In Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan stands a monument
to the legend we all learned in elementary school - how the Dutch
bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. Incorporating
a huge flagpole, on its base is a bas relief depicting the transaction.
It is captioned in stone, "
The purchase of the Island
of Manhattan was accomplished in 1626. Thus was laid the foundation
of the City of New York."
It's time to rethink this little fable. First, consider the price.
My father bought the home in which I grew up, in 1937, for $3,000.
It sold in 1983 for 50 times that. My father learned the $24
story in school. So did I, and so did my children. But if $24
was the price in 1937 dollars, it would have been maybe $1,200
in 1983 dollars. This $24 for Manhattan is the only figure in
the Western World that has never been touched by inflation!
So we have to rethink the purchase price. Maybe it was 100 or
200 times higher -- $4,800, perhaps. But even at $4,800, the
statue invites us to smile indulgently at the Indians. What a
bargain! Today, $4,800 wouldn't buy a site large enough to pitch
a pup tent in Manhattan! What silly Indians, not to recognize
the potential of the Island! Rather than deriding the Natives
as foolish, history textbooks today lament the cultural gap that
caused a basic misunderstanding. Native Americans held a pre-modern
understanding of land ownership: buying and selling land wasn't
part of their culture. This is the social archetype of the haplessly
pre-modern Indians. Natives just could not understand that when
they sold their land, they transferred not only the right to farm
it but also the rights to its game, fish and sheer enjoyment.
Although kinder than merely making American Indians foolish, that
archetype is still wrong. Native Americans and European American
ideas about land ownership were not so far apart. Most land sales
before the twentieth century, including sales between whites,
transferred primarily the right to farm, mine, and otherwise develop
the land. Access to undeveloped land was considered public, within
limits of good conduct. Moreover, tribal negotiators often made
sure that deeds and treaties explicitly reserved hunting, fishing,
gathering, and traveling rights to Native Americans. Natives
were correct when they believed they still had the right to hunt
on the land they had sold. Nevertheless Europeans often then
accused them of trespassing and jailed and sometimes killed them
for the offense.
Even if they understood that they could continue to use Manhattan,
it still seems surprising that American Indians would trade away
their very homeland - sell their villages and gardens, their fishing
grounds and hunting land - for $24 or even $4,800 worth of beads
and trinkets. Peter Francis, Jr., "Director of the Center
for Bead Research in Lake Placid," points out that no documentary
evidence even suggests that European trade beads were used to
If by now the story seems hopelessly implausible, it should -
because it didn't happen. It turns out that the Dutch paid the
wrong tribe for Manhattan - the Canarsies. Today
visitors can take the subway from Battery Park to Canarsie - the
name lives on, in Brooklyn. 1 And indeed, the Canarsies
lived in what is now Brooklyn. So why wouldn't they sell
Manhattan to the Dutch? Especially since the Dutch probably paid
a substantial sum in the form of blankets, kettles, steel axes,
knives, and perhaps guns - goods American Indians valued highly
and would go to great lengths to obtain. No doubt the Canarsies
were as pleased with the bargain as the New Yorker who sold Brooklyn
Bridge to some later Europeans - they got paid for something that
wasn't theirs in the first place.
The apocryphal Brooklyn Bridge sale invites us to laugh at the
tourists - stupid bumpkins! Similarly the Dutch were bumpkins
in the "New World." (Hardly a "New World,"
since when first discovered by Europeans the Americas were home
to about 100 million people, according to historian William McNeill.
Pg. 60, Lies Across America) As Reginald P. Bolton,
who wrote most widely on the sale of Manhattan, put it, "The
colonists do not appear to have made themselves acquainted with
the native situation
[The Canarsies'] wily leaders conveyed
the impression of their ownership of the whole island, and thus
secured for themselves and their own people all the goods which
the white men were offering." 2 But the conventional
Manhattan sale tale invites us to laugh not at the tourists, but
at the Natives. It all depends on who has the power. The Dutch
and their European American successors won, so the story is told
to make the Indians the bumpkins.
Actually, the Dutch were happy to have bought Manhattan from the
wrong tribe because they weren't really buying Manhattan but the
right to Manhattan in the eyes of other Europeans.
In short, they were buying respectability - in their own eyes
too. With this monument, inscribed "In testimony of ancient
and unbroken friendship, this flagpole is presented to the City
of New York by the Dutch people, 1926," the Dutch were still
in a way buying world esteem three centuries later.
The purchase also made allies of the Canarsies, who otherwise
might have joined with the Weckquaesgeeks, the Indians who lived
on Manhattan and owned most of it. 3 The Netherlanders
didn't try to buy off the Weckquaesgeeks, a more difficult task
since they knew, loved, and made their homes on Manhattan. Instead,
they waited as a succession of inter-Indian wars, some instigated
by the Dutch, and a series of epidemics weakened the Weckquaesgeeks.
Then in the 1640s, with the aid of the Canarsies and other Native
Americans on Long Island, the Dutch exterminated most of the Weckquaesgeeks.
Manhattan was only the beginning. Europeans were forever paying
the wrong tribe for America, or paying a small fraction within
a much larger nation. Often, like the Dutch, they didn't care.
They merely sought justification for conquest. Fraudulent transactions
might even work better than legitimate purchases, for they set
one tribe or faction against another while providing Europeans
with the semblance of legality to stifle criticism.
The biggest single purchase from the wrong tribe took place in
1803. Louisiana was not France's to sell - it was Indian land.
The French never consulted with Native owners before selling
it; most Native Americans living there never even knew
of the sale. Indeed, France did not sell Louisiana
for $15,000,000. The French foreign minister couldn't even tell
the American negotiators its boundaries. France merely sold its
claim to the land. In short, like the Dutch with the
Canarsies, the United States bought from the French the right
to respectability in the eyes of other Europeans. That's why
the government continued to pay Native American nations for Louisiana
throughout the nineteenth century. We also fought them for it:
the Army Almanac lists more than 50 Indian wars in the
Louisiana Purchase from 1819 to 1890. Similarly, as late as 1715,
Europeans were still paying the Reckgawawancs, tributaries of
the Weckquaesgeeks who somehow escaped their extermination and
still claimed upper Manhattan. Despite the $24 story then, Europeans
were still paying for Manhattan almost a century after Peter Minuit.
Treating Native Americans as ignorant, as this monument in Battery
Park does, is part of the fantastic history European Americans
constructed to convince themselves they did not simply take
the land. The statue and the story also help to convince whites
that Native Americans aren't very bright, at least in compared
to European Americans. It was one of the latter however, who
put a Plains Indian, complete with incongruous headdress, on a
Manhattan monument. 4
1. It's the final stop on the "L" train.
2. Bolton makes the best of what turns out to be scant evidence that this "sale" ever took place at all. "No deed has survived," Peter Francis notes, "although the West Indies Company specifically instructed that a deed be secured."
3. Although many writers call the Indians who lived on Manhattan Weckquaesgeeks, like most Indians in the East before the Europeans arrived, they lived in small kinship groups only loosely organized into tribes. Some were probably members of smaller groups such as the Reckgawawancs and were tributaries of the Weckquaesgeeks, who also lived in the Bronx and Westchester County. No Indians may have been living on the southern tip of the island, for the Dutch moved in with no difficulty and lived there for a year with no treaty.
4. So far as I know, the only evidence for the purchase of Manhattan written at the time is one sentence in a letter by Peter Schagen, 11/5/1626: "They have purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders." I rely on these secondary sources: Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky, and Amy Wallace, Significa (NY: Dutton, 1983), 326; Robert S. Grumet, "American Indians," in Kenneth T. Jackson, Encyclopedia of NY City (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995), 25-28; Reginald Pelham Bolton, NY City in Indian Possession (NY: Heye Foundation, 1920), 240-45; Bolton, Indian Life of Long Ago in the City of New York (NY: Joseph Graham, 1934), 127; Peter Francis Jr., "The Beads That Did Not Buy Manhattan Island," NY History 67 no. 1 (1/86): 5-20; Robert S. Grumet, Historic Contact (Norman: U. of OK Press, 1995), 219; James Finch, "Aboriginal Remains on Manhattan Island" (NY: American Museum of Natural History, 1909 Anthropological Papers, vol. 3), 72; and E. M. Rutenber, History of Indian Tribes of Hudson's River (Saugerties: Hope Farm Press, 1992 ), 71-78.
SOURCE: Excerpted from "Lies Across America," #81, Making Native Americans Look Stupid. Pgs. 385-389 (New Press, 1999)
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