Revisited Myth #113: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

March 11, 2017

The display claims that when Michigan was a young territory, deer were common and hunting was such a part of life that deer skins or a whole deer were used as money. A deer carcass was worth a dollar and hence the dollar became known for what it was worth–a buck.

A quick trip to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary should straighten this out, or so I thought. It says “origin obscure,” which usually means insufficient evidence. The OED and the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang give the oldest example as 1856, but another source, finds examples as early as the 1820s; to wit:

From James Buchanan’s 1824 Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of North American Indians:

Each buck-skin one dollar.

From the 1826 Narrative of William Biggs, While He Was a Prisoner With the Kickepoo Indians:

McCauslin then sent for the interpreter, and the indians asked 100 Buckskins for me, in merchandize…the indians then went to the traders houses to receive they pay, they took but seventy bucks worth of merchandize at that time.

From Charles Cist’s 1841 Cincinnati in 1841:

They had sold the Indians whiskey that had frozen in the cask, before they reached their camp; they made an Indian pay for a rifle gun thirty, the Indians say forty, buck-skins, which they value at one dollar each, besides a horse of fifteen pounds price.

From Samuel Prescott Hildreth’s 1848 Pioneer History:

On the frontiers, and especially among the Indians, the value of property was estimated in bucks, instead of dollars or pounds—a buck was valued at one dollar. A copy of the following certificate, recorded in Colonel Morgan’s journal, among several others of the same tenor, is worth preserving:
“I do certify, that I am indebted to the bearer, Captian [sic] Johnny, seven bucks and one doe, for the use of the states, this 12 April 1779.”

From Henry Howe’s 1851 Historical Collections of Ohio:

A muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a racoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, “the almighty dollar.”

And finally from James Wickes Taylor’s 1854 History of the State of Ohio: First Period, 1650-1787:

The English said we should buy everything of them, and since we had got saucy, we should give two bucks for a blanket which we used to get for one: we should do as they pleased, and they killed some of our people to make the rest fear them.

(Thanks go to Ben Zimmer for this information.)

Joe Mirky pointed out some earlier, 18th-century references:

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.


Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

But I wondered, were deerskins really worth a dollar throughout this time? 

After searching through several books on the subject of the deerskin trade, it became obvious that prices depended on many variables. The size and quality of the skin were obvious factors in its value, but so was the age of the deer, the sex of the deer (buckskins were worth more than doeskins which were worth more than fawn), and the degree of finishing. A dressed buckskin was worth more than a partially dressed one. Prices also varied according to geography and over time. Also, skins were often sold by the pound, not each. In short, the price received for deerskins varied a good deal over time and place. 

Prices on the world market declined from the 18th century to the early 19th century, which affected the prices paid to hunters. Here are some details: In the late 17th century in Pennsylvania, a dressed buckskin brought 2 shillings 5 pence. In South Carolina in the early 18th century, dressed skins brought 5 shillings per pound; in North Carolina during that time, a buckskin brought 2 shillings, a doeskin 1 shilling 6 pence. (Hunting for Hides, Lapham, 2005, p. 12) In the 1780s in the southeastern U.S., a pound of dressed skins went for 6 shillings. By the 1790s, the price had dropped by 50% from pre-Revolutionary War years. (Deerskins and Duffels, Braund, 1993, p. 99-100, 178) I found no prices specific to the Michigan Territory, but since the main market was Europe, it seems reasonable to conclude that prices paid were fairly consistent throughout the colonies/states.

So the statement above seems to be partly true. Deerskins were not worth a dollar, per se, but they were a form of barter on the frontier that could approximate value. The word buck could derive from that usage. 

However, there is another, equally plausible origin of the word “buck:” that it is a shortening of the word “sawbuck” which was slang for a 10-dollar bill (or any early US paper currency). Why? Because the ten dollar bill had a Roman numeral X on it, which is also called a sawbuck, which is an X-shaped brace, a tool for helping cut a long log into boards. This would date the association of the word “buck” with a piece of paper money to the mid-19th century. 

This could be an example of two origins that developed during different times and places, both correct. Dr. Russell A. Potter, who has taught History of the English language for 25 years, says, The derivation of buck (dollar) from the trade in deerskins is (in my view) unlikely, as the usage is quite scarce prior to the introduction of paper currency — but yes, words can sometimes have more than one origin. The “sawbuck” theory has the advantage of a clearer line of plausible transmission — but even with that theory, there are relatively few examples until late in this same period (as a casual slang term, it likely had a long gestation in common parlance before it began to see the light of print). All of which are reasons why the Oxford English Dictionary lists “origin obscure.” I would certainly say that the deerskin theory should not be presented as unquestionably true; offering it alongside the “sawbuck”/$10 theory is probably about the best that can be done.


Earlier Comments:

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
May 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Edit)
I Have got to go with the idea of a BUCK. ‘Dollar” as a short form of BUCKSKIN which was a trade item. The online Etymological Dictionary (
Lists buck
“male deer,” c.1300, earlier “male goat;” from Old English bucca “male goat,” from Proto-Germanic *bukkon (cf. Old Saxon buck, Middle Dutch boc, Dutch bok, Old High German boc, German Bock, Old Norse bokkr), perhaps from a PIE root *bhugo (cf. Avestan buza “buck, goat,” Armenian buc “lamb”), but some speculate that it is from a lost pre-Germanic language. Barnhart says Old English buc “male deer,” listed in some sources, is a “ghost word or scribal error.”

Meaning “dollar” is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748

Marfy Goodspeed says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:49 am (Edit)
Check out this link:
Seems like this is not a myth after all.

oldud says:
May 5, 2013 at 6:57 am (Edit)
I always wondered what created the demand for deer hides in Europe until I read that they were favored by the trade class (i.e. masons, carpenters, wheelrights, etc.). They provided durable, long-lasting breeches used under hard working conditions, similar to wearing today’s jeans. The skins also provided a favorite material for glovers, at a reasonable price. Eventually, the French traders in Louisiana preferred the hides to be unfinished (dried) since the manufacturer wanted to tan them to their specifications rather than receive the hides already brain-tanned.

Deborah Brower says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
Then there is “sawbuck”, how does that relate? As Mary said this is a complex question and the simple rules of commerce would effect it. One thing Mary did not bring was the value of currency. Are we talking Spanish dollars, American dollars or something else?

Then there are the various meanings of the word buck. Even the Online Entomology Dictionary has at least three definitions.

The earliest reference at is 1824. The others are clustered between 1841 and 1854. Are they influenced by James Buchanan’s book? Where the heck did he get it? I think at best the jury is out without better references.

I get the feeling that this is like many of the myths here. Someone comes up with a simple, appealing thought. It catches on and through repetition takes on the aura of truth.

Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Edit)
A sawbuck is an x-shaped brace used when bucking felled timber for logs. This part I know for fact (I’ve used them).

Supposedly, because early ten dollar bills had large roman numeral ten (X) on them, and twenties carried the double-X this led to the names “sawbuck” and “double sawbuck”. I have no idea if this etymology is true, although the bills certainly did have roman numerals on them.

Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm (Edit)
As for shopkeepers taking entire dressed animals in trade, my mother’s father certainly did so in the 1930s in rural Virginia. He’d have been much less successful than he was if he hadn’t allowed the poorer members of his community to barter for finished goods like cloth and gunpowder! He sold the meat, garden truck and live stock he received in trade to the wealthier folks for cash, and everybody involved was better off for it.

Mary Miley says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm (Edit)
Well, okay. I’m open to revision!

Leanne Keefer Bechdel says:
January 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm (Edit)
pretty certain the deer hides were tanned- smoke tanned so they would not be raw and rotting. Current trade rate for Indian tanned (smoked) buck skin is about 100 bucks. Soft- and waterproof and great for making clothing.

Jake Pontillo says:
June 30, 2015 at 1:55 am (Edit)
Yes indeed,Ms. Bechdel, although $100 for a good smoked brain tanned hide would be a very good price. I think nowadays more in the line of a 135- 150- T
he hides could have been sent out dried as rawhides and the re hydrated and bark tanned in Europe.

joemirsky says:
June 16, 2015 at 8:55 pm (Edit)
The word “buck” for dollar comes from buckskin, deer hide, that the colonials used to trade with the Indians.

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.


Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

Copyright © 2015 Joseph Mirsky




Revisited Myth # 70: The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to pop corn at the first Thanksgiving.

November 27, 2016
from The Pilgrim's Party, Lowitz

from The Pilgrim’s Party, Lowitz

Another Thanksgiving myth would have us believe that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the magic of popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. It didn’t exactly happen that way, then or later.

While corn was ubiquitous in the Americas, that doesn’t mean the natives or the colonists popped it. First of all, not all corn pops. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that not all corn pops well, only the relatively few varieties that have hard, thick hulls. The type we eat has too thin a hull to contain the pressure necessary to cause a puffy explosion.

According to the Department of Agriculture, there is ample evidence that Native Americans in South America, Central America, and the southwestern part of the U.S. ate popcorn more than 2500 years ago. But no evidence exists for it in Massachusetts or Virginia or any of the Atlantic colonies. In the archives at Colonial Williamsburg there are letters going back to 1950, asking the historians that very question, and the answer has always been, “no references to popcorn in Virginia.” As for Massachusetts, the type of corn those Indians grew was the Northern Flint variety which does not pop well. And according to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no trace of popcorn has been uncovered in regional archaeological excavations.

In his book Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Smithsonian, 2001), food historian Andrew F. Smith traces the Pilgrims-and-popcorn myth to the 1880s, a time of heavy immigration when national myths were being created by magazines, newspapers, and school curricula to Americanize the newcomers. “Popcorn was sold in grocery stores, popped at fairs, and peddled at sporting events,” he writes of those years. Written references to popcorn seem to begin in the mid-19th century. The first known popcorn poem appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1853. It did not become commercially significant until the latter part of the 19th century. Look at this interesting advertisement from a magazine called the American Agriculturist, dated February 1866. It offers popcorn for sale as a novelty item. Regular local corn must not have popped well, because J. A. Hathaway imported this from Brazil and acclimated it in Cincinnati for two years. The company offers 150 grains for 25 cents, so you could grow your own. Get 6 to 15 ears to the plant!

But the popcorn myth is repeated endlessly in children’s textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. Andrew Smith calls it a “twice-told myth.” “Undocumented food stories are the grist of newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even works which purport to be true histories. Myths gain reality through repetition, and unfortunately, almost all modern food writers from James Beard to Waverly Root have colluded by repeating them.” He points to several popcorn myths that have no archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever: Columbus found popcorn in the Caribbean; American Indians attached religious significance to popcorn; colonial Americans ate popcorn as a snack; and Indians in what is today the eastern half of the United States ate popcorn in pre-Columbian times.

Revisited Myth # 69: The first Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth in 1621.

November 20, 2016


The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration or a meal shared with heathens. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.

An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.

All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. And Texas believes it has claims on an earlier event. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .

The truth is, there were many official days of prayerful thanksgiving in colonial America.


Previous comments:

informationforager says:
November 19, 2011 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Thanks for the info. I always like to find and realize real history. Mankind has such a propensity for misaligning the truth and making it totally self-serving. Recently I finished some books on the founding Fathers original religious views. That was very good. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

P.S. I’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida and it’s beautiful.

marymiley says:
November 19, 2011 at 9:55 am (Edit)
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine but it’s definitely on my short list!

Jamie says:
November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am (Edit)
I believe George Washington also proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for Thurs, Nov. 26 in 1789 (see, more of day of prayer than a feast. My understanding is it didn’t quite catch on (and where it did was mainly in the North?) but set the stage for Lincoln’s national holiday, late in November (though, did I read that originally Lincoln’s holiday was the fourth Tuesday? and FDR moved it to third and later the fourthThursday?).

Saraspondence says:
November 21, 2011 at 4:07 am (Edit)
Thanks! I like the idea of multiple events in different geographical locations involving shared harvest and thanks to God!


Revisited Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.

July 2, 2016

Park Ranger Kevin Hanley wrote: “Outside of the 9 to 5 job, I’m a trustee for a historic Dutch house in Brooklyn. As part of my research into Dutch stuff, I’ve come repeatedly upon a reference to the Dutch use of popcorn. According to the texts, the Dutch didn’t know what to make or do with popcorn. Dutch wives apparently improvised and, supposedly, placed the popcorn in a bowl and added milk. Viola! The first cereal – or so it is claimed. Can you verify or bust this myth?”

This is a tough nut to crack. First, it’s terribly illogical. Pour milk on popcorn and it becomes a soggy glop. (I’ve tried.) Searching for historical underpinnings to this myth yields nothing in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, but see Myth #70–popcorn doesn’t become significant until the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was not something Indians introduced at the Pilgrim’s harvest feast we now call Thanksgiving. 

There is at least one somewhat historical mention of eating popcorn with milk, and it comes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, page 32-33, a book set in the late 1850s but written in the 1930s. The author mentions that young Almonzo (who would become her husband) liked popcorn and milk. “You can fill a glass to the brim with milk and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. Then, too, they are good to eat.” Of course, she also repeats the myth about Indians and Pilgrims and popcorn at Thanksgiving, so she is not wholly reliable. Even if we take her words at face value, she isn’t talking about breakfast cereal; she talking about a science experiment that tastes good.


The first packaged, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were invented in the 1870s and made of oats and wheat. Cereal took a turn for the better in the early years of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers accidentally invented wheat flakes and corn flakes. None of these cereal pioneers used popcorn, presumably because it doesn’t work well. That doesn’t mean no one ever ate popcorn with milk, but it doesn’t seem to have been common or popular enough to call it the “first breakfast cereal.” 


12 Responses to Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.
Jean says:
June 30, 2012 at 7:33 am (Edit)
Thanks for pointing out that the Little House series is not reliable as historical fact. We need to keep in mind that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were written decades after the experiences. The books were also heavily edited by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura & Almanzo’s daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, the series is wonderful. There are working historians who trace their start interest in the Little House books!

Keep straightening us out with this blog!


marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 8:41 am (Edit)
Thank you, Jean. I’m straightening myself out with this blog too!Lots of things I assumed were true, I’ve found are not, and some things I thought sounded fishy turned out to be true!

As for the Little House books, yes they are WONDERFUL and inspiring, but that doesn’t mean they are historically perfect. The American Girl series is great too, but perhaps not as engaging because it isn’t “real.”

Pamela Toler (@pdtoler) says:
June 30, 2012 at 10:37 am (Edit)
I can’t speak to when popcorn was first used as a breakfast cereal, but I know my grandfather poured milk on left over popcorn and ate it for breakfast.

marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Edit)
I’m sure it happened on occasion. Popcorn seems traceable back to the mid-19th century. But since there isn’t any evidence for widespread practice of eating it with milk for breakfast, I’d hesitate to call it the first breakfast cereal. It does seem clear that it was not a colonial Dutch practice.

Keith Doms says:
July 4, 2012 at 9:16 am (Edit)
I remember reading about popcorn being used as a breakfast cerial by the Colonests in the World Book Encyclopedia Young Persons set in the the late 1960s.


Sei Paulson says:
May 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Could it possibly have been “parched” corn? A recipe for parched corn is included in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (originally published as “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians,” 1917). It’s a little like modern corn nuts, in that the corn poofs out. I imagine in milk it would be a little like corn puffs.

Mary Miley says:
May 17, 2013 at 7:39 am (Edit)
How interesting! That’s a new idea for me, anyway. How does one make parched corn? I always assumed parched corn was just dried corn, but evidently not.

Sei Paulson says:
May 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm (Edit)
You sort of… roast it on a griddle? I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to try it. ^_^

deb mcintyre says:
March 31, 2014 at 11:09 pm (Edit)
We often ate popcorn in milk with a spoon, but as an after supper snack. My grandpas family (who had this tradition) originally came from New York state – just like Almanzo!

pavan inr levels creator says:
July 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm (Edit)
I learned about this in grade school. The Native Americans probably did this. They were geniuses with corn.

Sally says:
July 23, 2015 at 7:59 am (Edit)
My mother ate warm buttered popcorn with milk on it. She acquired this tradition from her father (b abt 1872 in NH). Said it was like Oyster Stew—a salty butter in milk flavor.

Mary Miley says:
July 23, 2015 at 8:12 am (Edit)
Have you ever tried that? Wouldn’t it turn to soggy slop instantly? I tried it once and that’s what happened. Maybe my “recipe” wasn’t the same as your mom’s!


Revisited Myth # 72: The Trail of Tears drove all the Indians out of the southeastern United States.

February 6, 2016


National Geographic magazine says this is a common myth, so who am I to differ? I had never heard it expressed, but then again, maybe that’s because I’ve long known the truth, living in the southeastern United States among several different Native American tribes.

After the passage of the shameful Indian Removal Act in 1830, all remaining southeastern tribes were supposed to be rounded up and herded west, a process that began in 1831 and ended in 1838-39 with the Cherokees and the infamous Train of Tears. This was a pitiful forced march that killed about a quarter of the people. A small number of Native Americans remained in the southeast, either because they were overlooked or because they evaded capture during the round-up. These people stayed on their ancestral homelands. They include some Choctaw in Mississippi, the Seminole in Florida, some Creek in Alabama, and some Cherokee in Tennessee and North Carolina. (See for a welcome to Cherokee, NC, from the chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.)

Revisited Myth # 46: The Good Friday Massacre of 1622

May 9, 2015


On the morning of March 22, 1622, Virginia’s Powhatan Indian alliance executed a well-conceived and coordinated attack on English settlements spread more than fifty miles up and down the James River. Warriors from perhaps a dozen of the thirty-two affiliated tribes—Quiyoughcohannocks, Waraskoyacks, Weanocks, Appomatucks, Arrohatecks, and others—fell on men, women, and children in their homes and in their fields, burning houses and barns, killing livestock, mutilating the bodies of their victims. Planned by the Pamunkey headman Opechancanough, a kinsman of the deceased paramount chieftain Powhatan, the offensive slew about 350 whites, a sixth of the total in the fifteen-year-old colony. From modern Richmond to Hampton Roads, the onslaught devastated Jamestown’s outlying plantations, but it failed in its purpose: stopping the relentless encroachment of the English. The raid is commonly—and erroneously—called the Good Friday Massacre.

More than one historian has suggested that the attacks were timed to coincide with the Christian Holy Week, thinking that the 1622 raid was on Good Friday. Eminent colonist George Thorpe had often conferred with Opechancanough on matters of religion, trying to convert the old chief to Christianity, and presumably would have shared with him the details of Easter and the resurrection. The Powhatans had a predilection for blending irony and warfare (These are Indians who killed colonists for stealing corn by stuffing corn down their throats, for example.) It is suggested that Opechancanough planned the attack for Good Friday to emphasize a rejection of the foreigner’s religion.

Easter, however, does not cooperate with this theory, falling as it does on April 21 in 1622, several weeks after the massacre. So how did the myth begin?

It seems to have been a mix-up with the date of Opechancanough’s second major attack, the one in 1644, which actually did occur near Easter, although this one was not on Good Friday either. This second attack came on the Thursday before Easter, known by Christians as Maundy Thursday. Seems that a careless historian moved the attack of 1644 back one day—to Good Friday—and confused that with the date of the first attack in 1622. According to ethnohistorian Fred Fausz, this mixup “led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.”

Memorable and catchy, the mistake persists in textbooks and on Internet sites despite the efforts of historians to correct it.

Fred Fausz, a history professor at the University of St. Louis, wrote more on this topic:

Historians used to be taught to evaluate evidence, to question everything, but that is rarely the case today, as the most enduring old myth about Jamestown reveals. The “Good Friday Fallacy” associated with the 1622 Massacre originated 136 years ago and was still misleading the general public as recently as the May 7 issue of Time magazine and the January 2007 special Jamestown issue of U.S. News & World Report. Good Friday fell on April 19 in both the 1622 and 1644 years of massive Powhatan offensives, and that led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.

The indifference paid to or paid by copyeditors and proofreaders is even more telling in the publication industry today, as the Good Friday Fallacy is more widely disseminated than ever before. At least three Oxford University Press books perpetuate that error–including the 25th anniversary edition of T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes’s popular “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676–while notable scholars, such as Breen, John Murrin, and Jill Lepore, keep it alive in their college textbooks. Such errors also live on in cyberspace, where “history viruses” proliferate like all the others. They have “infected” the website, which has an entire section under a prominent heading, “Good Friday Massacre,” as well as the 2005 online book by the National Park Service, A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century.


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

April 12, 2015


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:


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

%d bloggers like this: