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Beads and Your History Book

Here are a couple of questions you can try on your history teacher:

1. What did the Dutch use to buy Manhattan Island, the heart of New York City?

2. Why did the English fight their first war against Native Americans in 1637?

1. Manhattan


An old postcard with a drawing

of the purchase of Manhattan Island

by the Dutch.

What was used to gain the rights to the land?

Many people think that Manhattan was bought for beads worth about $24.
The Dutch did buy Manhattan in 1636 for trade goods worth (at the time) about 24 gold dollars. That is a lot now, but still almost nothing for this important piece of land.

Were trade beads part of the trade goods? Most history books say so, but it is not true. There is no proof that beads were used to buy Manhattan. The story was started by Martha Lamb in her book on New York history in 1877 (250 years after the purchase) and almost everyone has copied her since then. But it is just a story. There is no evidence that beads bought Manhattan.

However, it is likely that another sort of bead was involved, wampum. But the Dutch didn't bring it from holland.

2. The Pequot War

And what was the first war the English fought against the Native Americans? It was the Pequot War of 1637. Why did they fight? Over a bead.

The bead was wampum. What is wampum? If you look up "wampum" in a dictionary it will probably say it was "Indian money." But this is wrong. Wampum are small, tubular shell beads. The Indians didn't use them for money, only the white men did. The Indians used wampum for many things, but not for money.

The white men used wampum to trade with the Indians, especially the Iroquois of New York. But they also used it like pennies and nickels among themselves. You could buy anything with these beads at the time of American Independence in all thirteen original states.

Once the English discovered how important wampum was, they declared war on the Pequots, the people who controlled the wampum trade. It truly was a war fought over beads.

For more on these subjects, see the pages on Manhattan and Wampum in the Frontier chapter.


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