We’ll Take Manhattan

Legend and a number of historical accounts have it that on this date in 1626, Manhattan Island was purchased from the Canarsee Delawares by the Dutchman Peter Minuit. Most accounts state that Dutch beads were part of the deal.

The only known document specifically relating to the acquisition was written in Amsterdam late in 1626 as a report to the board of the West India Company. It said, in part:

They [the crew and passengers of a returning ship] report that our people are in good heart and live in peace there; the women have also borne some children there. They have purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders; ’tis 11,000 morgens (about 22,00[0] acres) in size.

60 guilders has been estimated as worth from $24 to $300. Manhattan is actually about 15,000 acres, not 22,000.

The late bead historian Peter Francis argued in his prize-winning 1986 article “The Beads That Did Not Buy Manhattan Island” that, because this contemporary report does not mention beads, we cannot assume that beads were part of the transaction. According to Francis, beads were added to the story by Martha J. Lamb in her History of the City of New York (1877). It was only from then on that Dutch beads became part of the story. And, as a result, making the Delawares seem even more ignorant in light of Manhattan’s growing importance and wealth.

NewMexiKen however, wonders whether “for the value of 60 guilders” does not imply trade goods rather than coin. What use would Dutch money have been to the Delawares? And, if the transaction was strictly for money, why not report “for 60 guilders” rather than the vague “for the value of 60 guilders”? Trade goods were used in the purchase of Staten Island in August 1626 according to a copy of the deed – “Some Diffies, Kittles, Axes, Hoes, Wampum, Drilling Awls, Jew’s Harps, and diverse other wares” [Diffies are cloth]. What does “Wampum” mean in this Dutch account if not beads? The word “Wampum” comes from the Narragansett for white shell beads.

More than likely the Delawares assumed they were “leasing” the use of the land. Permanent title would not have occurred to them. And $24 to $300 for a lease (whether in cash or goods) would not have been unattractive.

As the result of war, the Dutch traded New Amsterdam to the English in 1667 for what is now Suriname (Dutch Guyana).