Peter Minuit is widely credited by historians as being the man who negotiated the purchase of Manhattan Island from The Canarsee Native American Indians on behalf of Dutch settlers in May 1626.
Manhattan later became the location of the Dutch city of New Amsterdam which subsequently became modern day New York.
Legend has it that Minuit purchased Manhattan for a mere $24 worth of bric-a-brac and trinkets, an amount that equates to just over $2000 in today’s money.
Researchers at the National Library of the Netherlands say that the original inhabitants of Manhattan were unfamiliar with European notions of ownership rights. For the Indians, water, air and land were not privately owned and as a result, could not be traded. Such an exchange would also have been difficult in practical terms because many groups migrated between different locations in the summer and winter. It can therefore be concluded that both parties probably went home with completely different interpretations of the sales agreement.
The calculation of $24 as the price that was paid by the Dutch and which has become enshrined in folklore, fails to acknowledge that concepts of property trading and ownership held by 17th-century Dutch and East Coast US natives were vastly different to modern conceptions. Anachronistic comparisons to modern land deals distort the reality of what Minuit was doing. The Dutch and the Indians would undoubtedly have included intangibles along with hard goods as part of the total transactional value. The Native Americans for example, would most certainly have included the value of having the Dutch as potential military allies against rival Indian nations as value that could not be calculated in currency terms alone. The sale would also have included the prospect of future trade between the two parties.
The popular myth that the richest and most famous of the New York boroughs that comprise modern New York City was somehow swindled from The Canarsee Indians is suspect. It’s highly likely that far from making a gullible sale to the Europeans, The Canarsee may have sold land that they didn’t actually own – thus undertaking a successful swindle of their own.
In 1626, Manhattan Island was controlled by a tribe called the Weckquaesgeeks, who were part of a confederation of tribes based on land east of the Hudson River. When Peter Minuit offered Chief Seyseys of The Canersee, cash for Manhattan simply because they happened to be occupying the territory at the time, Seyseys was only too happy to accept the offer.
Like all Indian tribes at the time, The Canarsee didn’t believe in the European notion of land ownership, let alone buying or selling it. The tribes would spend each year roaming the countryside depending on the weather and where there was plenty of game to hunt. The Canarsee were in Manhattan at the time of the purchase because the weather was mild in May, and hunting and fishing was plentiful. Five or six months later they would head south, so getting paid for land that they didn’t actually own and would soon abandon made sense from their perspective.
A contemporary purchase of land rights in nearby Staten Island, which Minuit was also involved in comprised duffel cloth, iron kettles, axe heads, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, “Jew’s harps” and “diverse other wares”.
Assuming similar goods were exchanged in the Manhattan purchase, the Dutch were essentially engaged in a high-end technology transfer with the Indians and were handing over equipment of enormous utility for tasks that ranged from clearing land to drilling wampum – the main form of Native American currency at the time.
It is therefore likely that the deal was amenable to The Canarsee because they had little at stake in Manhattan and far from being a rip-off it was actually an economic boon to them.
In our opinion, The Canarsee should be praised for making money from property that belongs to someone else. Our publisher Darcus White once bought a DVD player from a dodgy bloke in a pub and received a £2000 fine for handling stolen goods!