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‘I was hooked’: Oak Island a life-long passion for Windsor historian who wants fact separated from fiction

Oak Island historian Kel Hancock of Windsor is pictured by the Oak Island Interpretive Centre prior to co-hosting a tour for Freemasons on Aug. 4.
Oak Island historian Kel Hancock of Windsor is pictured by the Oak Island Interpretive Centre prior to co-hosting a tour for Freemasons on Aug. 4. - Kirk Starratt

OAK ISLAND, NS - Kel Hancock has spent much of his adult life working to separate the legendary Oak Island’s historical wheat from the chaff.

The Oak Island historian has been researching and studying the island for close to 30 years and now feels the time has come for him to close the book on the mystery and move on to other projects. However, the Windsor man says he’s “loved every minute of it.”

He first learned about Oak Island by reading children’s books in school in the 1970s. They used to give tours of the island with a pirate theme in the 70s as well, something that Hancock was fascinated by as a child.

“You could go on the tour and you got a cardboard pirate hat and a little flag and you could get a Captain Kidd burger at the canteen, things like that,” he said.

Hancock has always been a fan of legends and mysteries and was vaguely aware of a family connection to Oak Island, although this was never explained to him. He read more, grew older and began to dig deeper.

When home on leave from the army in his early 20s, he was sitting at his grandmother’s house in Mount Denson. She asked him what he was up to and he told her he had been doing a lot of research on Oak Island. She told him that the Oak Island McInnis’ were the same MacInnes’ they were related to.

“That was it, I was hooked,” Hancock said.

A family member who had done genealogical research sent Hancock a copy of a family tree that illustrated his descent from Daniel McInnis, who, according to legend, was one of the three people who discovered the Oak Island Money Pit in 1795. Hancock said his research became very personal to him at that point. His goal in historically researching Oak Island is to strip away the fiction or legend and get at the facts.

“If ever a mystery was found in a ball of string of fiction and legend, it’s Oak Island,” Hancock said. “There’s so many myths and legends that have been proliferated over the years that it’s really hard to tell what is fact.”

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Donald, not Daniel

Perhaps the most interesting thing he has learned is the real story behind Daniel McInnis, which is quite different than the standard legend. The legend is that three boys rowed over to the island to play and explore when they discovered a strange depression – the Money Pit.

In reality, they weren’t boys, and two of them actually lived on the island at the time. Daniel McInnis was 37 years old in 1795 and had lived on the island since 1786. John Smith would have likely been in his 20s and he owned the lot where the Money Pit was discovered.

The third individual is most often presented as Daniel Vaughan, who would have been 16 and living on the mainland. Alternatively, it’s been suggested that Samuel Ball – a former slave who lived on the island - may have been the third man in the group.

“In looking at Daniel McInnis, one of the things that I discovered is that his name is actually Donald MacInnes, and he was from Scotland,” Hancock said.

In 1773, MacInnes immigrated to North Carolina with his parents. When the American Revolution broke out, he joined the Loyalist militia. After he was taken prisoner and later released, he joined up with the regular Loyalist forces.

In a document he submitted to the Crown, he claimed that he had lost everything he had by remaining loyal to Britain. He went to the Bahamas – a hot bed of piracy a generation earlier - before ending up in Nova Scotia as an evacuated Loyalist refugee. He landed in Shelburne before purchasing lots on Oak Island.

Smith’s Cove and the flood tunnel

Hancock says there are so many elements of the story that have been told and re-told that they have been accepted by convention as fact. For example, the connection between structures discovered at Smith’s Cove and an actual flood tunnel protecting the Money Pit has never been physically identified.

“I don’t think the structures on the beach had anything to do with treasure; I think they had everything to do with colonial activity, because I think they were making rope on the island out of coconut fibre,” Hancock said.

Because of sanctions placed on Boston by the Crown in the 1760s, other colonies couldn’t trade certain goods with Boston. Letters written to the governor by townspeople in Nova Scotia indicate there was a shortage of rope needed for ships. Coconut fibre was traded as a commodity between the colonies and the West Indies and Hancock doesn’t believe there is anything special about it being discovered on the beach in Smith’s Cove.

Coconut fibre for making ship rope was treated by laying it out on a framework on a beach, holding it in place with more framework, burying it with sand and gravel and allowing the tide to wash over it. The last part involved digging it out and rinsing it with fresh water to remove the salt and sand.

At the point that finger drains purportedly found at Smith’s Cove should link into a flood tunnel, Hancock says, there were several natural springs at one time. It’s his belief that fresh water was flowing down the finger drains to rinse coconut fibre instead of the finger drains feeding salt water into a flood tunnel built to protect a buried treasure.

The Curse of Oak Island

Hancock has appeared on several episodes of the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island. Working with his research partner from Blockhouse Investigations, Doug Crowell – who he dubs “the bloodhound - was a highlight, he added. They have a website with a wealth of historical reference material, www.oakislandcompendium.ca.

Hancock said the TV series has showcased Oak Island to the world and he think it’s great the program is encouraging people to become interested in history. He said the show has done a lot for tourism in Nova Scotia and the production has supported many local contractors and the local film industry. It has given Nova Scotians another thing to be proud of.

Although he doesn’t believe that there is a significant treasure hidden on Oak Island, he would love it if those spearheading the current search efforts, brothers Rick and Marty Lagina and their team, end up proving his skepticism wrong.

Hancock, who is a Freemason, and fellow Freemason and TV show regular Charles Barkhouse hosted tours of Oak Island for Freemasons and their family members on Aug. 4. This is something they do every couple of years and there was a great turnout. Hancock said the tours are a lot of fun to put on and everybody has a good time. Tours hosted by the Friends of Oak Island Society are also very popular. Last year, the website crashed the day it opened to take reservations.

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