Was Manhattan Really Bought for $24?

TomasSereda/iStock via Getty Images
TomasSereda/iStock via Getty Images

One of the most persistent myths in American history is that European explorers really got one over on the Native Americans by purchasing the entire island of Manhattan—where property has averaged $1000+ per square foot over the last few years—for a measly $24 worth of beads and trinkets. It seems like the ultimate bargain, but the truth of the story is more complicated and murkier than that.

Adjusted for Inflation

In the Dutch National Archives is the only known primary reference to the Manhattan sale: a letter written by Dutch merchant Pieter Schage on November 5, 1626, to directors of the West India Company, which was instrumental in the exploration and settlement of “New Netherland.” In the letter, he writes, “They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.” (There is a surviving deed for Manhattan and Long Island, but this was made well after this initial Manhattan purchase, when the Dutch had already been inhabiting the island for several decades.)

Nineteenth century historians converted those 60 guilders to U.S. dollars and got what was then $24. That same figure has been repeated for almost two centuries since, frozen in time and untouched by changes to the value of currency—but those guilders don’t stand at $24 today. According to this converter from the International Institute of Social History at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 60 guilders in 1626 was equivalent to 734.77 euros in 2011. The exchange rate to the US dollar varies, but a conversion as I’m writing this gets us $951.08 USD, which puts us more in the ballpark.

While $951.08 is less of a steal than $24, there are still some other confounding factors to the deal. For one thing, Schagen’s letter does not mention who actually made the deal with the Dutch or the tribe on whose behalf it was sold, and the deed for the land has been lost. Without confirmation from a primary source, historians are left to infer who the island was purchased from, and can’t seem to agree.  A few accounts say that the Dutch got the wool pulled over their eyes, and bought the land from a group of natives that lived on Long Island and were only traveling through Manhattan. Coming upon the European rubes, they traded away land they had no claim to and continued on home with the Dutch loot.

Goods Are Good

Another detail that Schagen leaves out of his letter is what the Dutch actually used to make the purchase. He says only that they traded “for the value of 60 guilders,” but doesn’t specify if that was actual Dutch coins, native currency, food, or other goods. It certainly doesn’t mention any beads. The purchase of Staten Island a few decades later has more surviving documentation, including the deed, which says the Dutch traded “10 boxes of shirts, 10 ells 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.” If the Manhattan trade was made with similar goods, the Native Americans got less shafted than legend implies, and received 60 guilders worth of useful equipment and what was high-end technology at the time.

Also missing with the deed or any additional documentation of the sale are records of any intangibles that might have been traded with the 60 guilders worth of whatever it was. Early Dutch settlements in the area were established to participate in fur trade with the natives, and whichever tribe made the Manhattan deal likely could have counted on the Dutch as trade partners and potential allies in the future, making the deal that much sweeter.

Sale or Rental?

One last thing to consider—which further complicates the story of the Manhattan deal—is the ideological difference between the Europeans and the Native Americans regarding the sale of land. The sale may seem particularly lopsided, even aside from the small price tag, because of the popular conception that the Native Americans didn’t think of the land as property or something that could be traded, and had no idea what they were getting into. But that's not accurate. “European settlers and early Americans misunderstood tribal economies and property rights," says Robert J. Miller, a specialist in American Indian law at the Lewis & Clark Law School, in the Oregon Law Review. "Even today, there seems to be an almost universal misunderstanding that the American Indian culture had and still have no appreciation or understanding of private property ownership and private, free market, capitalist economic activities. This mistaken idea could not be further from the truth.”

In reality, Miller says, American Indians were continuously involved in free market trade situations before and after European contact and, while most of the land that Indians lived on was considered tribal land owned by the tribe or by all the tribe’s members in common, almost all the tribes recognized various forms of permanent or semi-permanent private rights to land. Individual tribe members could, and did, acquire and exercise use rights over specific pieces of land (tribal and not), homes, and valuable plants like berry patches and fruit and nut trees, both through inheritable rights and by buying and selling.

In Law in American History: Volume 1, law professor G. Edward White interprets the Manhattan “sale” from the Indians' point of view as “not relinquishing the island, but simply welcoming the Dutch as additional occupants,” in the context of a property rights system that was different from the Europeans’, but not nonexistent. He thinks they “allowed the Dutch to exercise what they thought of as hunting or use rights on the island” and assumed continuing rights of their own, in which case the deal seems much better for the Indians than legend would have us believe.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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How Much Is the Earth Worth?

The New York Public Library, Unsplash
The New York Public Library, Unsplash

Our home planet may be the most precious place we know, but it isn't priceless. The Earth's resources and the value it offers to humans add up to some unknown, tangible cost. The species may never have to worry about buying or selling the world, but thinking of it in terms of concrete numbers can help us better understand its value. Now, as Treehugger reports, one scientist has developed a special formula that allows us to do just that.

According to the calculations of Greg Laughlin, an assistant astronomy and astrophysics professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Earth is worth roughly $5 quadrillion (or $5,000,000,000,000,000). He came up with that price after gauging the planet's mass, temperature, age, and other factors that directly correlate to its ability to sustain life.

To emphasize just how valuable the Earth is, Laughlin also estimated the worth of other planets in our solar system. Our nearest neighbor Mars costs about the same as a used car at $16,000. That's a fortune compared to Venus, which he appraised at the meager value of one cent.

Laughlin doesn't expect these numbers to have applications in the real world. Rather, he hopes they will inspire people to better appreciate the only home they know. He's not the first person to put a massive, hypothetical price tag on something just for fun. The cost of the Death Star from Star Wars has been calculated at $852 quadrillion—many times Laughlin's estimate for Earth.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.