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August 03, 2011

America's first urban myth?

"Sir Henry Hudson entering New York Bay, September 11, 1609, with Indian family watching on shore in foreground." Reproduction of a painting by Edward Moran (1829–1901). The Dutch East India Company had hired the English sailor to find a northeast passage to India. Failing to do so in the waters around Norway, he sailed west. Library of Congress.

One famous story in American history involves the sale of Manhattan. In this legend, Manhattan Island was sold by Indians in exchange for trinkets and beads. If it were true, it would arguably be one of the greatest real estate deals in history. To date, no deed of land transfer, formal title or bill of sale has ever surfaced to serve as proof of this purchase by the Dutch from the Indians.  So is this transaction legal?

Housed in the Rijksarchief (the Dutch National Archives) in The Hague, Netherlands, is a letter that references the sale of the Manhattes (Manhattan) written by the Dutch merchant Pieter Schagen, dated November 5, 1626. (A copy of the letter and translation in both Dutch and English can be accessed here.) In this letter Schagen wrote, “They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.” Schagen’s letter does not verify either the date of sale or who sold Manhattan on behalf of which tribe of Indians. Further, historians and scholars cannot agree on which tribe actually received payment in exchange for Manhattan. Included in historical references associated with the sale of Manhattan are the Lenape, Manahatin, Canarsie, Shinnecock, and Munsee Indians. The Manahatin, Lenape, and Munsee Indians were all indigenous to lower Manhattan according to their respective histories.

Absent from the letter is the mention of trinkets and beads. Also absent is the name of the individual who actually made the purchase. Many pieces to this historical assumption are missing. Is Schagen’s letter, without a bill of sale, sufficient legal evidence to establish title for the transfer of Manhattan from its original inhabitants to the Dutch?

In one 1626 account, Peter Minuit, appointed director-general of New Netherland by the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (the Dutch West India Company), purchased Manhattan from the Lenape, or Delaware Indians, for $24-worth of trade goods. Other accounts state that Minuit made the deal with the Canarsie, who were actually based in Long Island yet accepted gifts in exchange for land that was not theirs. The Canarsie allegedly accepted the gifts and continued on their journey home. Another account contends that it was the Munsee Indians who received the trinkets, and claimed Manhattan as their ancestral homelands at the time.

In 1613, the Dutch established a fur-trading outpost in what is now lower Manhattan. Construction was started in 1625 on Fort Amsterdam, also in southern Manhattan. Ironically, the site of Fort Amsterdam is now occupied by the old U.S. Custom House building, which houses the NMAI’s George Gustav Heye Center.  A deed for Manhattan later surfaced, signed in Fort Amsterdam on July 14, 1649. However, the Dutch had formally been occupying Manhattan since 1613, a period of 36 years. In the 1649 deed Petrus Stuyvesant, Director General of New Netherland, declared three Indians—Megtegichkama, Oteyochque, and Wegtakockken—to be “the right owners of the land.” These three Indians put their mark on this agreement. This deed provokes the questions, If Manhattan was already sold to Peter Minuit on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1626, wouldn’t Minuit be the owner? Or did the Indians somehow still hold title?

Johannes Vingboons (?), Manatus gelegen op de Noot Rivier, 1639. The earliest known European map of Manhattan. From the description by the Library of Congress: "This map, possibly done to encourage Dutch settlement, depicts plantations and small farms. These widely dispersed settlements are keyed by number in the lower right-hand corner to a list of land occupants. The list of references includes a grist mill, two sawmills and 'Quarters of the Blacks, the Company's Slaves.' Also delineated are a few roads represented by dashed lines and four Indian villages situated in what is now Brooklyn." Library of Congress. 

Complicating this legend is the ideological difference between two contrasting cultures regarding the sale of land. To American Indians of this period, it was proper protocol for gifts to be exchanged for safe passage through their lands or for temporary occupation by visitors. Foreign to Native thinking was the sale of land through written documentation, or the sale of land and other natural resources in perpetuity. In contrast, written title was primary to land ownership in European thinking. Once title was established, landowners built fences, walls and other barriers to bar trespassing by others. Were the terms of contractual land sale mutually understood by both cultures at the time?

Another consideration to explore is that more than one tribe was living on Manhattan Island during this time period. If the Manhattan land transaction was made by one tribe, did this sale include another tribe’s land? The Reckgawanc people, whose territory was in the upper half of Manhattan, deny the sale of their homelands through the lower Manhattan transaction. Is this a legitimate claim?

The word Manhattan originates from the Lenape description manna-hata, which means “hilly island.” Without written evidence of its sale, would it stand up in a court of law, or is it America’s first urban legend?

Please comment and turn this blog into a conversation.


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Thank you for this article. Being a native of New York City, a lot of this was a refresher from what I had learned in school many years ago, but one thing that was interesting to me was the name of one of the tribes being Canarsie. That is the name of a town in Brooklyn that I used to visit as a kid when my Aunt and Uncle's family lived there. I didn't remember that the name originated with an Indian tribe.

What a fascinating blog posting. So much here to think about, beginning, even, with the title. After reading your piece, I asked myself just when I had first heard the story about Manhattan being purchased for a few beads—and I literally couldn’t remember: a good sign that this myth has so permeated the culture that dislodging any parts of it could be difficult indeed.

One aspect of the story that surely cries for dislodging—or at least vigorous questioning, as in your blog—is the idea that such land could be straightforwardly “purchased” in the first place. Concepts of uncomplicated legal ownership, practices of written contract: assumptions like these, you show, ran counter to the lived experience and value systems of the peoples from whom the Dutch would-be purchasers were seeking to secure land. Interestingly, just back from a trip to northern Europe where my husband and I repeatedly found ourselves riding in low-slung boats on canal tours (Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg), and remembering a previous trip to Amsterdam, I was struck by how easy it apparently was for “explorers” and “settlers” in a “new” land to forget that their own societies depended upon shared space that certainly couldn’t be bought and sold.

Another element in your posting that I really liked is your observation about the irony of the site of Fort Amsterdam now being occupied by a Center of the NMAI. What could be more appropriate? The layered histories of places sure can say a lot to us about cultural memory, can’t they? I hope that visitors to the Center will take advantage of the opportunity to consider the complexity of the site’s past.

Last but not least, thanks so much for sharing the images you included in your blog posting. The map reminds me how important such efforts to visually “contain” a so-called “new” world were for Europeans’ efforts to claim it. And the painting by Moran really resonates with such important studies of how America’s indigenous peoples have been represented in recurring images as Phil Deloria’s PLAYING INDIAN and Gerald Vizenor’s FUGITIVE POSES, both of which I’d recommend to your blog’s readers.

That picture is surreal!!

From Tee

Xwata! very cool. this would be a great mock court case for students (middle, HS, undergrad)

I find history fascinating but it is very easy to look back with hindsight and make interpretations based on only the "facts" that are known. As Sarah pointed out above, the sale of land is rarely so straightforward particularly in a time when records were scarce etc.

I love the images that you used and totally agree that the American Indians deserve more respect for the impact they had on America.

the picture shows the information of ancient days of american new york pplz

Cade Royal

This picture is really a masterpiece.This is probably for the first time I read about Sir Henry Hudson. The map is also awesome. Thank you for sharing all these.

thanks for sharing this really good content

Thank you for sharing very important & ancient information regarding american myth..
The map is also awesome...

This picture is very nice with the story....Thank you for sharing this content...

Good to know that the Canarsie allegedly accepted the gifts and continued on their journey home. Another account contends that it was the Munsee Indians who received the trinkets, and claimed Manhattan as their ancestral homelands at the time.

As an ethnic American (descendant from the first generations of Americans of the colonial period-Native, African, British) I love these kinds of articles! It is refreshing to know there is a concerted effort to preserve the cultures that forged the American identity!

I'm a native New Yorker working in England and this article made me smile as it reminded me of home.
As urban myths go it sure is one of the best and it would be fantastic if it were true.

Those photo reflect to the ancient day of the american. This is great.

The story reminds of the ancient film my parents wanted me to watch. It's something that the americans should always treasure.

Thank you for sharing very important & ancient information regarding american myth. This is probably for the first time I read about Sir Henry Hudson. The map is also awesome.

That image seems to be a clue in the long history of America. This painting also makes me wonder how much is it nowadays.

Of course one would think "Hey this is a matter for an attorney" As usual all we have are urban legends. But really... Do you really think the natives of the time really understood these "white invaders"? Sure the natives were in to exchanging gifts in an act of reciprocity, but I sure believe there was a language barrier, and if so, a lack of understanding of any certain deal making. My small children interact similarly among themselves. Their innocence (ignorance) prevents them from understanding things of a financial transaction or deal making that at times is hilarious. My daughter would have made a trade for Manhattan to Peter Minuit for some shinny quarters to put in a vending machine. I don't believe the understanding was there. If you review other "native land grabs" throughout history, you'll see similar outcomes and questions of legitimate claim. Very interesting and well researched article by the way.

Great article, I am sure that this painting is exception among all the paintings. Thanks for sharing such amazing article.

This is very nice sharing. İf you give me Permission, ı want to publish on my personal site.

fascinating! haven't read nothing so interesting for a long time!!!

Thanks for the post..Great article with awesome photo..

That image seems to be a clue in the long history of America. This painting also makes me wonder how much is it nowadays.

Thanks for sharing this interesting post. So many European cities that are much older have much clearer pasts.


This one is totally new for me. I don't have a little idea about it. This is my first-time read into this story. Which gives me more historic update. So thanks for the details.

The sale can still be considered a matter of perspective. At a time when land seemed abundant the natives probably didn't mind selling what was considered a small piece.

Greetings and thank you for this valuable website of native American Indian historical significance, i am trying to find out how to become a member of the tribal "Canarsie Indians" from Brooklyn where my family originated from, I have a Canarsie Indian Blood line from my Mothers side(her Grandma) and wanted to know which exact tribal member I may correspond with to become a possible I.D. card member as well as the proceedure to do so?
Thank you,

Hmmm... Manhattan being sold in exchange for trinkets and beads? Reminds me of Alaska being sold by the Russians to the US. - Vincent

Thanks Dennis, great content and pics. Its the first time I see an old picture of "Manna-Hata"...

This blog post is indeed worth reading. I'm delighted to see this post have become a great discussion topic for the reader. And why not because this topic is very informative and certainly many people around us don't know most info regarding Americans first urban myth. I'm quite delighted to learn such excellent historical details. Thanks for great contribution.

When I look at the history of this post then I think that Manhattan was never sold to the Netherlands where we can imagine the thought of the local community when a sale is made entirely not have education as Europeans at that time . Is anyone familiar with the document India as found by the Netherlands ?
I am very concerned if it was a Dutch politics to look for something new issues amid the collapse of the countries of the former Dutch colonies in Asia which is still confined to poverty . Supposedly the Netherlands take the necessary steps to pay all their crimes during the colonized countries in Asia where all the natural wealth has been stripped to the triumph of the Netherlands to the present .

Great and very interesting article. The first pic does look like its 300 years old.

Thank You!


Thanks for this very informative article. I'm researching this topic for a musical play I'm writing. Your blog has provided me with a good historical resource.

These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I happy to find many good point here in the post, writing is simply great, thank you for the post.I have shared your article to my FB Group

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