In 1626, Peter Minuit, a Belgian working for the Dutch Empire, arrived in New Netherland, Holland’s territories along the Hudson River. After taking over as the colony’s governor, he made contact with one of the Lenape nations living on the island we call Manhattan. Later that year, Pieter Schagen, a fellow colonist in New Netherland, sent a letter home to their superiors describing Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan.

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… They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.2

This short description of the Dutch colony on Manhattan and the way they came into possession of it has shaped popular perception of this event for centuries. Depending on the source you read, you’ll find claims that Minuit purchased Manhattan for 60 guilders, $24, or, probably the most common, beads and other trinkets.

Arguments over the exact goods the Dutch used in the purchase of Manhattan fill the internet. But, honestly, that seems rather irrelevant. The purchase of Manhattan has become the most misunderstood real estate deal of all time. What’s important is to understand why.

Purchase of Manhattan
An artist’s rendition of the purchase of Manhattan.

While historians remain unclear as to exactly which Lenape nation dealt with Minuit during the supposed purchase, whichever nation the Belgian colonist encountered belonged to the greater Algonquian linguistic-cultural group. Algonquian cultures ranged from Virginia to Quebec and Ontario. And despite the distinct languages they spoke and customs they practiced, gift giving became a central economic and political act for most, if not all, Algonquian people.3

To get anthropological for a moment, the reciprocal act of gift giving became a way for both individuals and communities to give and receive respect, while acknowledging the prestige and honor of those involved. So, while goods swapped hands, gift giving did not occur to create profit or accumulate resources – something a lot of Europeans didn’t pick up on.4 One Lenape leader presenting another Lenape leader with a gift carried a clear connotation, and they knew to give a gift of equal value in return.5

When the Lenape leaders who met with Minuit accepted his 60 guilders worth of items, they likely saw this as Minuit engaging in this type of gift giving ceremony. Just as Europeans saw their economic motives as the universal meaning of trade, the Lenape likely saw diplomatic meaning in every gift exchange. So, it seems reasonable enough to suspect the Lenape involved in the deal with Minuit left that meeting with the impression they had come to some sort of diplomatic understanding with the leader of the new settlement appearing on the border of their lands.

Just what agreement the Lenape thought they had made, however, has come under debate. Some have said they meant to lease the land to the Dutch, while others have argued they were giving the European colonists the right to hunt the land or pass through it.6 Other writers have even claimed that a rival nation of the Weckquaesgeeks (a Lenape nation that inhabited Manhattan island) sold the land to Minuit knowing they wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout.7

Whatever agreement they thought they had made, it was clear the Lenape didn’t intend for the Dutch to claim the land as their own. Indeed, over 30 years later, the Lenape still lived on Manhattan. “The savages would not remove from the land that they had bought,” a Dutch councilman in New Amsterdam complained on May 25, 1660.8 If they had in fact sold off the island, why stay for so long?

Sources on the Purchase of Manhattan

  1. “Peter Minuit,” Wikipedia.
  2. Peter Schagen, “The Purchase of Manhattan,” Lettersofnote.com
  3. Charles E. Cleland, Faith in Paper: The Ethnohistory and Litigation of Upper Great Lakes Indian Treaties (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
  4. James Tyler Caron, Review of The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacán, Roanoke, and Jamestown by Seth Mallios, Richmond: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 7 Iss. 1, (2007): 122-123.
  5. Cleland, Faith in Paper
  6. Colleen Connolly, “True New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland,” Smithsonianmag.com.
  7. Janos Martin, “Today in NYC History: How the Dutch Actually Bought Manhattan,” utappedcities.com
  8. Connolly, “True New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland,” Smithsonianmag.com.

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