- Historic Sites
The $24 Swindle
The Indians who sold Manhattan were bilked, all right, but they didn’t mind—the land wasn’t theirs anyway
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
By now it is probably too late to do anything about it, but the unsettling fact remains that the so-called sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 was a totally illegal deal; a group of Brooklyn Indians perpetrated the swindle, and they had no more right to sell Manhattan Island than the present mayor of White Plains would have to declare war on France.By now it is probably too late to do anything about it, but the unsettling fact remains that the so-called sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 was a totally illegal deal; a group of Brooklyn Indians perpetrated the swindle, and they had no more right to sell Manhattan Island than the present mayor of White Plains would have to declare war on France. When the Manhattan Indians found out about it they were understandably furious, but by that time the Dutch had too strong a foothold to be dislodged—by the Indians, at any rate—and the eventual arrival of one-way avenues and the Hamburg Heaven Crystal Room was only a matter of time.
To understand how this was brought about, it is important to know something about the local Indians of the period. They were all, or almost all, of Algonquian origin; those who later became known as the Manhattans were actually Weckquaesgeeks, who belonged to the Wappinger Confederation. Their main village was Nappeckamack, on the site of what is now Yonkers, and they had a fort called Nipinichsen, on the north bank of Spuyten Duyvil. They lived in little clusters of igloo-like bark huts, along the east bank of the Hudson River and the Westchester shore of Long Island Sound, and they used Manhattan (“the island of hills”) for their hunting and fishing stations.
A path ran up the center of the wooded, craggy island, and its twenty five miles or so of water front were dotted with small camps, from which the Indians conducted their food-gathering expeditions. The fishing was more rewarding than it is now; aside from the periodic runs of shad, there were sturgeon and flatfish in considerable numbers, and there were massive oyster and clam beds all along the shore line. The squaws would shuck the oysters and dry them on sticks in the sun, and it must be assumed that ptomaine poisoning was either unknown to these Indians or else it was a way of life. At any rate, their discovered shell piles are many, and their burial mounds comparatively few. In addition to all these delicacies, every now and then a whale would get stranded on a sand bar down in the Narrows, and the braves would take out after it in their dugout canoes.
By general consent, the Weckquaesgeeks (and it is easy to see why the Dutch decided to call them Manhattans) occupied the northern three quarters of the island, and the Canarsees, who were members of the Montauk, or Long Island, branch of the Algonquians, had only the southern tip, plus all of what is now Brooklyn. But there was enough fish and game for all, and nobody bothered very much about boundaries. The game was fairly spectacular; there were deer, bears, wolves, porcupines, beaver, otter, moose, wildcats, grouse, and turkey, and there were even case when an occasional bison would wander in from the west, just in time to find himself transformed into a buffalo robe.
In consequence of all this largess, the Indians were happy with their lot. They were well fixed for food and clothing (in addition to the fish and game, they grew corn, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco, which rounded out their diet with the proper epicurean touch), and their only real worries were the occasional and unexplained epidemics that decimated their numbers, and the periodic raids that the upstate Mohawks made to collect overdue tribute. It was the Mohawks, as a matter of fact, who later all but wiped out the Canarsees, in an act of unconscious retributive justice.
All the tribes of the area shared a common belief in a world after death, ruled over by a single Great Spirit, or Manitou, and their heaven was a precise place—it lay off to the southwest, possibly where Trenton, New Jersey, is now. It was a place where game was even more plentiful than in real life, and a great deal more plentiful than at the present moment, if the figures from Trenton authorities are at all accurate. About four times a year the Indians had dances, either for spring planting, or harvest, or thanksgiving, or the like, and they always made a big to-do when they set off on a hunting expedition. Their life was, in short, all that the out-of-door enthusiasts would have us believe is good and true in Nature.
The men wore their hair in a scalp lock that formed a brush from the forehead to the nape of the neck, the side hair usually being burnt off with hot rocks, and although they sometimes put feathers in their hair, they never used the Sioux-type war bonnet. They decorated their laces and upper bodies with stripes of red, yellow, and black, and, in order to ward off both mosquitoes and sunburn, they smeared themselves with either fish oil, eagle fat, or bear grease. To get to leeward of a Weckquaesgeek Indian on a hot day, even—or especially—if he was in a friendly mood, was an experience in itself.