- 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
Their relations with the white men were, initially, good. The Indians were agreeable, in their way, and their main reaction to the coming of the white men was one of excited interest, like schoolchildren who have been joined by a newcomer with three ears. As far as anyone knows, the Florentine explorer Verrazano was the first to see Manhattan and its natives, in 1524, but no significant contact with the Indians is recorded until 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river in search of a passage to the Orient. Unfortunately, a crewman of the Half Moon named John Coleman was fatally punctured by the Indians, more out of curiosity than anger on their part, and in the subsequent incidents between the natives and Hudson’s men, a few Indians were killed.
There was, in fact, what amounted to a pitched battle off Fort Nipinichsen, when the Half Moon ’s cannon and the muskets of her crew did severe damage to the braves on the shore and in the canoes. But, everything considered, the relations were not too bad, and the Indians were quite impressed by the knives, kettles, awls, and blankets that Hudson’s men traded for their furs. As far as they were concerned, a little bloodshed every now and then was inevitable, and the materials the fur traders brought made up for a great deal.
In the next fifteen years, more and more fur traders arrived on Manhattan, some of them even setting up storehouses on the southern tip of the island, and in all that time their dealings with the Indians were friendly. In 1625 the first livestock arrived—103 sheep, cows, horses, and pigs—and they were the first such animals the Indians had ever seen. Almost every Indian family had its dogs, but beyond that the only animals they knew were wild, and the savages were overcome by not only the sight of the animals but also their byproducts, such as milk, cheese, bacon, ham, and mutton.
From the Indians’ point of view, something new and interesting was happening every day (their first view of the Dutch wooden shoes, for instance, was the cause for no end of giggling and general merriment), and since the Dutch were under strict orders to be as nice to the natives as possible, the untoward incidents were reduced to an absolute minimum. In passing, it is of interest to note that the rate of seduction of the Indian maidens was so small as to be practically negligible. Either they were afraid of their own menfolk, or the Dutch were unusually clumsy—or the eagle fat might possibly have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, there was little or no sexual scuffling between the natives and the colonists.
Then, on May 4, 1626, Peter Minuit, sent by the Dutch West India Company to be the formal director-general of New Netherland, arrived on the Sea-mew. The Dutch knew that the French and the British, the latter with flanking colonies at Plymouth and Jamestown, would not be particularly pleased at the establishment of a Dutch colony in the area, and they also knew that they didn’t have the strength to resist armed intervention by either nation. Consequently, they resolved to make their purchase of Manhattan as legal as possible, hoping that if the Indians appeared to back up their claim, the British or French might hesitate before starting any trouble. With this in mind, Minuit was instructed to make a legal purchase of the entire island, and he therefore did what seemed like the logical thing: he asked the first Indians he saw to ask their to come and hold council.
These Indians were, of course, a band of Canarsees who had set up a little village called Werpoes by a pond near what is now Worth Street, and their chief was a genial opportunist named Seyseys. When Seyseys learned that not only would Minuit give him valuable merchandise in exchange for the title to the island of Manhattan, but also that Minuit didn’t know that the Weckquaesgeeks controlled its whole upper three quarters or more, he gladly volunteered to take his few people away, and let the Dutchmen hunt and fish and build things to their hearts’ content. There is some reason to believe that Seyseys wasn’t quite sure what it meant to sell land-the land was, after all, Mother Earth to the Indians, and they felt you could no more sell it outright than you could sell the sky-but he wasn’t one to quible over small points; he took the sixty guilders’ worth ∗∗ The sixty guilders has popularly been supposed to have been worth about $24, but some authorities claim that, considering the times and the flexible rates of exchange, it was probably nearer $2,000. At any rate, it was all found money as far as Seyseys was concerned. of knives, axes, clothing, and beads (and possibly rum), and went chortling back to Brooklyn. The Canarsees set up another village named Werpoes, to replace the one they had left behind, and everybody settled down and was happy.