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Beads Buying Manhattan Island

The purchase of Manhattan Island, the heart of the world's leading city, for $24 of beads tickles the modern funny bone. It has often been played for a laugh.

This theme was used for an ad for New York Savings Bank in TheNew York Times Magazine. In the background are Native Americans admiring beads spilling out of a chest. In the foreground are two Dutchmen, one excitedly saying to the other, And we'll put the World Trade Center over there.

A cartoon by Ed Arno in the New Yorker has a sophisticated twist to the story. The caption reads, The Rhode Island Purchase. The chief examines beads just handed him by Europeans and asks, Are you sure these are real onyx? That's right: the smallest state is the heart of America's jewelry industry.

What makes us giggle when we hear this story? Apparently, it is the way the wily Dutchmen got a valuable piece of real estate for trinkets. This has concerned historians for a long time.

John Anderson and Alexander Flick in A Short History of the State of New York in 1902 reckoned that if the $24 had been put aside at 6% interest it would have grown to $122,500,000. They must have made the calculation in 1891; by 1902 it would have been worth $231,000,000. Another historian, James Wilson, asked Sophia, Queen of the Netherlands in 1875 if she thought the price for Manhattan was fair. She replied it was because, If the savages had received more for their land they would simply have drunk more fire-water. With sixty florins [$24] they could not purchase sufficient to intoxicate each member of the tribe.

Of course, these views are ridiculous. Anderson and Flick were envisioning a bank branch on each corner, and Her Majesty assumed the existence of neighborhood bars.

The last laugh is on all of them. The fact is that there is no evidence that beads were involved in the purchase of Manhattan. See the story in full.

Note: one or more images on this page may be copyrighted. I believe their use is covered by the "fair use" clause (Section 107) of the U.S. Copyright Law. If any copyright holder informs me in writing that the use is not fair, I shall remove the image in question.

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