Most of us were taught way back in elementary school that the island of Manhattan was purchased for a really, really low price! Somewhere close to twenty-four dollars worth of trade goods, right?
Turns out that the Indians did not get the short end of the deal after all. Turns out that the Dutch traders were not as slick as they thought. Here's the story of what really happened!
In a single landmark real estate deal, Dutch settlers supposedly purchased the entire island of Manhattan for some worthless glass beads. But what actually happened in 1626? Dutch settlers bought the use of Manhattan in exchange for iron kettles, axes, knives, and cloth. And as it later turned out, the tribe who sold the land at such a deep discount were taking payment for lands which didn’t even belong to them.
The story of the $24 Manhattan purchase is a myth which insinuates that the settlers, by virtue of being so darn clever, “deserved” the land. Of course, the valuation of anything at $24 should be immediately suspect as the dollar obviously didn’t exist in the 17th century. The idea that the goods were worth only $24 stems from a flawed currency conversion made by a 19th-century historian. And records from the time suggest it is actually the Dutch settlers who were tricked.
Letters from the period, detailing other Dutch purchases, make it clear what goods were typically exchanged for land in the American Northeast. The manufactured goods, while not extremely valuable to the Europeans, were obviously scarce in America and thus valuable to Native traders. In similar fashion, discarded beaver pelt clothing was garbage to Native Americans, yet European traders couldn’t get enough, because they used the fur to make stylish hats. Determining a trade’s winner and loser is really just a matter of perspective. “Glass beads” is a pernicious exaggeration of the idea that Manhattan was purchased for worthless goods.
Of course, the biggest problem with the Manhattan purchase isn’t the price: It’s the identity of the sellers. The Dutch conducted their business with the Canarsee tribe who were actually based out of what is now Brooklyn. However, we should be fair to perpetrators of the glass beads myth: The Canarsee probably would have taken anything in exchange for the use of Manhattan, as the island actually belonged to the Wappinger Confederacy, another group of Native Americans. As a result, the Dutch claim to Manhattan was later contested, and the Dutch compensated the rightful owners. Thus, the Dutch settlers actually paid for Manhattan twice.
Here is another point to consider. Any trade can only be judged a fair trade by the folks involved. If both parties are happy, then the trade was fair! In this case, the tribe who actually did the trade was probably extremely happy, were as the Dutch were...well, you can guess how they felt!
Let's try and have coffee out on the patio this morning. We may have to move back inside if the rain starts again!