Manhattan for trinkets, part 2

The sale of Manhattan for beads and trinkets has become a truism, memorialized in a painting by Alfred Fredericks .

Alfred Fredericks

The value of said trinkets, reportedly “60 guilders,” does have a verifiable source, though the exact materials assigned the value does not.  Meanwhile “60 guilders” has accrued an aura of shame and betrayal right up there with those other notorious sums “thirty pieces of silver” and “4o acres and a mule.” Visit and you’ll see one word, “Oops!” If you take the story at face financial value, it’s a phenomenal gaffe indeed.

There’s a sort of finger-pointing, ha-ha quality to it though.  “You silly Indians, with your inability to foresee the trillions of American dollars Manhattan would earn in the next 400 years!” The Indians have to look like suckers in order for non-Native Americans (well, actually, the Dutch, but that’s a fine distinction in the myth-making business) to come out ahead. Look at our foresight, our savvy, our bargain-hunting ability.  It’s the American dream after all: buy low, sell high. But 60 guilders was worth either $24 1880s dollars or possibly $42 21st-century dollars; whatever it was, it hardly corresponds to the value of anything.  It’s a swindle, and not one to be proud of.  Especially since most historians agree that the Native Americans who made the trade would not have conceived of “selling” the land itself.  Land had no owners.  (Rights to hunt or farm the land did, however, have a price, though that presumably still would have been more than 60 guilders.)  But the “deal of the century” reading of the myth stuck around, perhaps due to Americans’ ongoing need to validate their own greed.  Writer Josh Garrett-Davis sent in a tip that reveals just how powerful the “60 guilders/ $42 dollars” story was. When the Red Power movement started in the late 60s, the first action was to take over Alcatraz Island, recently abandoned as a prison. “The activists cheekily offered the government $42 in beads and trinkets for it and planned to use it as a cultural center. They imagined that it would be the Manhattan of a sort of reverse manifest destiny. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.” They tried to push back on the old story, but it held tight.

2 Responses to Manhattan for trinkets, part 2

  1. […] know that story about how Indians traded Manhattan to the Dutch for a bunch of beads worth not much? The Mythographer has that one on long-term surveillance. This past weekend Inwood Hill […]

  2. […] didn’t consider themselves owners of the continent. In fact, the legend of Manhattan is that the Indians were screwed out of the island for about $20 worth of beads and […]

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