- 1 He was excited and knowledgeable
- 2 Oak Island owner initially denied Robert
- 3 He had a different approach
- 4 Work started in September
- 5 He began expanding the Money Pit
- 6 He broadened the Money Pit
- 7 Robert reported problems but refused to quit
- 8 He got close to quitting
- 9 He abandoned the project in May 1966
- 10 Robert tried to return but ultimately gave up
- 11 He declared that he never found the hoard
People have been looking for potential treasure on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, one of 13 provinces of Canada, since the 1790s. Among the earliest legends is that of a sailor in the crew of Captain Kidd, a Scottish privateer or a pirate, who died in 1701. The sailor alleged that a pirate treasure worth £2 million was buried, and a farmer named Daniel McGinniss found the earliest clue, a hole in the ground in 1799, that matched the descriptions. He hired two more people, Anthony Vaughn and John Smith, who found leftover items, loose ground, tool marks, and, famously, oak platforms buried all across that the island was named after.
Robert Dunfield was a researcher, treasure hunter, excavator, and somewhat a revolutionary in his field, responsible for much of the digging on Oak Island in the 1960s. He allegedly kept some findings secret, and claimed that he did not find anything significant until his death at 54 on 5 September 1980 in Grass Valley, California. However, the popularity of the History Channel TV show, “The Curse of the Oak Island,” which aired 10 seasons between 2014 and 2023, paired with his son, Robert Dunfield II, publishing images of his father’s photograph collection, started the rumors again in recent years. Although there are speculations that Oak Island’s treasure is a hoax, many notable items were allegedly found there, including manuscripts that may belong to Shakespeare, items brought by the Knights Templar, and even inscriptions in an undeciphered language. Here’s what Robert Dunfield found on Oak Island.
He was excited and knowledgeable
Robert Roy Dunfield, born on 31 December 1925 in Denver, Colorado, had wanted to visit Oak Island since 1936, when he first read a Denver Post article about its mystery. After Robert survived World War II, graduated from UCLA with a geology degree in 1956, and became fluent in Spanish, he started working as a geologist and oil well driller in South America in 1957.
He began excavations on Oak Island in 1965 and quickly found and expanded the Money Pit site. This cavity supposedly hid pirate treasure, or at least pieces of evidence of late 18th and early 19th century expeditions. To do so, Robert hired two bulldozers and two cranes, building a causeway that would be a massive ecological disaster today, to bring all the equipment. However, according to official findings, he barely found anything; a piece of iron and some porcelain.
However, Robert discovered distinct clay, oak, and gypsum in an ostensibly natural cave, which could suggest that the cavern was partially artificial; oak covered the floor, and gypsum and clay formed a type of concrete. Robert never reported finding treasure, but if he did, he could have taken it without anyone noticing, thanks to heavy machinery and a personal pathway off Oak Island.
Oak Island owner initially denied Robert
Oak Island had several thorough surveys, explorations, and excavations before Robert became involved in 1965. Notable ones were conducted by The Oak Island Association company, which dug between 1861 and 1898, The Oak Island Eldorado Company, known as The Halifax Company, which got involved in 1866, and The Old Gold Salvage Group, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd USA president, as its member, which did some work in 1909.
With that said, Melbourne Russell Chappell was the Oak Island owner and excavation license holder, who rejected Robert’s 1965 proposal. Melbourne had already licensed the island to Robert Restall, his 18-year-old son Bobby, and their work partner, Karle Graesar, who had been digging since 1959. Unfortunately, the three dug in the Smith’s Cove area, and wanted to seal what they concluded was a storm drain in 1965.
After digging a 27ft or 8m shaft, Restall went to check a water-draining pump and lost consciousness from hydrogen sulfide fumes in the shaft on 17 August 1965. His son tried to help, and Karle and two other men jumped in after him. Unfortunately, a visitor to the island, Edward White, only managed to save one of the two men who entered last, Andy DeMont.
He had a different approach
Dunfield was lucky to a degree. He approached Robert Restall around in mid-1965 and offered to invest in his operation. After they shook hands on 15 July 1965, Dunfield paid $5,000 and promised to invest $5,000 more if Restall needed it. Another investor, Dan Blankenship from Florida, also wanted to invest, but Restall turned him down, feeling that they had enough money.
Dunfield told Restall that he planned to use heavy, mechanically-advanced equipment to reduce the physical toll, speed things up, and make the excavations safer. That was a novelty; all previous excavations used hand tools with help from dynamite, small engine drills, steam shovels, and pumping machines. Restall’s death left Dunfield as one of the only viable excavators, and much of the work was already done; the first Caterpillar bulldozer that Dunfield ordered arrived on Oak Island via a barge on 3 August, two weeks before the terrible incident.
Therefore, the Restall family, particularly the widow Mildred, their daughter Lee Lamb, and Lee’s husband, Doug, agreed to sign over the controlling percentage of the license. Dunfield promised to help them financially, continue with Restall’s vision of the work, and within weeks, he helped Mildred move off the island. Dan, turned away some 30 days before, rushed back and joined Dunfield but wasn’t in charge; his involvement went from the proposed $5,000 to $1,000, because Dunfield wanted more investors.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dunfield II. This photo shows his father descending deep into the excavations on Oak Island.
Work started in September
Robert wanted professionals or influential investors to be present. Therefore, he found Jack Nethercutt, who owned Merle Norman Cosmetics, and George Lapearl, a geologist working for Western Continental Corporations, who paid $35,000 each. He raised about $130,000 – about $1.255 million in July 2023 – before 1 September 1965, when the work started.
Dunfield began work with five men, which grew to seven, then 11 by 26 October. The crew stayed at Doug and Edith Eisnor’s Oak Island Motel, and traveled daily to the site via boat service.
They began their work by cleaning the site, burning brush, cutting trees, and removing boards and wooden posts left by Restall. Dunfield used the Caterpillar bulldozer to bury the pit Restall left behind, and eventually concealed the flooding system. He knew that the work was done when the water he pumped became clear; it was muddy with black and green colors at the time of the Restall accident.
He began expanding the Money Pit
On 30 September, the second Caterpillar bulldozer arrived, removing 12.5ft or about 4m in diameter of a circular depression that was just as deep. They dug 15ft or 4.5m above the Chappell Shaft, where they thought the original Money Pit was. Dunfield brought a 70-ton Pawling & Harnischfeger Orton crane on 10 October; seven days later, he built a temporary causeway to bring equipment in; he used 7,000 yards or 6.4kms of fill, making Oak Island no longer an island.
They quickly brought a second crane and made their first discovery, a so-called “hidden shaft” that had pick marks. They only found old makeshift nails, cedar or juniper tree pieces, and blue puddled clay and sand-like material. The team concluded that this was the original drain system built before the first known excavations.
He broadened the Money Pit
With two cranes and two bulldozers, the crew had no problems extending the original Money Pit dig into a 100ft wide by 140ft deep area – or 30.5m wide by 42.5m deep. Robert reported that he was paying $2,000 per day and that he’d spent $70,000 by that point, which was perhaps the most expensive operation in the island’s history.
He admitted that they found some artifacts and a lot of oak, which slowed the digging to an inch-by-inch progress, but no gold. Robert started experiencing problems with a diesel generator, which cut his work time to ‘about 4 hours every 10-hour work day’, as he couldn’t pump enough water out. He continued finding hand-sewn logs made of hemlock, a type of wood that wasn’t native to the island, so speculated that this was the floor of the treasure cave. The lease on the P&G crane expired, so Robert had to wait about 20 days, until 21 December 1965, to continue digging.
Robert reported problems but refused to quit
After work resumed and things looked promising, Robert considered going down to 155ft or 47m, but he was running out of money. He reported having 13 crew members, who didn’t want to work on Christmas Day, so the hole filled in because of rain and partial thawing. Robert also noticed many sloughs or sections of loose sliding earth, forcing him to dump fill into the Money Pit. That was much safer, and he wanted to dig a tunnel for better access and potential discoveries of niches with treasure.
His first significant discovery happened on 20 January 1966, when he told the public that he found a new 40ft or 12m deep cavity at a depth of 140ft or 42m. He said that he found plenty of oak wood and a small metal piece. He sent the metal to the University of California, which declared that it was an iron plate used for protection of some sort.
George J. Green, an oil driller from Texas, stated that the new cave was likely the same one that he found in 1955 and filled with over 100,000 gallons or roughly 378,500 liters of water. Robert indirectly confirmed this by mentioning that he was pumping 200 gallons or 757 liters per minute. During the next two days, Robert said that he found ‘about 1,000lbs or 453.5kgs of concrete, limestone, or natural carbonate.’
He got close to quitting
Robert took a five-day holiday to Bermuda with his wife in early February 1966, and restarted work afterwards. He wanted to expand the new cavity to about 100ft or 30.5m in diameter and depth and stated that the project’s cost reached $120,000. He was convinced that there was something there, because he believed that the wood and gypsum on the walls and the floor were primitive cement for whoever built the cave. He also found at least two pieces of fine china and sent them to Oxford University; the institution believed them to be porcelain and dating to the early 1600s. Robert said that this would be his last attempt, as he was discouraged and almost broke, and would have to start drilling oil wells to bounce back financially.
Sadly, he encountered many more problems. For one, natives and other excavators were upset about his causeway, so they allegedly cut the cables on his cranes with a hacksaw. Moreover, the weather wasn’t kind, so his clam shovels were inefficient. Even worse, one of his crane’s buckets got stuck at a depth of 68ft, 20.5m in the cave, forcing him to call the second crane to dig it out.
Robert said on 11 March 1966, six to seven months after he began digging on Oak Island, that he was ‘running out of nerve, but would be damned if he quit now.’ He blamed workers’ absence the past December for his setbacks, but was encouraged by his wife, who was by his side. He had to send his son, Robert II, who was eight, to a school in Chester, Pennsylvania, and his daughter, Sharon, back home to Canoga Park, Los Angeles.
He abandoned the project in May 1966
Robert stopped excavations on 22 March 1966, saying that he was going home but wasn’t ending the search. He concluded that the area that he excavated was likely a portion of the natural rock structure of carbonates named the Windsor Rock Formations. Robert said that there was a low chance that it was man-made, but added that the chambers were ideal for hiding treasure regardless. He stated that the project cost him and his investors $130,000 and that, while pausing without significant finds, he would only rest once he investigated every possibility.
Robert sent the investors sketches of the Windsor Rock Formation and left a small clue. He suggested that he and other excavators suspected a tunnel existed about 162ft or 49m north of the Money Pit at a depth of about 50ft or 15m. Robert explained that, if it’s there, the tunnel could have an entrance above sea level, which would be great for hiding treasure. Outside of those vague indications, he didn’t mention notable finds. Robert only noted finding a handmade nail, which was apparently hammered by hand, at a depth of 75ft or 23m, though Dan Blankenship expressed that it was at 60ft or 18m in his report.
Robert finished the letter to investors by reminding them that he prepared the filled-in cave for a quick and inexpensive excavation if he got more money. He concluded that a buried treasure could be wedged on top of the Windsor Rock Formation, but clarified that he would need a core barrel to break down the solid rock and inspect the samples.
Robert tried to return but ultimately gave up
Robert’s original license was supposed to expire much earlier, but he extended it to 31 August 1966, when he renegotiated the contract with the Restalls. Therefore, he still had time to raise more funds, and in early August, he announced that he devised a new plan, using brine, a saltwater solution, chilled to sub-zero temperatures with a system of pipes. That would freeze the leaking water and prevent cave-ins and washouts.
Robert even stated that he found new shareholders, but Melbourne Chappell responded that he would have to renegotiate his contract. Unfortunately, Robert never tested his theory. His last activity was several small digs at Cave In Pit, Shaft 4 and Shaft 5, at The Chappell Pond, and on the western area of The Swamp. These got little attention and happened in March 1966, but they are the sources of most conspiracy theories.
Dan Blankenship formed Triton Alliance with Daniel C. Webster and David Tobias, and they bought the license from Melbourne and started excavations in 1967. The company revisited the site in 1970, and found more tunnels at Borehole 10x, 140ft northeast of the Money Pit. Dan said that the water was muddy, but the camera may have captured evidence of human remains and treasure chests. He also claimed that he used diving equipment to explore the tunnels, and thought that he saw a human hand.
He declared that he never found the hoard
Robert claimed that he never found anything, but remained emotionally and financially invested in the search by becoming a shareholder in Triton Alliance. He kept up with the news while he was alive, and his shares transferred to his son afterwards. Although that wasn’t publicly revealed then, Robert had cancer, and his son had to care for him in the mid-1970s. Robert II became active on Oak Island forums in 2003, and spent the next seven years until 24 April 2010, when he died at 52, recounting his father’s story. He shared his father’s previously publicly unseen field sketches and photographs, and websites, such as OakIslandTreasure.co.uk, have a neat collection.
No one in the Dunfield family mentioned a treasure or indicated that they came by some riches after 1966. Therefore, they are either proficient at keeping secrets and living below their means, or never found anything substantial on Oak Island.