Was Manhattan really sold for $24 worth of beads and trinkets?


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.