We were promised time and again a wall across our southern border, although we talk less and less about the part of the promise that said Mexico would pay for it. And again, we are having governmental crises about funding a wall. While you may be thinking about that and whether it should be constructed, I have been thinking about America’s first border wall and trying to figure out whether we can learn anything from its history.

We begin with a man who went looking for spices and found beaver. Englishman Henry Hudson, bankrolled by British merchants, had made failed attempts at finding a sailing route from Europe to the Far East. Hudson could not smooth-talk these businessmen into funding yet another voyage, so he jumped across the English Channel and convinced the Dutch East Indies Company to underwrite one more attempt. (I don’t think that the Dutch called it the Dutch East Indies Company. Perhaps to them it was just the East Indies Company.)

The story goes that Hudson was ordered to sail east, north of Russia to see if he could reach China. Apparently, Hudson was not enamored of the charms or likely success of such a route. He had heard rumors of a Northwest Passage through North America, so Hudson disregarded his bosses’ orders and went west, and in 1609 he found himself sailing up the Hudson River. (What are the odds that he would go across the Atlantic and then proceed up a river that bore his name?) He found that the Hudson petered out. This was not the Northwest passage, and he was not going to be bringing back cinnamon, cardamom, or nutmeg. But around the headwaters of the Hudson River, he found beaver, boatloads of beavers. (All those beavers building dams no doubt made this a much more exciting place than the Albany area has ever been since.)

Europeans then were in love with beaver fur. (Ever hear anyone talk about beaver meat? Ever see a beaver recipe? Europeans may have salted cod caught off North America and brought it back, but I never heard of salted beaver.) When Hudson returned to Holland, I do not know how he explained his wrong turn away from the rising sun, but his company overseers saw a moneymaking opportunity in the beaver sightings. Hudson also told them about this island with a great natural harbor at the mouth of his river. It was a marvelous place for a trading post for all the beaver skins that could be taken from the luckless animals and shipped to the fur-mad Europeans. The Dutch then laid claim to the land from what is now Delaware, up the Hudson and to what is now western Connecticut. They began a settlement, New Amsterdam, in 1625 on the southern tip of Manhattan.

(A few years later Hudson was up exploring Hudson Bay—again, what are the odds? He wanted to press on after some significant difficulties in those cold waters. His crew did not. You know those stories about how the Inuit set adrift their aged parents for the parental last voyage. I don’t know if the indigenous people learned from Hudson’s shipmates, or the Europeans learned from the natives, or it was merely coincidence. Having had enough of Henry Hudson, his ship fellows set him adrift near the arctic circle, and–surprise, surprise–he was never heard from again.)

The Dutch thus began a New World settlement. It was a commercial place, and it was run by a commercial enterprise. Not long on imagination on this front, it was called the West Indies Company. Beaver was the moneymaker, which explains why a beaver is on the seal of the City of New York. (I have never seen a beaver in New York City, not even in a zoo. I have only seen a few beavers anywhere. Perhaps my first sighting was as a boy with the family in a car driving to northern Wisconsin. A beaver was waddling across the road. The father came to an abrupt halt. Beaver do not move quickly on asphalt, and we waited for quite a while. The father looked in the rearview mirror and saw nothing. Assuming that the beaver had finally made it to the ditch next to the car, he inched on. Thump. The left rear wheel clearly drove over something. The father drove a little further and stole a glance in the mirror. He looked as if he were going to be sick. I glanced back and saw the beaver’s tail wave feebly once, twice and then stop. Total silence in the car. I never heard any of us ever mention this incident.  We certainly did not try to collect its fur.)

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, has 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 happened is now murky to say the least. I have read several accounts. They agree that 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 a 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 wall and the troubles came when a less successful governor was head of the colony.

(continued December 6.)

One thought on “Let’s Talk about a Border Wall Again

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