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Peter Minuit in Manhattan: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and significance of the director of the Dutch Colony New Netherland Peter Minuit and test your understanding about the history of European/Native American relations and the founding of Manhattan.

How Much Can You Buy for $24 in Manhattan?

Manhattan is notorious for being ridiculously expensive. Rent, food, coffee, entertainment, you name it. I once had a brunch in Manhattan that cost $30 per plate, so imagine my surprise to hear that the entire island was purchased for around 24 bucks!

A 1909 Interpretation of the Sale of Manhattan
Sale of Manhattan

This folktale about the purchase of Manhattan from Native Americans is commonly told, but is actually pretty misleading. The above picture, from 1909, indicates how wrong our perception of this moment can be. It represents the event with gold jewels and Native Americans wearing clothes from the Western plains, not the East Coast. Manhattan was purchased by the Director of the Dutch colony New Netherland, a man named Peter Minuit, but the story wasn't as simple as it seems.

Peter Minuit

Peter Minuit (c. 1594-1638) was born to a Protestant family in Germany. In 1625 he moved to Holland, possibly to escape Catholic forces in Germany, and joined a corporation that set up trade routes and colonies in the New World for the Netherlands, called the Dutch West India Company. That same year, he made his first journey to the Dutch colony New Netherland (modern-day New York and New Jersey) to search for trade items like animal furs. In 1626, Minuit was appointed the director of the New Netherland colony. It was during this time that he made his famous purchase of Manhattan.

Peter Minuit
Peter Minuit

Minuit was suspended from his position in New Netherland in 1631 for unclear reasons. He went to the Swedish government for permission to establish the first Swedish colony in the New World. He got permission and founded New Sweden on the Delaware River in 1638. Minuit died that year in a hurricane during a trip to the Caribbean to pick up tobacco shipment, and New Sweden was captured by the Dutch in 1655.

The Purchase of Manhattan

While acting as the Director of the New Netherland colony, Peter Minuit purchased the territory of Manhattan, where the Dutch had recently built a fort called New Amsterdam, from a Native American group for 60 guilders. A guilder was a German gold coin, and in 1846, historian John Romeyn Bordhead converted 60 guilders to $24 in 1840's American money. This number stuck in folklore as the cost of Manhattan, although modern scholars have calculated the modern equivalent between $2,600 and $15,000 U.S. dollars.

1662 Map of New Netherland
New Netherland

Still, the conversion is highly misleading. First, Peter Minuit did not give the Native American group 60 German coins. Why would they have wanted German coins? He gave them 60 guilders worth of trade goods: items like metal axe heads, iron pots, or metal farming tools. Although these seem insignificant to Europeans, imagine what they would have meant to Native American groups without metal technology. The practical value of these items was worth well over a few gold coins, especially since high-technology items were becoming status symbols amongst East Coast Native American nations in the 1600s.

1664 painting of New Amsterdam
New Amsterdam

To make the matter even more complicated, Native American groups and European colonists had very different ideas about land rights and items exchanges. To the Dutch, they were purchasing property rights and compensating the original landowners. Native American groups, however, did not recognize land ownership. Land could not be bought or sold or owned. A group may control a territory in terms of resources, but the land was sacred. Furthermore, Native American groups on the East Coast moved between summer and winter homes, so the people who 'sold' Manhattan were not even permanent residents. This is one of the reasons historians are not completely sure which Native American group it was that interacted with Peter Minuit.

1772 depiction of Iroquois people with European items
Trade goods

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