Hamilton Times of the 1860 incident:

“I have just time to mention that to-day at half past eleven o’clock, a.m., Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C. W., tapped a vein of oil in his well, at a depth of one hundred and fifty-eight feet in the rock, which filled the surface well, (forty-five feet to the rock) and the conductors [sic] in the course of fifteen minutes, and immediately commenced flowing. It will hardly be credited, but nevertheless such is the case, that the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day, (twenty-four hours), of pure oil, and the quantity increasing every hour. I saw three men in the course of one hour, fill fifty barrels from the flow of oil, which is running away in every direction; the flat presenting the appearance of a sea of oil. The excitement is intense, and hundreds are rushing from every quarter to see this extraordinary well.”

In 1866, oil was discovered at a location about 13 kilometres to the north, near Buttermilk Creek, ON. Almost overnight, many of those who worked at Oil Springs abandoned the place for the new diggings. A boomtown was established, which its inhabitants named Petrolia.

The oil men at Petrolia, instead of digging, developed a unique method of tapping into oil and gas reservoirs via drilling. This method was called the pole-tool method. Canadian oil men from the Petrolia oil fields became so adept at drilling that, once the oil and gas industry spread overseas, they became highly sought after for their expertise. Many Petrolia drillers, who became known as “hard oilers”, found themselves travelling to the far corners of the globe to teach their foreign counterparts how to locate and extract oil.

Southwestern Ontario’s short-lived oil boom quickly came to an end as the area’s underground reservoirs were gradually exhausted. In addition, Canadian oil companies struggled to compete with American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Although Canadian companies amalgamated in 1880 to form the Imperial Oil Company in an effort to contend with their American competitors, Canada slowly began to rely on imported American oil. And as quickly as it had began, Canada’s oil and gas industry appeared to be coming to an end.


Early Albertan Natural Gas

Although the Canadian petroleum industry certainly had its infancy in Ontario, it matured into a colossus in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta. The first hint of the massive Albertan oil and gas industry which would blossom in the mid-20th century occurred in 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway first came to Alberta from the east.

In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built a bridge over the South Saskatchewan River at present-day Medicine Hat, in what is now southeast Alberta. Upon completion of the bridge, the CPR continued laying tracks westward. In December 1883, at a site approximately 35 west of the bridge, railway workers drilled for water. Instead of finding groundwater, however, the workers stumbled upon a rich reservoir of natural gas. The CPR used this gas for cooking and heating at the nearby railway section house which, similar to the old work site on the river (Medicine Hat), quickly grew into a rough community called Langevin Siding (today, Langevin Siding, which was renamed Carlstadt in 1910 by German immigrants, and re-renamed Alderson in 1915 in the midst of the anti-German sentiment of World War I, is a ghost town).

This discovery of natural gas encouraged further exploration. Locals quickly learned that the area was chock-full of the substance, and by the 1890’s, residents of nearby Medicine Hat were using the fuel for cooking and heating. At the turn of the century, Medicine Hat’s town council erected gas lamps all along what is now the historic downtown district and kept them fed with local natural gas. The council quickly discovered that it was cheaper to let the lamps burn perpetually than to hire someone to douse them each morning and relight them each evening, and so many of them have burned, day and night, for more than a century.

In June, 1904, a massive gas well was struck near Medicine Hat. The June 16 issue of the Medicine Hat News read, “Eureka We Have Found It! … There is no doubt now but that Medicine Hat will become the manufacturing centre of the west.” The discovery of industrial quantities of natural gas, along with quality clay found in the cutbanks along the river near Medicine Hat and the nearby town of Redcliff, resulted in a thriving brick and pottery industry which dominated the area in the early 20th century. In time, Medicine Hat earned the nickname “The Pittsburgh of the West” and “The Gas City” (the latter of which was the city’s official slogan until 2015). In 1907, English writer Rudyard Kipling visited the booming Medicine Hat and witnessed a flare from a freshly-drilled well. The writer famously remarked, “This part of the country seems to have all Hell for a basement and the only trapdoor appears to be in Medicine Hat.”


Early Albertan Oil

Arguably even more so than its natural gas, Alberta is known for its oil. Although present-day Alberta is famous- or perhaps infamous, depending on who you talk to- for the Athabascan bitumen pits in its north, Albertan oil was first discovered in the southwest corner of the province.

Perhaps the very first pioneer of the Albertan oil industry was a frontiersman known as Kootenay Brown. John George “Kootenay” Brown was one of the most interesting characters of the Canadian Wild West. Scots-English by ethnicity and Irish by birth, Brown secured a position as a junior officer of the British Army at the age of eighteen and served in India during the Sepoy Mutiny. His service in India left him with an appetite for adventure that would not be satiated by British military life. Upon returning to Ireland, Brown left the Old World for the New, never to return. His subsequent adventures on the Canadian and American frontier were many and varied. He toiled as a prospector in British Columbia during the Cariboo Gold Rush. He survived a Blackfoot ambush near present-day Medicine Hat, receiving an arrow in the back. He worked as a whisky trader in Manitoba, surviving a bloody shootout at Portage la Prairie. He rode in North Dakota for the Pony Express, narrowly escaping torture and death at the hands of chief Sitting Bull’s Sioux. He lived among the Metis of the Red River Valley. The list goes on and on.

Eventually, Brown settled in the Waterton (at that time known as Kootenay) Lakes region of southwestern Alberta. He knew from the local Kootenay and Stoney Indians that oil oozed along what is now Cameron Creek, Alberta. According to legend, the Indians informed him of the oil on Cameron Creek after he had given them a cocktail consisting of oil and molasses and asked them to inform him if they came across anything that tasted or smelled similar. Brown used the oil as lubricant for his wagons and as medicine for his horses.

Every once in a while, Brown would leave his home in the Waterton Lakes area and travel to the town of Fort Macleod, west of present-day Lethbridge, to sell fish and shoot the breeze with the locals. There, during the late 1880’s, he publicized the presence of oil in the Waterton Lakes region. Due in part to his yarns, a number of surveyors traveled to the area to investigate and returned with glowing reports. In no time, southwestern Alberta experienced its first oil boom. What is now Cameron Creek became known as Oil Creek, and Cameron Lake from which the creek flows became known as Oil Lake. Soon, wooden drilling derricks were being erected, and a small boom town came into being. The town was optimistically named Oil City.

However, the boom was short lived. According to the December 3, 1889 issue of the Fort Macleod Gazette, “Boring operations are at a standstill in the Kootenai oil regions. There seems to be great uncertainty as to when work will commence. Two holes have been sunk a short distance.” Apparently, the quality or quantity of oil in the Waterton Lakes area was not as great as the surveyors had anticipated. Before the year was out, Oil City was little more than a memory.

In 1902, John Lineham of the Rocky Mountain Development Company returned to the region south of Waterton Lakes and drilled the first successful oil well in Western Canada. Lineham’s well produced oil at 300 barrels a day. The well produced about 8,000 barrels of crude oil in its lifetime, and was abandoned in 1904. Today, a small monument depicting a drilling rig marks the site of Lineham’s well, the first of many productive Western Canadian oil wells.


Turner Valley

The world changed forever in the late 19th century with the invention of the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford’s Model T, first produced in 1908, sounded the death knell of the steam locomotive and ushered in the era of the automobile. Along with the massive popularity of the world’s first affordable car came a huge demand for gasoline, and along with that came a huge demand for crude oil. By 1914, the world was as hungry for black gold as America was for the real stuff seventeen years prior, at the dawn of the Klondike Gold Rush. Enterprising Canadians were itching to stretch their entrepreneurial muscles, and would jump at the first hint of oil.

On May 14, 1914, a sort of oil was discovered in Turner Valley, located southwest of Calgary. Literally overnight, within a 24-hour period, 500 different oil companies were formed. Well drilling commenced immediately. The oil produced in Turner Valley was really wet natural gas. When stripped of the natural gas, the liquid that remained could be used as a gasoline substitute which earned the name “skunk gas” from its skunky smell. This process of stripping the liquid of its natural gas was first pioneered in Turner Valley. At that time, “skunk gasoline” was far more valuable than the natural gas which was separated from it. Many refineries in the Turner Valley area eliminated the unwanted natural gas by flaring it off. The flames from these flares could be seen from miles around. One coulee in which these flares were concentrated was referred to by locals as “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Several months after the discovery in Turner Valley, on August 4, 1914, Britain entered the First World War. As Canada was officially a British dominion at that time, it followed suit. The tanks, military vehicles and aircraft of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Allied Powers all relied on either gasoline or diesel, and so demand for crude oil skyrocketed. As a result, drilling at Turner Valley continued throughout the Great War.

In 1924, Turner Valley experienced one of the most massive blowouts in Albertan history. Eventually, the well caught fire and burned non-stop for 21 days. Wild well control experts finally managed to get the well under control using steam and dynamite.

In 1929, a new oil and gas exploration technology was first put to the test in Turner Valley. Before then, geologists and surveyors employed very crude methods of predicting where oil and gas reservoirs might be found. With the advent of this new technology, however, surveyors could predict whether or not subterranean deposits of significance were to be found with a great degree of accuracy. This technology, seismic reflection technology, was first developed  during World War I in an effort to locate enemy heavy artillery and submarines, respectively. The process of collecting seismic data involved blowing up strategically-placed dynamite in order to send seismic waves into the earth. The waves would reflect off bedrock and travel up to the surface, where strategically-placed geophones would convert the ground movement into voltage. Engineers would analyze the geophone data to determine what lay underground. Canada’s first seismic survey was conducted in Turner Valley in 1929.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the oil and gas industry of Turner Valley ground to a halt. Many oil and gas workers who had thrived during the so-called “Roaring Twenties” found themselves unemployed. The situation was grim.


World War II

The Depression that had gripped Canada throughout the Dirty Thirties came to abruptly to an end on September 10, 1939, when Canada entered World War II. As was the case during the First World War, crude oil was once again in high demand. Not only was crude oil necessary for the gasoline and diesel engines that powered the Allied war machine overseas; it was necessary for the production of popular, newly-invented petroleum-based materials like nylon and synthetic rubber. Unfortunately, supply was very low, and Canada still relied quite heavily on imported oil. Canadian oilfields already in existence, like the one at Turner Valley, reached peak production during the War.


The Leduc Discovery

The most decisive event in Canadian oil and gas history, which transformed Alberta into an oil and gas province, occurred on February 13, 1947. That day, Imperial Oil discovered light oil during an exploratory drilling operation near the town of Leduc, Alberta, just south of Edmonton. That first well drilled in the Leduc area, called the Leduc No. 1, would change Alberta forever.

Throughout the ’20’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s, Imperial Oil had searched for alternatives to the oilfields of Turner Valley. The company drilled 133 wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan, all of which failed to yield commercially significant quantities of oil. Before the Leduc find, Imperial Oil was seriously considering abandoning the pursuit of oil and focusing on manufacturing synthetic gasoline from natural gas. The discovery at Leduc was a pleasant shock to the company. It was a stunning find which led to many subsequent discoveries of huge importance across the prairies, including the discovery of the Pembina oil field, the largest of its kind in the province. As a result of these major discoveries, billions of investment dollars poured into Alberta. Immigrants flocked to the province, looking for work. Soon, Edmonton and Calgary grew into major cities. Edmonton became the centre of production for many oil and gas operations, while Calgary housed many of those companys’ head offices. In no time, Alberta made the shift from a modest agricultural region to the wealthiest province in Canada.


Early Pipelines

In 1949, a division of Imperial Oil called Interprovincial Pipeline Limited (IPL; now Enbridge) began to survey potential pipeline routes from Alberta to central Canada. The first IPL pipeline, constructed in 1950, connected Edmonton, Alberta, to Regina, Saskatchewan. The pipeline was extended the following year to Superior, Wisconson, in the United States. Throughout the mid-late 1950’s, the company extended the pipeline deeper into Ontario. At the time of its construction, the Interprovincial Pipeline was the longest pipeline in the world.

Also in the early 1950’s, during the Korean War, the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline Company constructed a pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver so that Canadian petroleum might be more effectively shipped to the frontlines overseas. Like the Canadian Pacific Railway of the 1880’s, the pipeline’s construction through the Rocky Mountains was an extraordinary feat of engineering.


The Athabasca Oil Sands

When it comes to oil and gas, Alberta is arguably most famous- or infamous, depending on who you talk to- for its sprawling northern oil sands. Sometimes referred to as the Athabasca tar sands, this deposit is the largest known bitumen deposit in the world.

Canadians have known about the Athabascan bitumen deposit for centuries. Local Cree Indians used the tar-like substance to waterproof their canoes. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie wrote about the heavy oil that surfaced along the Athabasca River in the 1790’s. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which established the trading post Fort McMurray in the region in 1870, knew well that oil was to be found in the area. Despite the fact that the presence of oil in the area was common knowledge, the Athabasca oil sands were not exploited for their subterranean riches until the 1960’s.

For oil men of the mid-late 19th century, there were two problems with Athabascan oil. The first problem was that it could not be extracted through the conventional drilling methods of the time. Athabascan bitumen is a heavy, viscous mixture of clay, sand, and thick petroleum which cannot flow or be pumped in its raw form. The second problem with Athabascan bitumen is that it must be first separated into crude petroleum and sediment before it can be refined for use. During the early days of the Albertan oil and gas industry, the technology necessary to carry out this process had not yet been developed.

Although pioneering oil men dabbled in the Athabasca tar sands in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was not until the 1960’s that the northern oil sands were seriously exploited. Instead of drilling wells in the area, oil companies extracted the bitumen by blasting and excavating huge open-pit surface mines. The heavy bitumen was chemically separated, or “cracked”, into sediment and less-viscous synthetic crude oil on site.

In 1967, Suncor’s antecessor, the Great Canadian Oil Sands, opened up a refining plant in the Athabasca region for this very purpose. Immediately, the area exploded in growth. The town of Fort McMurray, which revolved around the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of the same name, quickly grew into a large boomtown.

In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, an organization consisting of oil-rich Arabic OPEC nations, proclaimed an oil embargo. This was done in response to pro-Semitic American military involvement in the Yom Kippur War, which was being fought between Israel and a number of Arabic nations. Because of this embargo, oil prices around the world soared. This, in turn, sparked investor interest in the Athabasca oil sands, and the region continued to flourish.


The Recession of the 1980’s

Throughout the rest of 1970’s following this oil crisis of 1973, Alberta experienced an economic oil boom which some have likened to a modern-day gold rush. With oil prices sky high, entrepreneurs and adventurers flocked to Alberta to strike it rich. There were more jobs in Canada, particularly in Western Canada, than ever before. In the space of a few years, the province’s population increased by a third. Calgary and Edmonton grew rapidly, and as a result the housing market boomed. In 1978, in Fort McMurray, the Syncrude Mine opened. Today, the Syncrude bitumen mine is the largest mine by area in the world.

Suddenly, in the early 1980’s, the oil bubble burst. The Albertan oil and gas industry had overstretched itself, producing too much crude oil to quickly. Oil supply exceeded oil demand, and crude prices sunk to record lows. The Albertan petroleum industry was hit hard by the aftereffects of this oil glut which plunged the world into the biggest economic recession since the 1930’s. And as soon as it had begun, the Alberta oil boom was over.



There was a light at the end of the tunnel. The Alberta oil and gas industry began to recover in the late 1980’s, and by the mid nineties, it had retained its former glory, thanks in part to the economically sound policies of Alberta premier Ralph Klein.

The Alberta petroleum industry continued to grow well into the 21st century. The growth was not only confined to Alberta, but also spread to southwest Saskatchewan and northeast British Columbia. By 2012, the Athabascan oil sands alone were producing an average of 1.8 million barrels of synthetic crude per day. In the early 2010’s, two massive pipeline projects were proposed. One, the international Keystone XL pipeline, was, after a long struggle, eventually given the green light. Construction commenced, and the Keystone XL pipeline now connects Hardisty, Alberta, with Houston, Texas. Another, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, was also proposed. This Enbridge pipeline would connect Brunderheim, Alberta, with Kitamat, BC. Due, in part, to strong resistance from BC First Nations communities and Canadian environmentalists like David Suzuki, however, the project has never come to fruition.


The Recession of 2014- …

In 2014, the price of crude oil began to drop, and has been steadily dropping ever since. As was the case in the 1980’s, this drop in oil prices was due to an overabundance of oil. Canadian and American oil companies had steadily been amping up production since the comeback of the ’90’s. Middle Eastern and African oil nations have worked furiously to supply the growing markets of China and India. Eventually, production outstripped demand, causing the oil prices to plummet, and with them the Alberta oil and gas industry.

All throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, companies in the Albertan oil patch have cut their spending and laid off workers to stay afloat. Today, thousands of Albertans are unemployed. As was the case in the 1980’s, and in the 1930’s before that, the situation is grim.



According to popular belief, American writer Mark Twain once said, “History does’t repeat itself, but if often rhymes.” With this piece of wisdom in mind, it follows that Alberta, particularly its oil and gas industry, as it has in the past, will climb out of the economic slump it presently finds itself in sooner or later. Perhaps, as was the case following the recession of the ’80’s, Alberta’s newly-elected NDP government will adopt fiscally responsible policies which will assist in bringing Alberta’s dominant industry back to life. Let’s hope the comeback of the Alberta oil and gas industry, as was the case following the Great Depression, doesn’t take a World War III (knock on wood).


By Hammerson Peters


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Klondike Gold Rush – Part 6: Dawson City

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

By autumn 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush was in full swing. Throughout the fall of 1897 and the winter and spring of 1898, thousands of Stampeders (as Klondike gold seekers were known) converged on Dawson City and the Klondike from many different directions. Some took the so-called “Rich Man’s Route”, travelling by steamer to St. Michael, Alaska, on the Bering Sea, then up the Yukon River to Dawson City. Others took the perilous all-American routes over crevasse-ridden glaciers, or the grueling all-Canadian route over thousands of miles of sub-arctic swamp. Many more traveled by steamer up the Lynn Canal to Skagway or Dyea, scaled the Coast Mountains by way of either the White or the Chilkoot Pass, and took the watery Bennett-Dawson Trail down the Yukon River to Dawson City. All set out with the hopes of striking it rich. Few reached Dawson, and fewer still found the gold they had initially set out to find.



As soon as the spring ice melted, dozens of rough, hand-hewn boats drifted into Dawson City. The men and women aboard them were Stampeders who had outdistanced their counterparts- most of whom had wintered at Lake Bennett- and had been forced, due to freeze-up, to spend the winter along the shores of the Yukon River. They told the Sourdoughs at Dawson of the massive armada behind them which  would arrive at Dawson any day.

Sure enough, in June, 1898, thousands of boats rounded the river bend and disgorged their cargo on the shores of Dawson City and the surrounding riverbank. At the same time, steamboats filled with Stampeders who had taken the Rich Man’s Route from St. Michael, Alaska, poured into Dawson City from upriver. In the space of a month, Dawson grew from a rough northern boomtown peopled by so-called ‘Sourdoughs’ long-accustomed to the rigors of the subarctic to a veritable hive of humanity composed of Stampeders of all ethnicities, nationalities, and backgrounds. In no time, the river valley resounded with the sounds of saws and hammers as Dawson grew into the largest Canadian town west of Winnipeg.

Many Stampeders immediately set about erecting shops in which they would sell merchandise they had hauled all the way over the Dawson trails. Several men had brought broods of hens to Dawson City and began to sell their eggs at exorbitant prices. One man who managed to haul a dairy cow all the way to the Klondike sold fresh milk at thirty dollars a gallon. One Italian New Yorker named Signor R.J. Gandolfo set up a fruit stand at which he sold, among other things, tomatoes at five dollars a pound (to put this in perspective, back in New York Gandolfo sold two baskets of tomatoes for a nickel). A newspaper boy who had lugged Seattle newspapers to the Klondike sold his wares to news-hungry Sourdoughs for incredible prices (for example, one Klondiker purchased an old newspaper for $59 in gold dust). Others who had hauled printing presses piece by piece over the mountain passes started up their own Klondike newspapers. By summer, Dawson City boasted two newspapers (The Klondike Nugget and the Midnight Sun), two banks, five churches, and a telephone service.

Other Stampeders, upon arriving in Dawson City, searched for friends with whom they had been separated somewhere along the Dawson trails. According to Arthur Christian Newton Treadgold, an Oxford tutor who had abandoned academia for the Klondike: “The main street is nearly always crowded with men trying to find one another for… it is a hard matter to find a man in Dawson and much time is wasted thereby. When you find your man the two of you sit on the edge of the sidewalk (raised a foot above the road for cleanliness) and talk. This is a picturesque sight, for men are of all nations in all kinds of quaint garments, standing or sitting in business on the main street.”

Interestingly, most of the Stampeders who arrived at Dawson in the summer of 1898 never went out into the Klondike watershed to search for gold. In the words of historian and writer Pierre Berton, “it was as if the vitality that had carried these men across the passes and down the rivers, shouting, singing, bickering, and slaving, had been sapped after ten months of struggle.” For these men and women fresh from the trail, the prospect of spending another two seasons doing the hard manual labour necessary to locate and extract gold was exhausting. Many of these Stampeders either sold their outfits or landed a job and worked just long enough to earn themselves a steamship ticket back to the Outside. By the end of the summer, nearly two thirds of the Stampeders who had arrived at Dawson City that June had left for home empty-handed.


A Year in the North

Those who chose to remain in Dawson and the Yukon that year bore witness to the end of a brief but fiery era. From the summer of 1898 until the summer of 1899, a number of prominent northerners who had made indelible marks upon Yukon and Alaskan history met their ends in one way or another.

One such man was fifty-four-year-old Yukon Commissioner James Morrow Walsh. Before he had even set foot in the Yukon, Walsh was already a man of considerable repute. He, along with only a handful of others, was one of the original officers of the North West Mounted Police. He had ridden west with the Force during the famous trek of 1874. He had served as the first Commissioner of Fort Walsh, in the Cypress Hills, which was named after him. He had been the first white man to ride into the camp of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and leave with both his scalp and his life (excepting, perhaps, Pony Express riders Kootenai Brown and Joe Martin). In fact, he had even made friends with the fearsome war chief and convinced him and his Sioux to abide by Canadian law while north of the border (the Sioux had fled to Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fearing retribution from the U.S. Army). Unfortunately, Walsh’s experience in the Klondike marred his otherwise spotless reputation.

In the summer of 1898, Walsh, who had served as the first Commissioner of the newly-established Yukon Territory since August 1897, was indicted for political graft. Walsh’s cook, a man named Louis Carbeno, testified under oath that he was employed only upon agreeing to give three quarters of any gold he found working a claim to either Walsh or Walsh’s brother Philip. Although Walsh’s trial was inconclusive, he resigned nevertheless. He was succeeded by William Ogilvie, a Canadian surveyor who had lived in the Yukon since the days of the Fortymile Gold Rush. Walsh retired to Brockville, Ontario, where he resided until his death in 1905.

Another legendary figure of the Klondike Gold Rush to meet his end in the summer of 1898 was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Soapy Smith was a smooth-talking con-man who had built himself a criminal empire in Denver, Colorado. Once the Klondike Stampede was underway, Smith took his scheming to the town of Skagway, Alaska, at the head of the White Pass, where he built up another little empire. In no time, Smith was the dictator of Skagway in all but name, and his gang members extolled an illicit tax on any Stampeder unfortunate enough to let his guard down while in town.

In July, 1898, one of Smith’s men stole a $2,800 poke from a prospector named John Douglas Stewart, who was returning from the Klondike by way of the Bennett-Dawson Trail and the White Pass. There was nothing particularly unusual about this incident; prospectors returning from the goldfields were routinely robbed by Smith’s men in Skagway. However, Stewart would have none of it; the prospector was very vocal about the crime, and soon a gang of vigilantes emerged from the Skagway woodwork and demanded that Smith return the poke.

When Smith refused to cooperate, the vigilantes held a meeting on Juneau Wharf, one of the Skagway docks. When Smith received word of the meeting, he headed to the dock armed with a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver. Smith ordered the vigilantes to scatter. Although some obeyed, a man named Frank H. Reid stood his ground. Smith and Reid engaged in a brief brawl which culminated in both of them being shot. Smith died instantly with a bullet in his heart. His last words were, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Reid received a bullet in his lower abdomen and groin, and survived for twelve days before expiring. Following Smith’s death, most of his gang members fled town.

When fall came, a small number of Stampeders who remained in Dawson City, Yukon, took to the Klondike to search for gold. Some Cheechakos, newcomers to the north, decided to eschew the claims that girded the creeks and dig shafts in the hills. Sourdoughs who had prospected for their entire lives scoffed at the greenhorns, who obviously had no idea what they were doing. In their minds, any prospector with even a lick of experience would know to avoid the hills, as gold was heavy and had a tendency to find its way to the lowest parts of the land, which were the stream beds. However, neither Cheechako nor Sourdough knew that the hills overlooking the Klondike were lined with ancient stream beds that had long since ran dry. The Cheechakos who sunk shafts in the hills stumbled upon a particularly rich vein of gold and returned home fantastically wealthy. Because of their successes, one of the hills on which they dug was named Cheechako Hill.

Fall turned to winter, and the soil froze solid. Every night, prospectors lit fires inside their mines, and every morning they cleared out the ashes and dug through the thawed earth. Picks fell, windlasses turned, and the dump piles which punctuated the claims along the Klondike rose higher and higher.

The winter of 1898/99 was arguably the golden era of the Dawson City, an era characterized by extravagance. The city’s population was at its height, and its saloons, dance halls and game rooms were perpetually packed with prospectors, adventurers, bartenders, gamblers, businessmen, and entertainers who hailed from all walks of life. Sourdoughs who had struck it rich- like ‘Swiftwater’ Bill Gates (no relation to the present-day billionaire of the same name whose grandfather, William Henry Gates I, happened to be one of the Stampeders in Dawson City that year), ‘Big Alex’ McDonald, and Charley Anderson, ‘The Lucky Swede’- strutted about town, lavishing outrageous gifts- like hundreds of fried eggs (a luxury in the Klondike) and bathtubs filled with hugely-overpriced champagne- on dance hall girls they fancied. Gold and whisky flowed like water. That winter, Dawson saw another miniature gold rush as well as a massive fire which all but wiped out Main Street.

That winter, another legendary Klondike figure met his end. His name was Father William Judge, and he was a Jesuit priest. Judge, who had served the Catholic Church in Alaska since 1890, made his way to the Klondike following George Carmack’s discovery in August 1896. Unlike almost everyone else who flocked to the Klondike during the Stampede, however, Judge was never looking to strike it rich; he was truly pious, and hoped to serve God by ministering to the northern gold seekers, whom he described as “men running away from civilization as it advanced westward- until now they have no farther to go and so have to stop.” Upon arriving in the rapidly-growing town of Dawson, Judge set about constructing a church, a rectory, and the town’s first hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital. At the hospital, he cared for Stampeders afflicted with maladies typical of the Klondike Gold Rush, like frostbite, scurvy, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. One such Stampeder whom Judge nursed back to health was future fiction writer Jack London, who had come down with a bad case of scurvy in the winter of 1897/98. As a Jesuit, Judge had taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. If any prospectors tried to compensate him for his invaluable work, he invested the money in blankets and medicine for his hospital. On Christmas Day, 1897, Judge politely refused to accept a Christmas gift consisting of a custom-tailored suit, sealskin coat, cap, and gloves, which a handful of grateful Klondikers had procured in the hopes of garbing the frail priest in something more substantial than the tattered black cassock he affected. Due to his immaculate character, the selfless Jesuit soon earned the epithet”the Saint of Dawson.”

Judge had no formal assistants, and performed almost every task himself. He built the church, rectory, and hospital with minimal help, and for the few volunteers who assisted him he cooked meals. He nursed and doctored all his patients himself, and when one of his patients died, he personally chipped his way through the permafrost with pick and shovel and buried him. He never turned a patient away, and even converted his own rectory into a hospice when the hospital became overcrowded. He was chronically overworked, and got very little sleep. In time, his exertions took their tole; in the winter of 1899, Judge came down with pneumonia, and on January 16, he died. In a grotesque twist of irony, the Klondike Sourdoughs interred Judge in a magnificent, thousand-dollar coffin- something which probably had the Saint of Dawson rolling in his grave.

Winter turned to spring, and the prospectors who had laboured all winter washed the pay dirt from their mines in sluice boxes, afterwards collecting the gold that settled in the ribs at the bottom. Most found themselves largely empty handed. Some, however, had made more than enough to pay for the steamboat tickets back home. A select few had struck it rich.

Summer came, and along with it, the White Pass Railway. Since May, 1898, labourers and engineers had worked on a narrow gauge railway line which was to connect Skagway, Alaska, with the Klondike goldfields. In July 1899, the railway reached Lake Bennett, Yukon, at the head of the Bennett-Dawson trail. Since the beginning of the Stampede, the Bennett-Dawson trail had been the most popular route to the Klondike, and the only routes to the Bennett-Dawson trailhead from the Pacific Ocean were the White and Chilkoot Passes. Until the White Pass Railway was built, the Chilkoot and White Passes were used with relatively equal frequency, and the feet of the passes both boasted sizable towns (Dyea and Skagway, respectively). However, when the White Pass Railway reached Lake Bennett, traffic on the Chilkoot slowed to a halt almost overnight, and the town of Dyea all but evaporated. Soon, almost all prospectors on their way to the Klondike traveled by way of the White Pass Railway. And thus two prominent icons of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail, met their ends.

In midsummer, the citizens of Dawson City received rumors of a fresh strike in Nome, Alaska, on the coast of the Bering Sea. As had been the case in California, Fraser Canyon, the Cariboo, Cassiar, Fortymile, and Circle City, thousand of prospectors immediately abandoned Dawson and flooded towards the new diggings. The Klondikers were off an another Stampede. And as soon as it had began, the Klondike Gold Rush came to an end.




In the end, about 100,000 people set off down the Dawson Trails during the Klondike Gold Rush. About 30-40,000 actually reached their destination. Only about 20,000 Stampeders, upon arriving in Dawson City, bothered to look for gold, and of those who did, only 4,000 found anything of significance. Of those 4,000, only a few hundred struck it rich, and of that number, only a scattering managed to hold onto it.

For many Stampeders who toiled on the mountain passes, braved the rapids of the Yukon River, and battled the bone-chilling temperatures of the sub-arctic winter, the reward at the end of the Dawson Trail was not gold but rather an indomitable character tempered in the fires of an experience they would never forget. In the words of Stampeder Walter Russell Curtin, “I had thirty-five cents in my pocket when I set foot in Alaska, but I gave that to a mission church at Dutch Harbor. I did not have so much when I left the country more than two years later… I made exactly nothing, but if I could turn time back I would do it over again for less than that.”


By Hammerson Peters

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 5: Dawson Trails


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