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 buy Manhattan.

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 [1872]), 71-78.

SOURCE: Excerpted from "Lies Across America," #81, Making Native Americans Look Stupid. Pgs. 385-389 (New Press, 1999)