“Manhattan was sold for $24” worth of “trinkets” or “glass beads” by Native Americans to the Dutch. It is something taught to most American schoolchildren by age eight. That was true in 1911, in 1949 and in 2009. The $24 is never adjusted for inflation. Even in 1855 it was $24:
The story comes from historian Edmund O’Callaghan in 1855:
The island of Manhattan, estimated then to contain 22,000 acres of land, was therefore purchased from the Indians, who received for that splendid tract the trifling sum of 60 guilders, or 24 dollars.
O’Callaghan, in turn, got it from a letter written in 1626 by Pieter Schaghen, the Dutch colony’s representative in Amsterdam. Just months after the sale he wrote:
They have purchased the Island Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders; it is 11,000 morgens in size.
The $24 came from converting 60 guilders – at the 1855 rate!
A guilder was equal to about two crowns or 60 grams of silver. At 2014 silver prices, 60 guilders (120 crowns) comes to $2,300. But that does not take into account the cost of living.
Prices in the early 1600s:
- 100 guilders: a Dutch soldier’s yearly pay
- 52 guilders: 100 acres (40 hectares) of land on Long Island sold between whites in 1638.
- 2 guilders: a beaver skin
In 2014, basic pay for an active-duty American soldier is about $20,000. That would make 60 guilders about $12,000 in today’s terms. Beaver skins would put it at about $9,000.
That land deal in Long Island would value Manhattan not at 60 guilders but 11,000 guilders (about $2 million in current money).
But it probably was not a straight land deal like that: in 1630, Staten Island, twice the size of Manhattan, was also sold for 60 guilders of trade goods.
Was Manhattan sold for “trinkets”, for “glass beads”? From the Staten Island deal we know what those “glass beads” and “trinkets” probably were:
- The “glass beads” were wampum, shell beads on a string, a form of Eastern Woodlands money. Calling it “glass beads” is like calling American money “pieces of paper”.
- The “trinkets” were mostly useful Dutch technology, especially stuff made of metal: kettles, axes, hoes and drilling awls.
But it still was not worth hundreds of people giving up their land. Why sell your land to buy a hoe?
What is going on?
James Loewen says the Dutch probably bought Manhattan from the Canarsies, who did not live there but somewhere across the river in a land now known as Canarsie, Brooklyn. The Canarsies were probably interested in Dutch protection from their enemies, while the Dutch probably wanted to legitimize a claim ahead of the British. The 60 guilders thing was just to seal the deal.
The Weekquaesgeeks, whose land it was, were hardly pleased. They fought the Dutch off and on. Thus the wall of Wall Street. In the 1640s, during Kieft’s War, the Dutch destroyed the Weekquaesgeeks as a people and drove them out of Manhattan. Few if any Americans are taught about that.
Loewen calls the $24 story an example of cultural racism:
Soft-pedaling the invasion intrinsically entails making fools of Native Americans today. At the very least, how could Natives lose their continent to such nice folks?
– Abagond, 2014.