In 1626, Peter Minuit, a man from what is now Belgium who worked 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.1
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.
While historians remain unclear as to exactly which Lenape nation dealt with Minuit during the supposed purchase, whichever nation the colonists 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.2
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.3 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.4
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.5 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.6
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, 1660.7 If they had in fact sold off the island, why stay for so long?
If you enjoyed exploring the world of colonial Manhattan, check out these great books to delve more into the worlds of the Lenape and Dutch colonists before, during, and after the purchase of Manhattan, as well the Americans who followed in the generations to come.
The Island at the Center of the World
When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed. Drawing on the archives of the New Netherland Project, Russell Shorto has created a gripping narrative that transforms our understanding of early America. The Island at the Center of the World uncovers a lost world and offers a surprising new perspective on our own.
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
In “Gotham”, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace have produced a monumental work of history, one that ranges from the Indian tribes that settled in and around the island of Mannahata, to the consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York in 1898.
Readers will relive the tumultuous early years of New Amsterdam under the Dutch West India Company, Peter Stuyvesant’s despotic regime, Indian wars, and so much more.
City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
City of Dreams is the long overdue, inspiring, and defining account of New York’s both famous and forgotten immigrantsOver ten years in the making, Tyler Anbinder’s story is one of innovators and artists, revolutionaries and rioters, staggering deprivation and soaring triumphs.
In so many ways, today’s immigrants are just like those who came to America in centuries past – and their stories have never before been told with such breadth of scope, lavish research, and resounding spirit.
Sources on the Purchase of Manhattan
- Peter Schagen, “The Purchase of Manhattan,” Lettersofnote.com
- Charles E. Cleland, Faith in Paper: The Ethnohistory and Litigation of Upper Great Lakes Indian Treaties (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
- 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.
- Cleland, Faith in Paper
- Colleen Connolly, “True New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland,” Smithsonianmag.com.
- Janos Martin, “Today in NYC History: How the Dutch Actually Bought Manhattan,” utappedcities.com
- Connolly, “True New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland,” Smithsonianmag.com.