Manhattan for $24? Best Real Estate Deal Ever! Or Was It?

Have you heard the one about 17th-century Europeans buying the entire island of Manhattan for $24 worth of beads and trinkets? It would have been the best real estate deal in history. Manhattan property now goes for close to $2,000 per square foot. But it’s an urban legend–and a myth ripe for the Professor Buzzkill treatment.

The source of this myth is a letter written on November 5, 1626, from a Dutch merchant named Pieter Schage to the directors of the Dutch West India Company (the organization charged by the Dutch government with exploring and settling what they called “New Netherland”). Schage told the Dutch West India Company that they had “purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages (indigenous Lenape) for goods to the value of 60 guilders.” How much was 60 guilders? Conversions made in the early 19th century (nearly 200 years ago) arrived at the famous $24 figure. What does it equate to today? Roughly 735 euros or $950 in the U.S. That’s less of a steal, but still ridiculous.

Schage’s letter (and a later deed that survives in Amsterdam), only mentions “goods to the value of 60 guilders.” There were no details about what those goods were. Better records survive from when the Dutch purchased Staten Island ten years later in 1636, and it’s reasonable to think that the purchase of Manhattan was for at least the same value, if not more. After all, we all think Manhattan is worth more than Staten Island, don’t we? Back then they must have, too. Staten Island was paid for with “10 boxes of shirts, 10 rolls of red cloth, 30 pounds of powder, 30 pairs of socks, 2 pieces of duffel, some awls, 10 muskets, 30 kettles, 25 adzes, 10 bars of lead, 50 axes and some knives,” according to the deed. Notice that there’s nothing about beads or trinkets. So not only was the Manhattan deal for more money than the urban legend has it, the deal almost certainly wasn’t for beads and trinkets. 

But here’s the important thing. What kind of deal was it really? Sale, lease, rental? The whole $24 story has obscured a really fascinating and important historical issue. What were the Lenape giving the Dutch in return for their payment? The standard story/myth says that they sold them the island of Manhattan, lock, stock, and barrel. This myth is reinforced by the stereotypical conception that Native Americans didn’t think about land the way Europeans did, that they didn’t realize the value of Manhattan, and even that they didn’t think of land as property that could be sold. In other words, the thinking goes, Europeans were able to hoodwink (or rip-off) “backward people” into giving up the most valuable spot in North America.

Historians of Native American law and tradition say that the Lenape and almost all Native American groups had highly sophisticated and complicated laws and understandings about the nature of land ownership and use. Most Native American groups lived on land that was owned by the whole group, but it wasn’t a simple sort of communal ownership. Many groups recognized and allowed different types of permanent and semi-permanent individual rights to certain land. Most importantly, this involved acquiring the use of land. Individual Lenape could acquire land-use rights over areas of land (even tribally-held land), as well as usage rights over commonly-owned buildings, and patches of vegetation or cultivated areas by either paying for the privilege or inheriting that privilege.

University of Virginia law professor, G. Edward White, argues that we should look at the Manhattan “sale” from the Lenape point of view, given these sophisticated practices of land ownership and use. It’s highly likely that the Dutch payment of 60 guilders’ worth of goods was in return for the Lenape allowing the Dutch to be additional occupants of Manhattan. This would have given the Dutch some hunting rights and other rights to use parts of the island, while retaining their own rights to “ownership” of Manhattan. This means that it’s highly probable that the Lenape were only renting parts of Manhattan or granting certain usage rights to the Dutch. It’s also possible that the Dutch did not understand these subtleties. Without a copy of the treaty, we don’t really know what the Dutch thought they were buying.

So now you know about the “Manhattan-for-$24” myth, and a little bit more about Native American conceptions of land ownership and land use at that time.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Robert S. Grumet, First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York

The Indian sale of Manhattan is one of the world’s most cherished legends. Few people know that the Indians who made the fabled sale were Munsees whose ancestral homeland lay between the lower Hudson and upper Delaware river valleys. The story of the Munsee people has long lain unnoticed in broader histories of the Delaware Nation.

First Manhattans, a concise and lively distillation of the author’s comprehensive The Munsee Indians, resurrects the lost history of this forgotten people, from their earliest contacts with Europeans to their final expulsion just before the American Revolution. Anthropologist Robert S. Grumet rescues from obscurity Mattano, Tackapousha, Mamanuchqua, and other Munsee sachems whose influence on Dutch and British settlers helped shape the course of early American history in the mid-Atlantic heartland. He looks past the legendary sale of Manhattan to show for the first time how Munsee leaders forestalled land-hungry colonists by selling small tracts whose vaguely worded and bounded titles kept courts busy―and settlers out―for more than 150 years.

Ravaged by disease, war, and alcohol, the Munsees finally emigrated to reservations in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ontario, where most of their descendants still live today. With the four hundredth anniversary of Hudson’s voyage to the river that bears his name, this book shows how Indians and settlers struggled, through land deals and other transactions, to reconcile cultural ideals with political realities. It offers wide audience access to the most authoritative treatment of the Munsee experience―one that restores these people to their place in history.

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