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Sunday, September 8, 2013

On May 24, 1626, 387 years ago, the newly arrived leader of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, Peter Minuit, arranged to trade goods valued at 60 guilders to the Lenape Indians for the acquisition of the island of Manhattan (in present day New York). This act has been heralded down through history as a prime example of how Europeans took advantage of Native Americans, but was it really?
The exchange was first acknowledged six months later in a letter written by Peter Schaghen, a member of the board of the Dutch West India Company, the organization that employed Minuit and funded the Dutch colony. He reported that a deal was made with the local Indians to purchase 11,000 morgens (about 22,000 acres) of land on the island of “manhattes” for a value of sixty guilders. He did not specify if it was in coin or bartered goods. His report of the acquisition was only two sentences in length. Most of his letter was a list of furs and grains that were brought back from New Netherland.

Two hundred years later, the value of 60 guilders, in 1626, was determined to be about $24 in U.S. money. That number has stuck ever since in story and song. Today, those 60 guilders is estimated at $1,000 U.S. The myth of the trade was enhanced in the late 19th century to be a payment in bead, trinkets, and buttons. It is really quite irrelevant since the value of Manhattan is many times either amount; and the value paid to the Lenape people was not considered by either side as the primary purpose of the transaction.

Many historians believe that the Lenape lived on Long Island (actually today’s Brooklyn) and not Manhattan at all. Manhattan Island at the time was an unsettled hunting ground that was used by several tribes, and was simply a route used to move from the mainland to Long Island. Like most Native American tribes, the idea of “owning” any natural environment was ridiculous. The land, the trees, and the water were given to them by the spirits to support life; it could not be the property of any man or tribe. The right to use these things belonged to all. The European concept of ownership was quite different. Yet neither party returned home feeling that they had been deceived.

Why then, was the apparent barter of artifacts for land consummated? The basic theory is that both sides received far more than what was reported in Peter Schaghen’s letter. The Lenape received two intangible advantages. First, they received from the Dutch technology which was more advanced than what they had. This probably took the form of metal axes, hoes, shovels, and iron cooking ware that made their lives easier and more productive. Second, they formed a military alliance with the Europeans that strengthened their defensive position with competing tribes.

The Dutch received the assurance of expanded trade with the native peoples, which was the purpose of their future little settlement of New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan anyway. They were fur traders and access to hunting and trapping grounds, not to mention barter with the Indians for furs, was the primary reason the Dutch West India Company was even there. It was a win-win proposition for both parties - “the art of the deal.” The $24 in trinkets and beads could be considered just a finder’s fee.

So, how did this deal work out in the long run? The Lenape are gone. The Dutch are gone. Manhattan is part of the United States. In 2006, the estimated value of property on Manhattan Island was $802.4 billion. That equates to $2.08 billion for every year since 1626; $56.9 million for every day or $2.37 million every hour (for all 3,381,360 hours since Peter Minuit made the trade). Donald Trump would be envious.

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