December 18th, 2008
Part of America’s folklore is that Indians sold the Dutch Manhattan for $24 worth of blue beads in the early 1600s. Apparently, this subject is part of a ongoing controversy.
As background to this issue I have several questions and observations:
First, I think we need to know whether the story is even true.
I have never heard of any documentary proof of this alleged “transaction.” Maybe there is, but I’ve never seen nor heard of it.
Second, even if there is some proof to this legend, did the Indian, Indians, or tribe who allegedly sold Manhattan to the Dutch have a legal possessory right to sell the land? (Maybe instead of buying Manhattan from the rightful owners, maybe the Dutch were cheated and stupidly paid someone who didn’t even own Manhattan!)
Third, I have read that in the days after this alleged sale that Indians continued to hunt on Manhattan and the Dutch were irritated and said you sold this land to us so you have to get off. The Indians apparently didn’t agree with that statement and continued to hunt on Manhattan.
Did the Indians think they had even sold Manhattan? Or did they think the beads were just a gift of friendship?
So much for any “sale.”
And, if there really was a sale of Manhattan for $24 of blue beads, I have read two interesting points that are relevant to that possibility.
First, many American Indian Tribes placed a very high value on blue beads. White beads were common before European contact and were made by several different tribal communities and traded across the continent. But, as Lewis & Clark found out on their expedition, tribal citizens placed a very high value on blue beads. Meriwether Lewis, for example, traded a blue bead belt for the most magnificent item he brought home from the expedition: a fur tippet, a scarf like wrap.
So the blue beads the Dutch supposedly gave Indians for Manhattan were no doubt worth far more to the Indians than they were to the Dutch.
It’s no surprise that different cultures value various objects differently.
I have quoted several comments Indians made during the fur trading period that demonstrate this fact. Indians couldn’t believe that the English, French, and Americans were so stupid as to trade 20 steel hatchets for one silly beaver fur. This demonstrates the different values these cultures put on these objects. Maybe blue beads and the land of Manhattan island is another example?
Second, I read somewhere that if the Indians has received the alleged $24 in cash and had put it in a bank in 1640 at a low rate of compound interest, that the bank account would today exceed the entire value of Manhattan, real estate and all the buildings combined!!
Consequently, if the “sale” ever occurred, maybe it wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds today when we compare $24 to Manhattan in 2008.
And, finally, since the Dutch were obviously not using Amerian dollars in 1640, what was the actual value of the infamous blue beads??
Here’s a story about the current controversy on this subject.
“A split has opened up in the campaign by Native Americans for historical compensation after descendants of East Coast Indians have defended the infamous real estate deal that swapped the island of Manhattan for some beads.
â€˜What nobody acknowledges is that these were really nice beadsâ€™ said Karl Skywolf who is on the more moderate side of the Native American movement. â€˜They had these dinky little shells and sparkly bits, and you could double them up and wear them as a bracelet as well as a necklace.â€™ he went on. â€˜People always criticize our ancestors in the Carnarsee tribe for handing over the most valuable real estate in the world for a handful of sparkling trinkets, but you have to appreciate that Manhattan needed a lot doing to it. Itâ€™s had a lot of cash spent on it since then, and the beads seemed a good deal at the time.â€™
More militant Native Americans point to the infamous exchange as a symbol of their exploitation at a time when Indians did not recognise the concept of land ownership, and accepted the trinkets as a goodwill gift. â€˜We demand the return of all the land in the metropolitan area of New York as rightfully oursâ€™ said one militant. â€˜Oh come on, itâ€™s not going to happenâ€¦â€™ responded Skywolf, â€˜itâ€™s not as if we still have the jewellery to give back in return.â€™”
Moderate Native Americans defend Manhattan/Beads deal (Newsbiscut 12/16)