For nearly two centuries, the Knights Templar plundered the vast riches of the Near East while marching under the banner of Christ in the Crusades. In addition to the silks, bullion, spices and other valuables the Templars claimed as spoils of war, the wealth of countless dukes, barons, viscounts and other lords flowed into the Order’s coffers as the flower of European nobility rushed to join the ranks of the holy warriors. The massive fortune collected by the Templars generated awe, jealousy and—in the centuries after their disbandment—hope for a payout.
“It’s fantastic treasure,” says Marty Lagina, who along with brother Rick stars in History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island. The show follows the brothers’ quest to uncover a vast store of riches long rumored to be hidden on its titular Nova Scotian island. What exactly that treasure is (and who hid it) eludes clear-cut definition. Theorists and treasure hunters speculate it is anything from lost manuscripts of Shakespearean plays to Marie Antoinette’s jewels to a sunken Viking ship. But the Laginas have seen enough evidence to convince them the treasure could be part of the lost Templar riches. “The connection with the Templars has always been there, since the original discovery of the Money Pit, which supposedly happened in 1795,” says Rick. “There’s always been four or five credible theories about the treasure’s origins—one of which has been that it’s from the Templars.”
How did the wealth of a medieval order of knights, who were destroyed more than a century before Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage, find a home in the New World? The prevailing theory among true believers is that during the Templar’s final days, a fleet of the Order’s ships sailed from La Rochelle, France to the safety of Scotland. The treasure then rested at Kilwinning Abbey until Sir Henry Sinclair and a group of Scottish knights spirited the wealth away to Oak Island, hiding the riches on the island for their progeny to eventually recover.
The story strikes most historians as more than a little fanciful, and the Laginas certainly approach it with a healthy sense of skepticism. “The theory gets a little more tenuous after you have the knights leaving Scotland,” says Marty. However, the brothers quickly point to what they believe is evidence that other Europeans reached the shores of America before Columbus. “There’s the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, which, according to the carbon-14 dating, was constructed between 1440 and 1480,” says Rick (though most researchers believe the tower was built well after Columbus’s discovery). He also references the Narragansett Rune Stone in Rhode Island, which, according to geologist Scott Wolter, contains a mark that links the slab of rock to the same sect of monks that helped construct Kilwinning Abbey—the same place that supposedly housed the Templar treasure before its journey to the New World. “There are these connections—spider web connections—but no dots that say it went from here to here to Oak Island,” says Rick.
Despite the lack of a smoking gun proving Sinclair and the Scottish knights made the voyage to Oak Island, the brothers maintain certain discoveries they’ve made on Oak Island make the Templar theory intriguing, if not convincing. “Has there been a find on Oak Island that we can say is a definitive tie-in to the Templars? No,” says Rick. “But, are there curious facts and bits of discovery that indicate the possibility? Yes.” One of those bits of evidence is the fact that the flag of the island’s native peoples, the Mi’kmaq, bears a striking resemblance to the Templar’s battle flag: a red cross on white with a red crescent and red star.
For Marty, the engravings of what appear to him to be corn and trillium flowers in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel—a chapel built by Henry Sinclair’s grandson William in 1446—lend credence to the Templar theory. “To me, being from upper Michigan, there does really appear to be trilliums in the chapel,” says Marty. Both corn and trillium flowers are native to the Americas, indicating to Marty that Henry Sinclair had visited the New World and passed on what he saw to his family, who later incorporated it into the chapel decorations.
After pouring so much of their time and energy into navigating the pitfalls and perils of Oak Island in their effort to uncover the island’s secrets, the Laginas have high hopes their story will end with some sort of payoff. “We all want our money back,” says Rick. But while the brothers would love to discover a pile of gold and riches straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure, the rewards of the hunt extend beyond material goods. “I believe there’s a story on Oak Island of historic significance, and I want to be part of the team that figures it out,” says Rick. “If that story involves the Templars—one of the most powerful entities on the face of continental Europe during their time—then all the better.”
His brother agrees that finding solid proof of a Templar presence at Oak Island would constitute a huge win, but also embraces the mindset of what his sibling calls “hopeful skepticism.” “There are certain people who believe almost every lost treasure in existence has a connection to Oak Island. So we’ve got to take it all with a little dose of reality,” Marty says. In an adventure filled with half-truths and cryptic clues, keeping that level head may be the most valuable asset of all.
This article appears in the Newsweek’s special edition, Secret Socities: Infiltrating the Inner Circle, by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.