The Characters of Oak Island: Samuel Ball — Respected Cabbage Farmer or Something More?
Did a Former Slave Find the Mysterious Treasure That Has Intrigued Treasure Hunters for Over 200 Years?
Over the many years that searchers have hunted for the fabled Oak island treasure, the quest has thrown up innumerable tales of sacrifice, endeavour and fortitude. It is a tale steeped in history and lore and one that is coloured by unique characters and personalities, creating a rich tapestry of humanity. Perhaps none of these characters, however, have a tale as remarkable as that of Samuel Ball. A slave, cabbage farmer and eventually one of the richest men in Nova Scotia, the mystery of Samuel Ball may be as intriguing as anything else in the history of the Oak Island legend.
Born into slavery in South Carolina in 1764 or 1765, Samuel Ball escaped life on the plantation by joining the British forces during the American Revolution.
In November of 1775, the Governor of Virginia John Murray declared that any slave who joined the British forces and stood against the rebel insurgency would be given his freedom. Given this promise of land and his release, the teenage Ball fought with the British troops during the revolution, having joined in his native South Carolina under Lord Cornwallis and then serving under General Clinton in New York. He was finally ordered to Bergen Point in the Jerseys under Major Thomas Ward.
Thomas Ward, son of an ironworker from Smith’s Clove in New York, who was made Major sometime in late 1781, was one of the co-founders of the Loyal Refugee Volunteers. This unit was in some ways comparable to today’s private military contractors. The Loyal Refugee Volunteers were not paid, uniformed or fed by the British, they were in effect a private enterprise. A deserter from the Continental Army and former spy for the British, Ward founded the Volunteers with Abraham Cuyler, mainly as a financial endeavour rather than through any real desire to help the war effort.
Between 1776 and 1783 the British forces occupied New York where thousands of families loyal to the Crown fled seeking sanctuary after having their property seized by the rebels. The men of these families, alongside many escaped slaves, were enlisted into loyalist regiments and companies. By the winter of 1779–1780, the city of New York was almost entirely out of wood, with by all accounts not a single tree being left on Manhattan Island. Ward and Cuyler identified New York’s lack of wood as the ideal source of revenue and Bergen Neck as the best source of the raw materials needed, putting out a call for men in 1779.
“To the loyal REFUGEES of the Province of New-York
ABRAHAM CUYLER, Esq: is authorised by the Commander in Chief to embody a battalion of 600 loyal Refugee Volunteers, on such terms as he doubts not will be agreeable to them:
He hopes there needs no arguments to induce them to join this loyal band, to be commanded by their own countrymen, fellow-sufferers; and flatters himself they are desirous to be instrumental towards reducing the present unnatural rebellion, to re-establish the former happy constitution, and thereby restore peace and happiness to their country.
Those loyal Refugees of the Province of New-York, who are inclined to take arms, are requested to meet at La Montaign’s, now Amory’s House, on Friday next at four o’clock in the afternoon, and on Saturday, the day following, at Beat’s Tavern, Jamaica, Long-Island.”
Loyal Refugee Volunteers Recruiting Notice, New York. November 2, 1779
The unit was untrained in military procedure, and the company was employed in pioneer duties, including the central purpose of cutting firewood alongside other assorted engineering duties. Pioneer units served as early military engineers, scouts and raiders, often working in dangerous and extreme situations under heavy enemy fire. However, alongside their official duties, the unit soon realised that they could increase their income by staging raids throughout the local area, confiscating rebel-held livestock, horses and personal possessions and selling them on for profit.
Major Ward’s unit, commonly known as Ward’s Green-Coats, unsurprisingly became particularly notorious and unpopular in the area, with Ward described as a vicious plunderer. The Green-Coats were said to have brought nothing but terror to the local population and the Loyal Refugee Volunteers were seen as little more than bandits. One particularly uncharitable piece of correspondence on Major Ward declared that “those associates with him were negroes, and vile creatures of his own race.”
One incident cited from the period involves Ward paying three of his black soldiers to murder a local farmer with whom Ward had a financial debt. Another tells of how Ward led a group in an attack on the American camp at Kakiat, kidnapping Colonels Joseph Ward and William Bradford. Bergen Neck became a scene of looting, insurrection and murder, much encouraged and participated in by the British forces.
At Bull’s Ferry, the unit established a base of operations, a blockhouse, intended to protect them in case of enemy action and serve as a base of operations for the unit’s lumber and raiding activities. This blockhouse, protected by a stockade, ditches and even a subterranean entrance tunnel, was the scene of a notable skirmish in 1780 (the Battle of Bull’s Ferry) when General Washington ordered Anthony Wayne to take the blockhouse. With 70 soldiers, Ward saw off the attack by the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania Brigade and the 4th Continental Light Dragoons, a sum total of some 2000 men. Wayne retreated as he learned of British reinforcements being summoned. The skirmish is in many ways reminiscent of the more infamous Battle of Rorkes Drift where around 150 British troops saw off an attack by 3000–4000 Zulus during the Anglo-Zulu War. Ward and his unit, while indeed vicious, nefarious and prone to petty banditry, were perhaps just as equally daring and courageous when called upon.
The damage caused to the blockhouse, however, necessitated that the building be abandoned, cutting off lumber supplies to New York. The damage, coupled with a rift in the unit after a falling out between Ward and Abraham Cuyler, led to half the team under Cuyler relocating to Long Island. Ward and his loyal men meanwhile headed to New York after burning the blockhouse. Ward’s company was eventually assigned to Fort Delancey at Bergen Neck, becoming part of the Associated Loyalists where they continued just as effectively and notoriously as before.
Fort Delancey was evacuated and burned in September of 1782 and Ward and his men departed for Nova Scotia in October of that year. Ward settled with his family in the area and was granted the land grants that he was entitled as a Major alongside an annual grant of sixty pounds from the British government. The rank and file such as Samuel Ball would not be so fortunate, receiving no land for many years in some cases, despite the original promise.
Ball meanwhile had arrived in Shelburne as part of the three thousand Black Loyalists who were settled in Canada at the end of the war, mostly, like Samuel, in Nova Scotia. The black loyalists founded Birchtown next to Shelbourne, and the community would be the largest settlement of free black citizens outside of Africa across the entire globe. The black loyalists had to endure long waits for their allocation of land and were granted less than their white counterparts, they also faced massive discrimination from fellow colonists including from those who had brought their slaves from America.
Just how much wealth that Ball could claim at this point is debatable. A regular soldier would not have had many possessions or much finance at this stage of his life. Soldiers were paid around two to three pence a week for their service in the British forces. However, Ball’s service with Major Ward and the division of “loot” amongst the entire unit may have allowed him more coin in his pocket than most other veterans of comparative rank. Under Major Ward, everyone who took part in a raid received a share of the spoils. A smaller percentage was provided to those who had remained at the blockhouse, the same being done with profits from the lumber enterprise. Shares went to each man involved in the cutting and collection to the wood, with all claims dependent on rank.
There has been some speculation that Samual Ball was a grenadier, based off an artefact recovered on Oak Island by metal detectorist Gary Drayton, as depicted in the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island. The artefact was suggested to be from the butt of a pistol by Drayton, and online researchers have speculated that the tag is in fact broken in half, with the full label having originally read “Samuel Ball, Grenadiers”, having instead perhaps have come from a rifle.
However, Ball is a common enough surname and George II pennies that were found alongside the tag, dated to the early 1700s, would also seem to preclude any involvement of Samual Ball. The death of the King took place in 1760, some four or five years before Samual Ball’s birth in South Carolina. Yet we must also remember that pennies of this nature, even as far back as George II, were still in circulation in Canada for a long time following their issue and arrival in the territory, with all manner of coinage being used for trade, even including 4th-century Roman coins!
While it might seem likely that any encampment on the island by British forces would have taken place sometime between 1727 and 1760, the years of George II’s reign, we cannot rule out that the camp was from a later date and that the tag did indeed come from Samuel Ball. If the tag was truly once the property of Ball, was it discarded at a later date to the other items found? Did he camp here with other soldiers sometime after his evacuation to Nova Scotia? Perhaps further excavations at the site in the future might reveal new data that can better pinpoint both a time and purpose for the camp.
In July of 1794 mobs of landless white settlers attacked black loyalists and government officials during the Shelbourne Riots, also encompassing Birchtown. Dozens of black homes were destroyed and looted. Black citizens were forced almost entirely from Shelbourne and into Birchtown, segregating the communities and depriving black loyalists of jobs and employment in the more prosperous Shelbourne. It is during 1794 that Samual Ball is known to have arrived in Chester. Could he have been forced to flee the Shelbourne area before or following the insurrection?
Chester at this time was known as a particular hive of smuggling and privateering, yet likely offered better opportunities and jobs, particularly in farming, than places like Shelburne. Eventually, Ball settled on Oak Island in 1787, where according to accounts the famous Money Pit was discovered in 1795. Two years later in 1797 (April 27) Samual marries a young woman, Mary, and has three children Andrew, Samuel and Mary, all born in Chester. The 1791 census returns show that Ball’s neighbours on the island included Donald McInnis, John Munro and Neil McMullen. Donald McInnis, who like Samuel Ball is a refugee from the American Revolutionary War, is in-fact the Daniel McInnis who will soon make the discovery of a lifetime.
There are no direct contemporary accounts for treasure being sought on Oak Island. The first 1856 published account of the tale reports searches in the 1700s and the most common tellings of the story place the event as the summer of 1795. Three “youths” reportedly see lights on the island and set about investigating, finding a depression in the ground alongside a pulley system fixed to the branch of an overhanging oak tree. These “youths” were by almost all accounts Daniel McInnis, John Smith and Anthony Vaughn, yet some tellings place Samual Ball as the third participant of the venture, not Vaughn. Other more recent examples even state that all four were present.
It seems likely that Samuel was well acquainted with at least two of the finders of the money pit, appearing to have struck up a friendship with the Vaughn family in particular. Owning lot 5, Vaughn was a neighbour to Ball, and he purchased land from the family, even having Anthony Vaughn as one of the executors of his will. The History of Lunenburg County also recalls that Ball was one of the first people summoned by Daniel McInnis upon the discovery of the Money Pit. It is worth noting that McInnis was also in Shelburne at the same time as Ball, purchasing a lot in the town in 1784 and also moving on to Chester where Samuel Ball would also relocate. Had the two men perhaps known each other in Shelburne, Chester and now Oak Island?
While the popular version of events is the one most commonly known, almost Treasure Island like in its romantic ideals of youthful adventure, the truth is quite different. McInnis was aged either 36/37 and John Smith 19, having been born in 1775. It was only Vaughan who was a real youth, being aged 16. McGinnis alone found the depression in the soil that we now know as the Money Pit, returning with Vaughn, Smith and perhaps Ball. Even the existence of the ships tackle hanging from the tree may be apocryphal, as may be the reports of wooden planks or platforms at ten feet. The almost phantom-like existence of Samuel Ball in some accounts mean we can’t even be completely certain who was present during the initial searches, nor indeed if the event really did take place in 1795.
The Truro Company’s J.B. McCully, writing the first account of the tale in the Liverpool Transcript in 1862, makes no mention of Ball’s involvement. Yet, the 1870 book The History of the County of Lunenburg, lists Ball as one of the men enlisted by McInnis to aid in the initial excavation efforts at the Money Pit. In later editions, Ball’s name is replaced by that of Vaughn. Was this a simple mistake or the result of false information in one of the cases? While we can’t be certain, it seems that at the very least Ball was involved with the Money Pit in some way right at the very beginning. Ball, like his three contemporaries, had a job of work to be done, had a worldly experience that would unlikely have led him to flights of fancy — so what was it exactly that led these men to persist and persist in digging at the Money Pit? what fed their belief that something was truly there? And what kept them involved with this most mysterious of islands?
After living in the area for a total of 23 years, Ball petitioned the government for the land promised to former slaves in 1809 and was granted four acres more on Oak Island.
“Your Memoralist has no lands but, what he has purchased, never having got any from government, and there is a four acre lott vacant, №32, on Oak Island, joining a lott purchased by your Memoralist.
Your Memoralist therefore prays, Your Excellency well be pleased to grant, or otherwise order him to have said Lott — your Memoralist has but one son living.”
Samual Ball, September 9, 1809
Ball now owned nine lots on the island, namely lots 6, 7, 8, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, and 32, a total of 36 acres which he and servant Issac Butler worked as a cabbage farm alongside other crops and a selection of cattle, his home being situated on lot 25. In all Ball would own approximately 100 acres of land as well as Hook Island, which he purchased in 1790. The island, a three-acre piece of land not far from Oak Island, was bought from Daniel Vaughn for the sum of five pounds. Following his death, the island passed to Issac Butler and was eventually sold to Archibald Rafuse in 1884, currently being in private hands and, to all knowledge, having ever undergone an archaeological search. Hook Island is today known as “Sam’s Island.”
However, the sale of the island raises an interesting issue regarding the wealth of Samuel Ball. Many researchers and enthusiasts point to the land accumulation of Ball as evidence of extreme wealth, perhaps looking through 21st-century eyes. Here we see an entire island exchanging hands for five pounds, which by no means modest at the time, was not inaccessible wealth either and nowhere near the sale price of a private island in the 21st century.
And yet still, even if we also note that four acres were granted to him for his war service and he had been a little better positioned than most ex-soldiers, five pounds on a land purchase was a middle-class income at the least. He was wealthy enough to afford to keep his own manservant, Issac Butler. Rich enough to afford to purchase the highest-priced lots in all Lunenburg County, his first in 1787 for the sum of eight pounds, which would have bought him twenty times as much land on the mainland. 1787 by most accounts is well before the discovery of the Money Pit, so what prompted him to make the leap into the vast unknown? Even if we account for his better than average means thanks to his time with Thomas Ward, there would still seem some question over his financial means and motives.
While he could have purchased land cheaper on the mainland, as a black man at the turn of the 1800s, Ball might not have found as welcoming a community as the one he had settled into. Equally, some mainland sellers may have been unwilling to do business with him. Having reportedly suffered a bad experience during his time in Shelburne, here on Oak Island, however, by all accounts, Ball was respected and well-liked within the small community. Perhaps feeling that he was amongst friends and family, Oak Island, despite its many trials and tribulations, was a home. But questions still persist as to his reasoning for staying, having endured such hardships in life, would he have allowed sentiment and security to keep him tethered to the island? Or was there some other unknown reason for staying? It is here that we can only enter speculation.
In a Season 3 episode of the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island, three descendants of Daniel McInnis presented a new theory as to what happened on Oak Island, particularly about any treasure that may have been buried there. They recanted a family legend that McInnis had, in fact, found three treasure chests in the Money Pit in 1795, keeping its discovery secret and even presenting a gold cross that had allegedly been part of the original find. Later, in Season 4, the cross is examined and judged to be from the Spanish West Indies, dated sometime between 1550 and 1700.
Had McInnis, Vaughn and Smith uncovered the treasure at the first attempt in 1795? Perhaps shared it with Ball who had helped in the excavation? While McInnis was allegedly “swindled” out of what was rightfully his, there has also been a report that around 1925 Lucy Vaughn, a descendant of Anthony Vaughn, owned a trunk from Oak Island which contained no less than 25 heavy bags of gold. What form the gold took was not reported, but it appears that in the years following 1795 the Vaughn family became immensely successful in the shipbuilding and lumber industries. Smith meanwhile, like Ball, seems to have acquired a broad land portfolio, buying swathes of Oak Island itself alongside parts of Birch Island, the entirety of Frog Island and, in conjunction with McInnis’ family, Long Island. While all these men’s success could be put down to finding treasure, it is equally possible that both of them, as previously mentioned with Samuel Ball, managed their finances in good order, had some luck and toiled through hard labour for their earnings.
It could be theorised that the group elected to keep the discovery secret to deter not only brigands and thieves but equally the government and possible legitimate owners of the treasure. However, if the tale was accurate, why did McInnis return to the Money Pit in 1803 with the Onslow Company? And why did Vaughn, in 1845, assist in the formation of the Truro Company to continue the Oak Island search? Carrying out further excavations would seem not only a substantial deception to keep up the pretence but also an unnecessary expense. Equally, other descendants of McInnis also dug on the island, which again would seem to stand against the theory. Unless, of course, in the interim McInnis came to believe that the group had not recovered the entirety of the treasure at the first attempt.
Perhaps interestingly the late Fred Nolan, a 50 year veteran of treasure hunting on Oak Island, is alleged to have found the remains of at least three empty oak chests while digging in the Oak Island swamp. The trunks were allegedly found in the 1980s in a mere two and a half feet of water. They were preserved thanks to the conditions of the swamp. Unfortunately, there is very little information on the discoveries, with no images or suggestions as to their purpose and certainly no dating.
The purchase of Hook Island is also something that at face value is unusual. Being a farmer, Ball’s acquisition of land in adjacent plots is logical (6, 7 and 8, 24, 25 and 26 and 30, 31 and 32), allowing his farming enterprise to be uninterrupted by borders. Yet, the possession of Hook Island would seem to stand against this. What Hook Island was utilised for, we can’t be sure, yet the mystery is one that is full of suggestion. Samual Ball’s friendship with the Vaughn family has already been noted. Still, interestingly it’s Vaughn’s past that might lead some clues as to more illicit activities on Oak Island beyond farming and perhaps the nature of Hook Island.
Daniel Vaughn, brother to Anthony Vaughan Sr (One of the original Oak Island inhabitants as the owner of lots 15 and 17) and uncle of Anthony Vaughn was a privateer in the employ of the British. In 1793 Daniel sold his own lot on the island and set up a shipbuilding business in St. Martin, the same St. Martin where there were numerous rumours of smuggling, just like in Chester. This alone might not be notable except for the fact that Oak Island had yet more connections to privateering, even excluding Samuel Ball’s land misadventures with Major Thomas Ward’s Green Coats.
Jeremiah Rogers at lot 27 may have been a privateer as was James Anderson (who had also been a spy and once charged with high treason) at lot 26, from whom Samuel Ball would eventually acquire the land in 1788. A document from Masonic Lodge №9 in Nova Scotia would seem to indicate that Anderson died in 1796, not long after the discovery of the Money Pit, while abroad in the West Indies. His tale is entirely something in itself and one to be focused on at length.
“It appears Clearly that Anderson is both a Pirate & a spie. He was acting in the Enemys Barges when they murder’d Burn’d & Plunder’d Particularly at Lower Marlbro the 8th Day of Apllast, He was also a Principal man, at the taking of several Vessels Loaded with Tobo in the mouth of Patuxtin December last besides what is mention’d in Your Excellency’s Letter to me on that Subject. He Has also traveled through the Country under two Names, & Different pretences & told various falsehoods & shew’d a Commission from the Enemy &c &c.”
Willm Fitzhugh, Calvert County, to Gov. Lee.] July 18, 1781
With such characters on the island, Oak Island was perhaps not merely the simple farming community that is often assumed. Instead, it was a collection of individuals with unique skills and histories, certainly during the recent American Revolutionary War. These skills and histories lend well to rumours of smuggling, hidden treasure and secret codes.
One exciting claim surrounding the famous Oak Island “Ninety Foot Stone” and it’s alleged (but unverified) cypher is that it is a relatively simple substitution “pigpen” type cypher. There is undoubtedly heavy Masonic links to pigpen cyphers and variations were also used by loyalist prisoners during the Revolutionary War. This is something that almost certainly would have been known to a man like James Anderson (who was also a mason) and perhaps other war veterans or masons on the island. In 1996, a second less famous example of the cypher was found amongst the papers of the deceased Jim McInnis, a descendent of Daniel Mcinnis. The code, named the La Formule Cipher, had allegedly been hidden behind a stone in Daniel’s house on Oak Island. Does the cypher link McInnis to the original work at the Money Pit? or could McInnis have discovered the second cypher after finding an initial treasure at the Money Pit? Perhaps this inspired him to return to the pit in 1803 to carry out a much more in-depth and more detailed search than in 1795. Or maybe the truth could be much less dramatic in that, like all searchers so far on the island, he hadn’t found what he believed to buried at the Money Pit and simply returned in further hope of finding something of substance.
Another theory, however, suggests that while the cyphers and “treasure” is legitimate, the explanation is something far less legendary than the likes of the Holy Grail and Spanish riches. Were smugglers using an existing subterranean structure, perhaps an old mine, to store their wares and profits?
Tales of smugglers using caves and mine shafts in their activities is a story as old as that of the hidden treasure itself, but one based in truth. One example being Smuggler’s Cave near Skerries, Co. Dublin in Ireland, a “cave” that is in-fact an old mine shaft. The shaft outlet was used as a place for smugglers to hide their wares after landing on nearby rocks.
Encompassing some of the names that we’ve already become familiar with, did they use Revolutionary War or masonic cyphers to avoid detection from the authorities? And could Samuel Ball have been one of the major players in such an enterprise?
Although he sold his land to Samuel Ball in 1788, there’s no reason that James Anderson couldn’t have continued and resumed his illicit high-seas activities, enlisting others from the nefarious collection of ex-soldiers, privateers and merchants on and around the island. What exactly was he doing in the West Indies at the time of his death, for example? Did his death in 1796 spark some kind of hunt for his stores? Could this hunt have led to finding the profits from the smuggling and a division between four men? While 1795 is taken as the date of the Money Pit being located, this is by no means particular and close enough to Anderson’s death to be questioned. All this is speculation however and, as before, would not explain various personalities returning to the Money Pit over many years.
A great many questions abound, and while theories and speculation might explain some of the finds that have been made on Oak Island, like much concerned with the mystery, we will probably never know for sure.
Samual Ball died on December 14, 1845, at the age of 81, being survived at least by his then-wife Catherine (with no record of what happened to Mary) and a grandson Simeon, both named in the will. Also named in the will was Issac Butler, to whom Ball bequeathed his land, including the aforementioned Hook Island.
While the story of Samual Ball lends itself to immense romanticisation, the tale of an escaped slave who won his freedom and died a rich man after finding long lost treasure, there is a real and more sombre story underneath. His story is of a man who escaped a supreme injustice only to find himself amongst the terrible horrors of war, a story of a refugee to a foreign land who through sweat and toil carved a legacy. Questions will forever remain as to just how much knowledge Samual Ball had of the Money Pit and his role in its discovery. Further questions will be asked about potential smuggling operations on the island and just how he might have acquired riches many say were beyond his means. For all the speculation of smuggling, finding treasures or secret riches, this is just that — speculation. One thing that we can be sure of, however, is that Ball’s story is perhaps one of the most underlooked aspects of the entire saga, all be it also remaining one of the most interesting. The tale of Samual Ball is one of courage, intrigue and mystery, encapsulating the very essence of the entire Oak Island mystery.
Samuel Ball (1764/65–1845) — Cabbage farmer, soldier, engineer, mystery.