Revisited Myth # 45: The Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.

manhattanpurchase

Only one period document mentions anything about the purchase of Manhattan. This letter states that the island was purchased from the Indians for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, which would consist of things like axes, iron kettles, and wool clothing. No reason beads couldn’t have been included, but nothing tells us exactly what the mix was. Indians were notoriously shrewd traders and would not have been fooled by worthless trinkets. 

The original letter is in the archives of the Netherlands. It was written by a merchant, Pieter Schagen, to the directors of the West India Company (owners of New Netherlands) and is dated 5 November 1626. He mentions that the settlers “have bought the island of Manhattes from the savages for a value of 60 guilders.” That’s it. It doesn’t say who purchased the island or from whom they purchased it, although many historians believe it was the local Lenape tribe.

Where the $24 comes from, I have no idea. For what it’s worth, I checked a couple of currency conversion websites and learned the approximate value of 60 guilders is over $1,000 in today’s money. Some speculate that a 19th-century historian calculated how much a Dutch guilder was worth in his day, and the amount came to $24 U.S. dollars–and that number was never updated to reflect 20th- or 21st-century values. Could be.  

A little more is known of the purchase of Staten Island a few years later. That sale was also made for 60 guilders worth of goods (must have been the going price for New World islands!), and for this, the Indians took fabric, axes, hoes, awls, kettles, Jews’ harps, and beads. It is likely the goods exchanged for Manhattan were similar. 

Historians point out that North American Indians had a concept of land ownership different from that of the Europeans. The Indians regarded land, like air and water, as something you could use but not own or sell. It has been suggested that the Indians may have thought they were sharing or receiving gifts, not selling. 

Here is the letter, followed by a transcript in English:

15birth.190

Recep.7 November 1626
 High and Mighty Lords, 
Yesterday the ship the Arms of Amsterdam
 arrived here. It sailed from New Netherland out
 of the River Mauritius on the 23d of September.
They report that our people are in good spirit
 and live in peace. The women also have borne
 some children there. They have purchased the 
Island Manhattes from the savages for the value
 of 60 guilders. It is 11.000 morgens in size
 [about 22.000 acres]. They had all their grain 
sowed by the middle of May, and reaped by the
 middle of August They sent samples of these
 summer grains: wheat, rye, barleey, oats, 
buckwheat, canary seed, beans and flax. The 
cargo of the aforesaid ship is:
7264 Beaver skins
 178 ½ Otter skins 
675 Otter skins 
48 Mink skins 
36 Lynx skins 
33 Minks 
34 Weasel skins
 
Many oak timbers and nut wood. Herewith,
 High and Mighty Lords, be commended to the
 mercy of the Almighty,
 
Your High and Mightinesses’ obedient
 
P. Schagen

4 Responses to Revisited Myth # 45: The Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.

  1. janice says:

    thank you for clearing this up, as this has been taught in text books.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Fortunately, most new textbooks are pretty good about telling the correct version of this story. But there are many other myths that creep in. A few years ago, I reviewed a 5th grade text that had more than a hundred outright errors (like placing a battle in the wrong state) and 5 myths. It was already in the classroom! The publisher corrected all the mistakes, but how can anyone ever trust them again?

  2. My guess is that the Indians thought they were selling the stellers something like the proverbial bridge they didn’t own.

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