On May 24, 1626, one of the most famous real estate transactions in history took place: the director-general of New Netherland, a colony of the United Provinces of the Netherlands located in the northeast of America, bought the island called Manhattan from the Lenni-Lenape Indians for sixty florins. The location was used to establish the city of New Amsterdam, which in 1664 came under English control and was renamed New York. The shrewd merchant behind this deal was Peter Minuit.

He was born around the year 1580 in Wesel, a city that then belonged to the Duchy of Cleves (in the current German state of North Rhine-Westphalia) and was part of the Holy Roman Empire. His family originally came from Tournai, in what is now Wallonia, a region of Belgium that was part of the Southern Netherlands at that time. Since the Southern Netherlands were under Spanish rule (and Catholic), and the Minuits were Calvinists, they had to emigrate to a safer territory, which they found in the German city of Wesel.

Johann Minuit, the head of the family, died in 1609, and his son had to take over the family business. Apparently involved in trade, possibly in diamonds (as Peter’s 1613 testament, signed the same year he married the wealthy Gertrude Reads, identifies him as a diamond cutter). In any case, his mercantile activities determined his future. In 1624, facing the economic decline of Wesel, he decided to leave his wife in Cleves and move to work in the newly formed United Provinces of the Netherlands.

As suggested by its name, the United Provinces were a state formed by seven northern provinces (Friesland, Groningen, Holland, Guelders, Utrecht, Overijssel, and Zeeland), founded in 1581 after the Union of Utrecht and unofficially recognized by the Spanish monarch Philip III under the Twelve Years’ Truce. Peter Minuit fit in well there, having stood out during the five years of Spanish rule (1614-1619) by helping the less fortunate; after all, he was very religious and later became a deacon in the Walloon church.

His reputation was also backed by his role as a tutor in Wesel, a position that implied his trustworthiness. Therefore, he was soon admitted to the WIC or Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch West India Company, a large maritime company created in 1621 to operate in Africa and America (including the Pacific, although the VOC, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company, had a stronger position as it didn’t require government authorization for military operations).

These two companies laid the foundation for the economic prosperity of the United Provinces, similar to what the Honourable East India Company and the Virginia Company (formed by the merger of the London Company and the Plymouth Company) did for England. The West Indies, as America was called, were divided between Spain and Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas. However, other European countries were not willing to give up their share of the pie and tried to acquire territories from the beginning, with limited success.

After repeated failures, the English did not establish a stable colony (Jamestown, Virginia) until 1607, while the French had to wait until 1608 for Samuel Champlain to found Quebec (built on the fort constructed by Jacques Cartier in 1541). In both cases, the chosen area was the northern half of the east coast of present-day USA, where the Spanish and Portuguese showed less interest due to its lesser wealth and development. The Dutch also tried and, in 1581, established their first colony on the Pomeroon River in Guyana (modern-day Suriname).

They then attempted settlements in Araya (Venezuela), but a Spanish fleet expelled them, as happened in Chiloé (Chile) and various Brazilian towns (Salvador, Olinda, Recife, Fortaleza, etc.). Consequently, they ended up settling only on some Caribbean islands that Spain considered useless, such as Aruba and the Dutch Antilles (Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius). However, in the meantime, they decided to send an expedition to the northeastern extremity of the New World, entrusting the mission to the WIC.

The idea was to establish a trading post for fur commerce, and they hired the English captain Henry Hudson, who was familiar with those latitudes from previous voyages with the Muscovy Company (a British company originally created in 1551 to trade with Russia). On board the Halve Maen, following the notes left by John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy), he reached the bay that the Florentine sailor Giovanni da Verrazzano had discovered in 1524, which was actually the large mouth of a river that Hudson named Noort Rivier, although it has gone down in history with his surname.

It was Hudson who first recorded in his logbook the name “Manna-hata” that the Indians used for an island in the center of that area. This encouraged the Dutch, and four companies competed to secure the fur trade with the natives, establishing two trading posts: one on Castle Island and another at the mouth of the Versche Rivier (Connecticut River). Fearing that rivalry would ruin everything, the four companies merged in 1614, receiving a three-year monopoly on the fur trade.

Unfortunately for them, the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce intervened from 1623 through the powerful WIC, sending the first groups of settlers. In the subsequent years, more immigrants arrived under the leadership of Willem Verhulst, settling in Manhattan primarily for agriculture and livestock farming. They also built a fort to prevent potential attacks from other powers. Among them, in 1625 and aboard the Orangenboom, Peter Minuit traveled with his family, tasked with expanding the range of trade goods beyond furs; specifically, they hoped he would find minerals and precious metals.

Minuit returned the same year and was appointed director of Nieuw-Nederland (New Holland or New Netherland), as the colony had been named, replacing Verhulst, who was temporary and had not endeared himself to the settlers. Thus, Minuit crossed the Atlantic again on the Meeuwken, and his first significant action in his new position was the one that would make history—the acquisition of Manhattan. However, some historians have raised doubts about this: Verhulst returned to Europe and reported that the island had been purchased, and Nieuw-Nederland was thriving. This leads them to suppose that perhaps it was he who carried out or at least supervised the transaction.

Regardless, tradition attributes to Minuit the meeting with the Lenni-Lenape Indians, the eastern group of the Delaware Nation, who traded beaver and otter pelts with the Dutch a decade before things soured and a war erupted. At that time, relations were friendly, but the enormous cultural differences made mutual understanding challenging.

For the Lenape, land ownership was collective; they practiced intensive agriculture, mainly of corn and beans, in large plots (where they also hunted and fished) assigned to each clan. They did not understand the concept of private property because they only remained sedentary until they exhausted the resources of a place, then moved to another. The closest concept to their mindset was the temporary usufruct of those plots, and that’s what they interpreted when signing the sale.

It’s understood, then, that when Minuit offered them sixty guilders (Dutch florins) for Manhattan, they accepted without attaching much importance. They couldn’t fathom why anyone would pay for land, water, or air. Moreover, by summer, they did not expect to be there anymore. In fact, a legend later spread that Minuit had made a mistake and bought the island not from the Lenape but from another tribe, the Canarsie of Long Island (in reality, Canarsie is the phonetic adaptation of the Algonquin word that the Lenape used to refer to a fort).

The transaction closed without issues. Of course, Minuit did not make the payment in currency, which was useless to the Indians, but in various trinkets. Another contract of the time, also signed by him, lists the type of items that might have been delivered: iron axes, teapots, hoes, necklace beads, knives, etc. In other words, things that the Lenape could use and appreciate, probably making them think they had made a good deal. It was not, of course, as the imbalance was evident even for that time.

The gulden or Dutch florin was the currency used in the Netherlands from the Middle Ages until it was replaced by the euro in 2002 (it is still legal tender in Aruba and the Dutch Antilles). It is estimated that the sixty florins given to the Lenape would be equivalent to about a thousand current dollars, a considerable amount for that time, aside from the true value of the nearly sixty square kilometers that Manhattan occupies. The island already had great value for traders because it had easy access to the sea and ensured a frost-free supply line for the fur trading post established in Albany.

With the arrival of settlers, about thirty Dutch-Jewish families from Brazil (where they had to leave when Portugal reclaimed lost territories), the value of Manhattan increased even more. This was particularly due to the strategic position provided by the fort built at its southern tip, near present-day Battery Park in Upper Bay, the seed of what would later be called New Amsterdam. Thus, New Netherland extended over a two-hundred-kilometer axis between that seminal city and Albany, although territorial claims were broader, spanning from the Delmarva Peninsula to the southwestern tip of Cape Cod.

Peter Minuit led the colony with a diplomatic touch. As the supreme judge, he enjoyed considerable power, but in both civil and criminal matters, he was assisted by a five-member advisory council responsible for developing a legal code and its implementation. A prosecutor general, a sheriff, an attorney general, and a customs official were also appointed. The colony grew, its population increased to three hundred residents, and several mills were erected. However, conflicts were inevitable, and the first one arose in 1631, marking Minuit’s departure.

The exact reason is not known. Apparently, he argued with some influential colonists, including his own secretary, the religious pastor, and several landowners involved in illegal fur trading against the WIC’s interests. He had to return to Europe in 1632 to account for his actions. The legal issues must not have been very convincing, as he was dismissed and replaced by Wouter van Twiller, who, during his Atlantic voyage, gained prestige by capturing a Spanish caravel and making a triumphant entry into New Amsterdam.

Minuit stayed in Emmerik, a town in the Duchy of Cleves, for several years until his friend Willem Usselincx, one of the founders of the WIC, offered him a job in Sweden. The Scandinavian country was interested in founding a colony in America, and in 1635, through Samuel Blommaert, who was about to take over the direction of the WIC, Minuit was tasked with the mission. The chosen area, claimed by the Dutch, was the lower course of the Delaware River and its bay, becoming known as New Sweden. Six hundred settlers, not only Swedes but also Finns (Finland was part of Sweden at the time) and Dutch, would settle there.

The expedition, composed of the ships Fogel Gryp and Kalmar Nyckel, arrived at what is now Swedes’ Landing on March 29, 1638. The construction of a fort named Christina, in honor of the young Swedish queen (who was twelve years old), began immediately. A month later, Minuit set out on the return journey to Scandinavia, intending to bring a second wave of colonists. On the way, he stopped in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, where he sold the products gathered in Delaware (salt, wine, and liquor) to acquire a fellow countryman’s ship, Het Vliegende Her.

The Fall of New Amsterdam, a work by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, depicts the neighbors urging Suyvesant, with whom they did not sympathize, not to resist the English. The Fall of New Amsterdam, a work by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, depicts the neighbors urging Suyvesant, with whom they did not sympathize, not to resist the English./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was a ship laden with tobacco, a cargo he planned to sell in Stockholm to fund the new journey. However, a hurricane sank the ship even before it reached the Atlantic, and Minuit drowned. Another ship would be lost near the Azores, and a third arrived dismasted. Besides the loss of the leader, it was a disaster for Sweden because there was no longer funding to expand the colony. Michiel Symonssen, the boatswain of the Kalmar Nyckel, had to take command and sailed to the Netherlands for supplies while leaving Captain Måns Nilsson Kling in charge of New Sweden.

Eventually, King was appointed the new governor, and for a while, there was hope of successfully developing the colony. Up to nine expeditions were sent, establishing more settlements southeast of Pennsylvania and southwest of New Jersey. The characteristic log cabin of the American East was introduced by them. However, the dream lasted only seventeen years, ending in 1655 when the Dutch, led by colonial administrator Peter Stuyvesant, ousted them.

They did not last long either because, in 1664, friction with English neighbors over the fur trade led King Charles II to send a fleet of four ships and half a thousand men. The WIC was forced to surrender, handing over its domains in that part of North America to avoid a large-scale conflict (which actually occurred the following year: the Second Anglo-Dutch War). Thus, His Gracious Majesty retained New Sweden and New Netherland, which became New England, exchanging them for the Guianas. The Lenape were still not consulted.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 9, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia de Peter Minuit, el colono que compró Manhattan a cambio de teteras, azadas, collares y otros objetos

Sources

Russell Shorto, The island at the center of the world. The epic story of Dutch Manhattan and the forgotten colony that shaped America | Jaap Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland.A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-century America | Michelle Nevius y James Nevius, Inside the Apple. A streetwise history of New York City | Edwin G. Burrows y Mike Wallace, Gotham. A history of New York City to 1898 | Carlo A. Caranci, La fundación de Nueva York por los holandeses (en National Geographic) | F.J. Sypher, News from New Amsterdam (en New Amsterdam History Center) | Peter Minuit [1580-1638] Director of New Netherland (en New Netherland Institute. Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage) | Wikipedia


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