In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed down the river in present-day New York that would one day bear his name. The Englishman was an emissary of the Dutch and had been dispatched to chart a new passage to Asia, where the Dutch West India Company wanted to expand its trade. Hudson ultimately failed at that task, but his journey laid the groundwork for the Dutch colonization of New York.
"It would have been so beautiful," said Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "From the water, Manhattan would have been this long, thin, wooded island with sandy beaches on the shore, growing up to taller hills and cliffs on the West Side. You probably would have seen a little bit of smoke from the Lenape people in lower Manhattan." In the autumn, you might have spotted hawks migrating down the Hudson River, whose waters would have held an abundance of porpoises and whales, Sanderson told Live Science. Sanderson is known for his work combining historical accounts with maps of New York City, to build up detailed pictures of the metropolis's historically lush landscape, before colonists arrived.
Also abundant in 17th-century New York were beavers — a fact that Hudson would have conveyed to his Dutch colleagues. That precipitated the arrival of thousands of people from Holland, who called their new home “New Amsterdam” and set in motion a fur trade of epic proportions. At the time, beavers' velvety pelts were valued in Holland for the production of hats: the lucrative trade became the basis of an ongoing relationship between the Dutch and the region's Indigenous inhabitants — among them the Lenape and Mahican peoples — wherein hundreds of thousands of pelts were provided by hunters in exchange for metal, cloth and other valuable items from the Dutch.
But in the following decades, accounts emerged of a different trade that went far beyond beaver skins, and ultimately shaped the history of New York. In 1626, the story goes, Indigenous inhabitants sold off the entire island of Manhattan to the Dutch for a tiny sum: just $24 worth of beads and "trinkets." This nugget of history took on such huge significance in the following centuries that it served as "the birth certificate for New York City," Paul Otto, a professor of history at George Fox University in Oregon, wrote in a 2015 essay on the subject.
Yet the details remain slim on exactly how this momentous exchange occurred and why the people who had inhabited the land for centuries gave it up so easily. Today, the question remains: Is this all-important piece of history even true?
Where's the evidence?
The first known mention of the historic sale comes from a 1626 letter penned by a Dutch merchant named Pieter Schagen, who wrote that a man named Peter Minuit had purchased Manhattan for 60 guilders, the Dutch currency at the time. This information fits within a crucial period of New York's history.
During this time, the Dutch — growing rich off the beaver trade and dependent on the Native Americans to propel their industry — were trying to secure their dominance in the New World against other European competitors. This motivated them to secure territory far and wide, across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Governors Island and Staten Island.
Some accounts of the sale suggest that the individuals who sold Manhattan were Munsees, a subtribe of the Lenape people — though that's not confirmed. This marks just the first of several uncertainties about the information in Schagen's letter. Most notably, it isn't primary evidence; Schagen's text discusses the sale of Manhattan, but there's no known paper record of the exchange. Schagen himself had never even been to New York, said Johanna Gorelick, manager of the education department at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. "[Schagen's letter] is the only piece of evidence we have — the only document. Whether you call it a piece of evidence is questionable."
The letter contains no details of the individuals involved in the sale, nor the precise date of the exchange. "We don't really know what happened," Gorelick said. Even the one detailed piece of information — the 60-guilder value of the trade — has been warped through time and misinterpretation into $24. That figure was taken from a history book published in 1846 and has somehow remained unchanged since then. Adjusted to present-day value, 60 guilders would be the equivalent of more than $1,000 today. Furthermore, there's no indication of what that money represented in terms of traded goods, though many accounts have perpetuated the questionable idea that native people sold their homelands for little more than a few "trinkets."
The absence of evidence doesn't mean the exchange didn't occur, however. Trading land was actually common during this period; there are many cases in which there is much more convincing evidence that land was exchanged in some way between Native Americans and the Dutch. For instance, there are several formal land deeds, signed by Native American sellers and Dutch buyers, for the purchase of Staten Island in 1630, for parts of Long Island in 1639, and also for Manhattan, again, in 1649.
But considering that it's become the defining symbol of New York City's "origins," that first purported 1626 sale ironically seems to be the least reliable account we have. Even assuming the historic transaction did go ahead, there are other factors that make it unlikely that Manhattan was traded so straightforwardly, as the story suggests.
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What counts as a "sale"?
Historians have dissected the various accounts of land sales across 17th-century New Amsterdam and have concluded that broad cultural differences in the understanding of property rights and ownership would have muddied what it really meant to "sell" land.
Some historians have noted that land trading and ideas of private landownership were not uncommon features in the economies of native people. But as well as that, land was more commonly understood as a space to be shared among different groups or, in some cases, leased between them. Less common was the idea that land might be sold and permanently relinquished to another group — which was the driving principle behind European ideas of property and ownership.
"The Dutch came with a certain idea about property that was not the idea of the Indigenous people," Sanderson said. "And yet those agreements that were struck in those early years in the 17th century are still the agreements that underlie all the titles in New York City today."
To the Native Americans who signed title deeds, it's likely that the documents represented an agreement that the Dutch could share the land or lease it for a limited period — which might also explain why the modest payment doesn't match the magnitude of what was seemingly being acquired by the Dutch. The trade may also have represented a guarantee of safe passage for the Dutch through the area. What's less likely is that Indigenous Manhattanites knowingly engaged in the irrevocable sale of their ancestral home.
In this light, the real question becomes not so much whether the 1626 sale happened but rather what it signified — and for that matter, the significance of any sale that took place in 17th-century New York. "I don't think the exchange itself is in question. I think the meaning of that exchange is in question," Gorelick said. This raises the question of whether the purported "sale" of New York would even be legal, in today's terms.
Historic accounts also suggest that the effects of land sales in New Amsterdam rarely resulted in the direct, short-term removal of Native Americans from the land, who, in many instances, occupied the land alongside the Dutch for a while. But these sales likely did create an ideological shift in colonists' minds over who was really in control. That served the Dutch for 40 years until 1664, when they were finally edged out of New Amsterdam by the English, who moved in and named it New York. Battles over landownership grew more complex and intensified across the landscape, and over the following decades, many Native Americans were gradually displaced.
The magnitude of the myth
The account of Manhattan's founding sale is, it would seem, more falsehood than truth. Why, then, has the story persisted for so long? Like any good legend, its colorful details — the $24 worth of trinkets and beads — have kept people captivated over the centuries. These details have also had a troubling effect on how the story has been interpreted.
The misleading $24 figure makes the payment seem pitiably small. Over numerous recountings, and as shown in dozens of paintings, there's been an emphasis on the idea that "trinkets" were all that native people received in return for their ancestral home. That has created an impression of Manhattan's Indigenous inhabitants as guileless, unsophisticated people who were oblivious to the value of what they had, Gorelick said — an offensive interpretation that couldn't be further from the truth.
"Native people were extremely, extremely scrupulous traders," she said. "They didn't just take what was offered to them. There are great accounts from Europeans at the time which said, 'This color cloth is not desired by native people. They would prefer this other color cloth.' [Native people] were very much orchestrating how and what was traded in those early years."
By perpetuating the misconception that Manhattan was so easily and willingly let go, the story might have served another purpose: to help justify why things are as they are today — why some people, and not others, find themselves in positions of power, Sanderson believes.
"I think the myth of the purchase of Manhattan served the powers that be for so long, and that's why it persisted, and that's why people kept telling it," Sanderson said. But 2024 will mark the 400th anniversary of New York's official colonization by the Dutch in 1624, and Sanderson thinks this might prompt a reckoning over the real facts of Manhattan's "sale."
"It's one of these founding myths that people took very seriously in the 19th century and started to make fun of in the 20th century," Sanderson said. "I think in the 21st century, we're going to see a full repudiation of that story."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Emma Bryce is a London-based freelance journalist who writes primarily about the environment, conservation and climate change. She has written for The Guardian, Wired Magazine, TED Ed, Anthropocene, China Dialogue, and Yale e360 among others, and has masters degree in science, health, and environmental reporting from New York University. Emma has been awarded reporting grants from the European Journalism Centre, and in 2016 received an International Reporting Project fellowship to attend the COP22 climate conference in Morocco.