The heads of the Dutch colony in North America were employees of the West Indies Company. Few of us know the names of the first two, but the third one, Peter Minuit, continues to have fame. He is the one who selected the Manhattan location as the headquarters for the new Dutch enclave, and, of course, many of us have heard that in 1626 he bought the island from the Indians for $24 worth of beads.
Surely it tells a lot about our national character that this story has been passed down through the centuries. What actually happened is now murky to say the least. I have read several accounts. They agree there was a transaction in the 1620s between Indians and Minuit. Was it for $24? Well, since dollars did not exist then, probably not. Instead it is accepted that the Dutch valued the deal at 60 guilders, but, of course, money was not exchanged. Of what use would Dutch currency have been to the Indians? Instead, some sorts of goods went to the Indians. Was it beads? We do not know. Maybe it was a mixture of goods—a pot, sewing needles, clay pipes. Maybe beads. We simply do not know except that I am positive that we can rule out Bic lighters even though they would have been handy. The question then comes up, “They got it for 60 guilders. What would that be worth today?” Again, the historians don’t agree. For example, I have seen a source that says that the guilders would be about $1,000 in modern money, but I have no idea how that equivalency was calculated. I do buy into one valuation method–the beer one. Sixty guilders could buy 2,400 steins of beer in New Amsterdam. I pay $7 or $8 for a beer or ale today in New York, so at this beer rate, the transaction would be worth about $18,000 now.
But there is another set of questions? Did the Indians sell all of Manhattan to the West Indies Company? Some accounts suggest that the transaction only concerned the southern tip of the island, a small plot of ground. Others suggest that the Indians were not selling the land in a European sense because it is not likely the Indians had the same sense of “property” or ownership as the Dutch did. The Indians might have only been leasing the land or merely permitting the Dutch a non-exclusive access to it. Of course, an underlying message of the version that has come down to us is that the Dutch were sharp traders. In another version, however, the Indians were the clever ones. This story contends that the Indians who traded with Minuit had no claim to the land but were Canarsies from distant Long Island. Most versions, however, say that the transaction was with Manhattan-dwelling Lenapes. In any event, the transaction was a success. No Indian tribe bothered that tiny settlement at the tip of Manhattan while Peter Minuit ran the place. The troubles came when a less successful governor was head of the colony.
In 1638, William Kieft came to govern New Amsterdam. He quickly angered many of the inhabitants by closing taverns, but his handling of Indian affairs was even more atrocious. While the Europeans had been living without Indian conflicts, Kieft’s Indian policies soon led to regular bloody skirmishes, and within a few years, Kieft ordered the Company’s militia to massacre 120 Indians leading to Indian retaliations. New Amsterdam now had to think about defending itself in ways it had not before and started fortifying the northern reaches of the settlement. First Lesson. The Europeans under Kieft had taken unnecessary, hostile actions against Indians. The actions had not made New Amsterdam safer but the opposite, and the result was that the Europeans now had to defend themselves from threats of their own making that had not previously existed.
The inhabitants of New Amsterdam were not pleased with Kieft’s governance. The West Indies Company realized that the settlement functioned better and more profitably if there were reasonably good relations between the governor and the inhabitants. They sent Kieft packing.
(A pattern seen in Kieft’s New Amsterdam has continued to this day. Kieft may have imposed restrictions on taverns to bring increased morality and order to the settlement, but morality and order seldom win out in New York. Money does. As many others have after him, Kieft soon sought money more than morality. He built his own distillery and, not surprisingly, then relaxed the tavern restrictions. A quarter of the buildings in New Amsterdam soon housed a tavern of some sorts. This meant that no one had far to go to get a drink. That pattern also continues in New York. My local is two short blocks away, and I pass two bars on the way there, and if I strolled a few more feet, I would find several more drinking establishments. Of course, this means in New York, there is often no need for a designated driver–yet another good thing about this place.)
(To be continued.)