April 29, 2020

Oak Island Endgame: An Interview with James McQuiston

Oak Island Endgame: An Interview with James McQuiston

This is an interview with American author James McQuiston. He was a presenter on the History Channel's most popular series "The Curse of Oak Island." His treasure theory has ranked among the top ten on the show. James takes us to the early 17th century, when Scottish settlers tried to establish themselves in eastern Canada. It is a complelling story based on historical facts which he discovered as a Fellow with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. James has published four non-fiction books about Oak Island; the latest one being "Oak Island Endgame." I encourage you to read at least one of them and to visit his web site at https://www.oakislandgold.com/ Enjoy!

1. Who was William Alexander?

William Alexander was born in Scotland. He grew up to become a private teacher or tutor for the children of King James of Scotland. In 1603, King James also became King of England and Ireland. He moved to London, taking his friend and advisor, William Alexander with him. William held many offices in the British government, including Secretary of State for Scotland, for life.

2. Alexander sounds like an important man. What brought him to the New World?

William Alexander was an investor in the Plymouth Colony when Pilgrims came to North America on the ship Mayflower. A second ship wasn't able to make the journey. After some of the Mayflower Pilgrims died from diseases, the remainder were afraid that some French people living in a land to the north might come and attack them. The French called this land Acadia.

3. The French Acadia was to become Nova Scotia. How did William Alexander enter that scene?

The French lived in a town they called Port Royal because the port was so beautiful. There were not as many French living there as everyone feared. But meanwhile, King James asked William Alexander to gather some of their fellow Scotsmen to go to Acadia to chase the French out. He said he would if he could have the land and call it New Scotland. This name, in Latin, is Nova Scotia, and so this is what Alexander called his new territory.

4. So it was William Alexander who gave Nova Scotia its name. Can you tell us about the Knights Baronet and if the rank still exists?

In order to settle the land, William Alexander needed money, and he required manpower. So he asked King James to create a new knighthood called the Knights Baronet of Nova Scotia. Each new knight would agree to pay a good deal of money for his knighthood, and also provide six men who had skills needed to build a new nation. Even though William Alexander's settlement ultimately failed, the knighthood titles still exist. My distant cousin is the premier Knight Baronet of Nova Scotia, which is how I knew about this story in the first place.

5. In your books, you describe another man who aided William Alexander in this venture -- Al Strachan. Who was he?

Al Strachan stole a great treasure from the top law enforcement officer in Scotland. Shortly thereafter, the robbed man died. No one knows what happened to the treasure, but Strachan was accused of the crime. He had his trial delayed three times in front of the Privy Council, which was led by William Alexander.

Eventually, Strachan received a full pardon for his crime and became a Knight Baronet of Nova Scotia and a partner with William Alexander. It is my belief that he shared his treasure with Alexander, in order to help finance Nova Scotia and to get out of going to prison.

6. Hm, so this story began with a massive stolen treasure. Do you think it remained on the British Isles?

I am an honorary fellow with the top historical group in Scotland, The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. They work closely with the Scotland National Museums and the Scotland National Records. No one has any idea where the treasure went. They only know that Strachan was let go with a pardon.

7. So Al Strachan was pardoned and left for Nova Scotia. What do you think happened to the treasure?

I believe the treasure first went to Port Royal when the Scots chased the French out and built their own fort there.

8. The Scots settled down in what they thought was their permanent home. But it wasn't so. What happened in 1632?

The Kings of France and Britain were brothers-in-law. They made an agreement in which Nova Scotia would be given back to France, for a certain amount of money owed to the British King. On March 29, 1632, the Scots were told to leave Port Royal within four weeks. This was early in spring, and the weather was very bad at the time, but they were given no other choice.

9. That must have come as a tremendous shock. Where was William Alexander during the deportation?

William Alexander was not in Nova Scotia at the time, but several of his men and their leaders were. I believe they sailed around the cape of Nova Scotia and along the coast until they pulled into Mahone Bay, during a bad storm, and anchored by Oak Island. I also believe one of their ships wrecked. The Scots had to leave some of their items behind, including the treasure. They didn't want to risk it sinking with one of their ships in a storm.

10. A storm, a sinking ship… What evidence is there to show that this actually happened in Mahone Bay in 1632?

A shipwreck was found in the water within sight of Oak Island. It contained a set of silverware with the image of a stag. The stag has been the symbol of the Strachan family since 1309. I believe the ship was wrecked in the storm and set on fire, so the French could not find it to salvage the 32 cannons that were onboard. Parts from the ship eventually washed up on Oak Island.

11. Oak Island would have made an excellent refuge for the fleeing Scots. What about Al Strachan's treasure?

I believe the Scots did not dare transport the Strachan treasure back to Britain because they did not want to lose it in a shipwreck. Also, people back home didn't know they took the treasure with them, and they would be caught with it as they pulled into a British port.

12. Oak Island and its treasure have become legendary. What makes you confident it's this Scottish treasure?

One of the items in Al Strachan's treasure is listed as land deeds written on parchment and then wrapped in canvas, covered with candle wax several times, to waterproof them. In one of the early treasure hunts on Oak Island, a piece of non-smeared parchment came up from the flooded Money Pit. It was on a drill bit, meaning it must have been in a waterproof container until the drill bit pierced the container and brought the parchment to the surface. Many years later, other parchment came up from the Money Pit area. It was smeared, meaning the waterproof container it was in was punctured.

Also, on the treasure list were two gold chains. Some links of a gold chain were brought up from the Money Pit, stuck to a drill bit. There were many dozens of gold buttons on the treasure list. A gold plated button was found in the pile of dirt brought up from the Money Pit. Finally, wood that dates back to at least 1632 was found in the Money Pit.

13. The artifacts you mention came from great depths. They say Oak Island is a maze of tunnels as well as booby traps. Was William Alexander capable of such works?

I am not sure how many tunnels or booby traps there actually are, as it is hard to tell from all the past digging. William Alexander and one son were the Masters of Mining for Scotland, and two of his other sons were the Masters of Works for Scotland, building giant castles and cathedrals. Plus, only craftsmen were allowed to go to Nova Scotia with this settlement. There would have been many people capable of building what has been found on Oak Island.

14. You have studied the Alexanders extensively and maybe even put yourself in their minds. Where on Oak Island would you look for the Scottish treasure, and why?

I would continue to look for treasure at the Money Pit, but I would look for additional evidence of a shipwreck at Smith's Cove and near the swamp, which also used to be a cove.

15. The Scots had to leave Nova Scotia on the King's orders. Did any of them return to Oak Island at a later date?

In 1749, the British were able to establish a new town called Halifax, only about an hour away from Oak Island. Many Scots moved there who were related to Knights Baronet of Nova Scotia. One of these was John Strachan, who purchased several lots on Oak Island, including the lots that held a large stone cross, called Nolan's Cross. Some think this cross is a secret code to where the treasure is buried. It would be quite a coincidence that John Strachan would buy property on Oak Island, where I think his ancestor had buried the stolen treasure. Also, John owned a ship which he named The Stag.

16. The Strachans returned to Oak Island, then. In your view, what came of their treasure?

If any of it was found, I think this would have happened around the same time John Strachan owned his Oak Island property. His family became major financiers of the National Bank of Nova Scotia around that same time. Others who were treasure hunting there, at the time, also seem to have become rich. I don't think the treasure was used to finance the American Revolution or any other cause. I think that if it was recovered by people who had some information about it, they kept it and spent it in the way they wanted to.

17. When we first met, you were conducting research on my property in New Ross. It's inland, about twenty kilometres from Oak Island. What brought you to New Ross?

A medallion from the 1600s was found near the old foundation at New Ross. Also, I had been reading about how no one knew who built this foundation, but that there were rumors it was built by the Alexander family. So, I was lucky enough to visit the foundation, meet you and your husband, and see the approximate spot where the medallion was found.

18. The medallion is an amazing find, but is it enough to link New Ross to the Alexander family?

According to William Alexander's own writings, he said a small community was established south of Oak Island. Furthermore, the Alexander family records say that an estate was built at New Ross and that some Alexander children were born there, including John Alexander, in 1625, and Alexander Alexander, in 1650. A member of another family named Nauss claimed that their ancestor helped build the estate in 1623. This was also the story told by a member of the Mi'kmaq. These stories were collected by a past owner of the property, Joan Harris, and also by me, through the Alexander family records.

19. How were the Mi'kmaq people involved with the Alexanders?

Apparently, a Mi'kmaq man told Joan Harris that his ancestors helped build the estate in 1623. Also, DNA research has proven that Daniel LeBlanc, the progenitor of a very large Nova Scotia family, was actually the son of William Alexander Jr., leader of the Scots at Port Royal. Daniel's mother was a Mi'kmaq princess.

20. I did not know that! If Joan Harris were alive, she would have loved to hear about it. She believed that New Ross had been targeted by Oliver Cromwell. Can you tell us more about him?

Oliver Cromwell took over Britain, beginning in 1642. He hated the idea of royalty. Cromwell beheaded the King and also attacked any friends of the King, including the Alexanders. He sent troops to Nova Scotia, and they burned the New Ross estate in 1654. The Alexander family left Nova Scotia in 1656 and established Alexandria, Virginia, a few years later. 

21. Let's return to the medallion that was found in New Ross. What does it look like and how old is it?

The medallion is made of silver. It is about as round as a baseball but flat and about as thick as a cookie. It has an image of St. George killing a dragon on it and is stamped 1671.

22. In your book "Oak Island Knights," you associate the medallion with another set of characters – Sir Christopher Monck and William Phipps. Can you tell us more about them?

The medallion was first given to Sir Christopher Monck, in 1671, when he became a knight. Monck liked to finance treasure hunts, and William Phips, of New England, was a well-known treasure hunter. After bringing Monck a vast treasure from a sunken Spanish ship, Monck seems to have given his knighthood medallion to Phips as a gift. Phips came back to America, calling himself the 'New England Knight.'

Later, Phips went to Nova Scotia to hunt for another treasure. He may have heard about it through his own father, a man who I believe was the assistant to William Alexander. In fact, I think William Phips was named William in honor of William Alexander.

23. Was it William Phips who left the medallion in New Ross?

Phips somehow lost his honorary knighthood medallion in the dirt at New Ross, thinking the Strachan treasure was buried there. He wrote in his diary that he was searching for plunder at sea, on land, and underground (meaning buried treasure).

I received help and information from the British Museum and from the man who conducts all knighthood business in Great Britain. They both agreed that this was very likely the knighthood medallion originally given to Christopher Monck because all other medallions from that year were accounted for.

24. Did Phips target the New Ross area specifically?

I believe Sir William Phips at first thought the treasure was at Port Royal. When he couldn't find it there, he went to the Alexander estate at New Ross to look for it. There are records that he made it as far as fifty miles from New Ross. It is very possible he went all the way there and lost his knighthood medallion somehow in the dirt near the old foundation. The medallion is smashed in one area, so he may have lost in it a battle.

25. It sounds like he wasn't entirely successful and the treasure is still out there. If you were to find it, what would you do with it?

Try to prove my story with it, and then give it to a museum.

26. Well said. Tell us about your personal experience on Oak Island. What was it like to meet the crew and to be on camera?

The Oak Island crew members are very nice people. They paid for my expenses and invited me to eat with them. They showed me around the island and met with me in their war room four separate times. Being filmed was easy because I was focused on talking to the crew members, not on the cameras. It was interesting to see how they did the filming. They used drones, sometimes. Other times that had large cameras on their heads that were controlled by handles to turn left or right, up or down. The cameramen were very quiet and never told me what to say or interrupted. They just filmed and filmed and filmed.

27. Do you think the Oak Island mystery is definitely solved or is there room for more revelations?

Even though I strongly believe in my theory, I think there is much more proof that needs to be found, and so I suspect the treasure hunt will go on for a lot longer.

28. You have written four non-fiction books about Oak Island. What else are you working on, if it's not a secret?

I've just finished a historical novel called "Oak Island: The Novel." When I was younger, I used to read books like "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Treasure Island." They had a treasure buried on an island as part of the story. So when I got the chance to actually help search for a treasure on an island, I was happy to get involved. After my four non-fiction books were written, I thought it was time for an Oak Island novel.

Also, I am working with a philharmonic orchestra to create a symphony about Oak Island. It will still be a while before it is finished, but they are very excited about it.

29. I'd love to hear the symphony. Last question... My readers follow the Oak Island mystery judiciously, despite their young age. What message do you have for them?

Oak Island is not so much a mystery to be solved as it is a chance to experience the unapologetic fascination of youth once again.

Oak Island - James McQuiston books Books by James McQuiston

(This interview and photos were published with James McQuiston's permission.)