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Beads and Manhattan

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New York was until a few years ago, the most populous state in the Union. Its universities and colleges and produce a lot of historians. Many are interested in the history of New York. New York also has a lot of schoolchildren who are required to study state history. Many textbooks have been written for them.

All the histories and all the textbooks since the mid 1840s have discussed the acquisition of Manhattan Island, the heart of New York City, by the Dutch from the Canarsee Delawares. And all of them for the last century or more (except two) say that beads were used as part of the trade goods given for the island.

And why not? The early Dutch settlers knew the value of beads. Beads were common trade items. The Dutch had a glass bead industry at this time, making beads very like contemporary Venice, because the beadmakers in Holland were themselves Venetians. However, there is no proof.

In January 1625 the ship Orange Tree left Amsterdam for New Netherlands with William Verhulst, who was to become the second governor of the colony and Peter Minuit, who was to succeed him. Verhulst had instructions from the merchant group known as the West India Company, who were financing the building of the colony. The instructions read in part:

In case any Indian should be living on the aforesaid land or make any claim upon it or any other places that are of use to us, they must not be driven away by force or threat, but by good words be persuaded to leave, or be given something therefor to their satisfaction, or else be allowed to live among us, a contract being made thereof and signed by them in their manner, since such contracts upon other occasions maybe very useful to the Company. [A.J.F. van Laer, trans. 1924 Documents Relating to New Netherlands 1624-1626 In the Huntington Hartford Library. San Marino CA, pp. 51-2.]

Further instructions were sent out to Verhulst on 22 April 1625 telling him much the same thing and specifically mentioning trade goods. So, the governor was explicitly instructed to pay something for the land they were to settle on if need be. Verhulst didn't last very long and was sent home in disgrace on the Arms of Amsterdam on 23 September 1626. In the meantime, Minuit had become governor and on 11 May 1626 wrote a letter to one of the other colonists instructing him to buy Manhattan Island, which had not been the colony's first choice.

When the Arms of Amsterdam arrived in Amsterdam on 4 November with the embarrassed Verhulst, Peter Schagen, a member of the governing board of the West India Company, met it. He interviewed the crew and passengers and gathered information from them about the state of the colony. On the next day he wrote a letter to the "Nineteen," the governing board of the WIC, which said in part:

They report that our people are in good heart and live in peace there; the women have also borne some children there. They have purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders; 'tis 11,000 morgens (about 22,00 acres) in size. [E.B. O'Callaghan, ed. 1856 Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. Albany. Vol. 1, [p. 37.]

Nicolaes Wassenaer also talked to the people returning on the Arms of Amsterdam and reported what they told him in Historisch Verhael. He said New Amsterdam (later New York) was a bustling community with a sawmill and a windmill and plans for the fort laid out. He said nothing of the purchase of the island.

And there you have it. That is the documentation. That is all that is historically known about the purchase of Manhattan. The deed is lost, and there is no copy of it. Shortly after Manhattan was bought on 10 August 1626 Minuit and five other men went to Staten Island and bought it. That deed is also lost, but was at least partially copied down by Cornelius Melyen before it disappeared. No glass beads are mentioned. Shell beads, that is Wampum, were exchanged, not in payment but as a second sort of deed. The Staten Island inhabitants made their own wampum, as the "Drilling Awls" included in the goods given attest

So where did the beads come in? American scholars didn't know that Manhattan was purchased until 1846. Harmanus Bleeker, a man from Albany of Dutch descent was sent as ambassador to the Netherlands by President Martin Van Buren, another New York Dutchman. Bleeker discovered a trove of documents on New Netherlands in the Dutch national archives. In 1839 he persuaded the New York State legislature to send his secretary, John. R. Brodhead, to go to Amsterdam and copy the documents. Brodhead returned in 1842 and the documents were translated and edited by O'Callaghan and published in the work cited above in 1846. The passage by Peter Schagen was made public.

For the next few decades historians alluded to the purchase of New York, but it was Martha J. Lamb in History of the City of New York [1877: New York, Vol. I, p. 104] who first wrote: "He [Minuit] then called together some of the principal Indian chiefs, and offered beads, buttons, and other trinkets in exchange for their real estate. They accepted the terms with unfeigned delight, and the bargain was closed at once." (See accompanying picture.)

I have the feeling that it was actually J.G. Wilson's Memorial History of the City of New-York in 1892 that was even more influential on later historians, as the four volume set was considered the basic work for a long time. He echoed Lamb. In any case, it was all a product of Lamb's imagination, as was the "unfeigned delight" of the natives and the information that the "bargain was closed at once." (See accompanying picture.)

So, you can't believe everything you read.

I received the Kerr History Prize in 1986 for "The Beads That Did Not Buy Manhattan Island" from the New York State History Association as the article most significant to New York history for that year. (And laughed at the journals that turned me down, saying it was of limited interest.) New York state papers picked up the story, the Albany Times-Union put it on the wires, CNN announced it and I got more than Andy's 15 minutes of fame, giving interviews all over the country and Canada, as well as my first (and thus far only) poison pen letter.

It has since served as the theme for a display in a Dutch Museum and has been reprinted in Holland in English and in a Dutch translation. It has also been reprinted in New York History again. Since them, a lot more has happened.

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Beads along the American Frontier is a current Lecture.

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