It’s a common story in history — how the Indians sold Manhattan island for a few dollars worth of trinkets.
As a history nerd who has done some traveling, I know that history is never as simple as recounted in standard history books. Therefore, a segment of the May 24, 2015 edition of The Writer’s Almanac caught my eye —
“On this day in 1626, Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Indians. He paid them in useful goods like cloth, kettles, axe heads, and drilling awls – not trinkets, as the legend goes – worth 60 silver Dutch guilders. Was it the deal of a lifetime? It depends on how you calculate the value of a guilder by today’s standards. In the 19th century, a historian reckoned the purchase price to be about $24, and that’s the story that school kids still receive. If you calculate according to the actual weight of the silver, it worked out to around $72 in 1992 dollars. According to the Institute for Social History of Amsterdam, 60 guilders in 1626 was equivalent to about $1,000 today. Given the price of New York real estate nowadays, that’s about a 17-billion-percent increase. It’s not the best bargain in U.S. history though; the Louisiana Purchase just beats it out. At a purchase price of five cents an acre, the Louisiana territory has appreciated at 5.5 percent per year, compared to Manhattan’s 5.3 percent.
The book New York City: a Short History (George Lankevich, 1998) maintains that Minuit bought the island from the Canarsie, not the Lenape, Indians. Like millions today, the Canarsies didn’t live in Manhattan; they just worked there, commuting from their Long Island home. Because they sold territory that wasn’t really theirs to sell, the island had to be purchased again later from its rightful owners.”
Of course, this isn’t nearly as good a story as a few dollars in trinkets, but that’s the way most history gets passed along.
The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor is a production of American Public Media — writersalmanac.org