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Was Manhattan Really Sold For $24 Worth Of Beads And Trinkets?

by Kareena Dodeja

Was Manhattan Really Sold For $24 Worth Of Beads And Trinkets?

April 6, 2021

What if Manhattan was sold for $24 worth of beads and trinkets? Would you believe this or think of it as one of the legends of history that are made up to keep us hooked on to stories? The idea that indigenous inhabitants would give up their land for this miniscule price to the Dutch sounds shady right? Find out what happened.

The History Of Manhattan

An Englishman, Henry Hudson went on a journey but little did he know that present-day New York would bear his name. He was an emissary of the Dutch and was sent to chart the passage to Asia where Dutch West India wanted to expand its trade. That did not work out well as he failed but his journey led to the Dutch colonization of New York. Not bad, huh?

Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York told Live Science that from the water, Manhattan would have been this long, thin, wooded island with sandy beaches on the shore, growing up to taller hills and cliffs on the West Side. We would have seen smoke from the Lenape people in lower Manhattan.

In autumn, we would have spotted hawks down the Hudson River. He is known for his work of combining historical accounts with maps of New York City as he builds a detailed account of what NYC was like before colonists arrived. A lovely picture to paint for the mind, isn’t it?

One of the facts that Hudson had conveyed to his Dutch colleagues was that beavers were abundant in 17th-century New York. The beaver’s velvety pelts were valued in Holland for the production of hats. They had a trade relationship between the Dutch and the region’s indigenous inhabitants which were people from the Lenape and Mahican. The hundreds of thousands of pelts were provided by hunters in exchange for metal, cloth, and other items from the Dutch. The deal was intact for a while but following the decades, they went through with a different trade deal.

manhattan-scoolbuzz
Hundreds of thousands of pelts were provided by hunters in exchange for metal, cloth, and other items from the Dutch.

Incomplete Evidence And Theories Raise Questions

They decided to trade beyond beaver skins and made a bigger deal which makes up the history of New York today. The indigenous inhabitants decided to sell the entire island of Manhattan to the Dutch for just 24$ worth of beads and trinkets in 1626. Well, this is unbelievable. This historical moment would later turn to be significant as the birth certificate of NYC. A professor of history at George Fox University in Oregon, Paul Otto in 2015 wrote about this piece of history.

This important historical moment can be hard to believe, right? The details are hazy as there is no evidence of the exchange and why would the inhabitants give up the land of centuries so easily? Hold on, there is evidence. A letter penned by a Dutch merchant named Pieter Schagen mentioned the sale to another man named Peter Minuit who purchased Manhattan for 60 guilders which was the Dutch currency then. This information reveals that it did happen.

Another piece of evidence that was blatant during that time is that the Dutch were trying to become rich through the beaver’s trade as they were dependent on the Native Americans. The Native Americans were trying to dominate in the New World against European competitors. This encouraged them to secure territory across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Governors Island, and Staten Island.

Manhattan featured
Dutch were trying to become rich through the beaver's trade as they were dependent on the Native Americans.

There is a theory that says that some account of the sale was sold by Munsees, a sub-tribe of the Lenape people but none of it has been confirmed. This is one of the uncertainties about the information of the deal in Schegen’s letter. There is no record of the exchange as Schagen had never visited New York according to Johanna Gorelick, the manager of the education department at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to Live Science. Schagen’s letter is the only piece of evidence but it is under scrutiny as there is no confirmation if it is true.

Gorelick says that the letter has no details of the individuals involved in the sale or the date of the exchange. There is only one piece of information that the 60 guilder value of the trade and misinterpreted into $24. The figure is taken from a history book in 1846 and has remained unchanged. At present, 60 guilders would be more than $1000 today. There is no indication of what the money represented back then as many accounts perpetuate the questionable idea that native people sold their homelands for little more than trinkets, which seems shady.

And The Rest Is History

It doesn’t mean that the exchange did not happen even if there is no solid evidence. Trading land was a common practice back then and there is evidence that lands were exchanged between Native Americans and the Dutch. Some of the land deals signed by both are the purchase of Staten Island in 1630, parts of Long Island in 1639, and Manhattan again in 1649. The 1626 sale seems to have no evidence to back it up so it seems fishy and unreliable that the trade happened straightforwardly.

Sanderson said that the Dutch had an idea about properties as the agreements with the indigenous people in the 17th century underlie titles in New York City today. The Dutch could share the land or lease it for a limited period which would explain the modest mode of payment. Gorelick raises the question of whether the sale of New York in 1626 sale would even be legal today.

Back in the day, a land sale would create an ideological shift in colonist’s minds over who is in control. The Dutch for 40 years had control until 1664 when the English took over New Amsterdam and named it New York. The concept of land ownership battles became complex over the decades as many Native Americans were gradually displaced.

The story of the Manhattan sale was a legend for a long time as the $24 worth of trinkets and beads would be amusing to hear. Many of us would be confused because the payment seems very small. In some paintings, there has been an idea that ‘trinkets’ were all that native people received in return for their ancestral homes. This gave us the wrong perception that the indigenous inhabitants were gullible and oblivious of the value of their property, according to Gorelick.

It could be far from true as native people were scrupulous traders. They did not just take what was offered and there have been accounts that they are determined when they make any sale. Sanderson reiterates that the misconception behind Manhattan being sold so easily and willingly will serve another purpose that why some people find themselves in positions of power. 2024 would mark the 400th anniversary of New York’s official colonization by the Dutch in 1624 so we should believe the real facts, not the intriguing myth.

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