Legend tells us that on May 4, 1626 Peter Minuit, Director General of the Dutch West India Company’s colony of New Netherlands, brought trunks full of trinkets with which to buy the island of Manhattan from the local Indian tribe. The value of the trinkets was 60 Dutch guilders or about $24. This story has been told and retold. And why not? Paying $24 where land is currently valued at $2,011 PER SQUARE FOOT is quite the story. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what went down that day in May.
We don’t even know if the date is correct. The only primary source document currently in existence is a letter by Dutch merchant Pieter Schage dated November 5, 1626. It was sent to the directors of the West India Company. In it, he writes, “They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.” That is all we have. In other words, we don’t even know what was worth the 60 guilders. Food? Beads? We don’t know.
New Netherlands governor Peter Minuit via biography.com
The $24 amount is also not true. Well, it may have been at one point…back in 1846. It was in that year that a New York historian did the conversion. Nobody ever thought to account for inflation when retelling the story in the 21st century. The best part of the story, however, is not how much was spent on the deal or what was used as payment. The best part is that the Dutch bought the island from the wrong tribe.
The Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from the Brooklyn-based Canarsee tribe. The island actually belonged to the Wappinger Confederacy. To be fair the Canarsee did use Manhattan from time to time to fish and relax. It is also unclear if the Canarsee meant to sell the land or merely lease it. The notion of property rights was alien to the native populations of the Americas. It is most likely they assumed the price, which to be fair was low even back then, was for use of the land.
One last note: the Wappinger Confederacy did not take all this lying down. They contested the sale and were paid (the actual amount is lost to history) for the island. So the Dutch actually paid for Manhattan twice and they didn’t even keep it. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War they gave it up to retain control of their colony in South America—Suriname.
Featured photograph via www.newnetherlandinstitute.org.