The Debunker: Did Peter Minuit Pay $24 for Manhattan?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Did Peter Minuit Pay $24 for Manhattan?

It's hard to walk around the densely crowded canyons of midtown Manhattan, home of the world's most expensive commercial real estate, and imagine the island as a primeval forest wilderness, purchased by Dutch colonist Peter Minuit from local Native Americans for just $24 in beads and trinkets. Twenty-four dollars! You can't even get into the Museum of Modern Art today for that!

The Debunker

The $24 number comes from an 1846 calculation by American diplomat and historical scholar John Romeyn Brodhead. A 1626 letter from a West India Company merchant in the Dutch National Archives records that his countrymen "have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of sixty guilders." When Brodhead converted that from Dutch silver to nineteenth-century dollars, he got $24, but his math doesn’t hold up. Today, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences estimates that sixty seventeenth-century guilders were worth about a thousand dollars in modern money. Other scholars, using contemporary sales of Dutch beer and brandy to establish a historical consumer price index, think the real value could actually be as high as $15,600. Oh, and there's no historical evidence that this was an all-wampum transaction. When the Dutch bought Staten Island from the Munsee Indians four years later, the deal included tools, muskets, cloth, farm implements, and even a "Jew's harp" or two.

Now, obviously $1,000 and even $15,000 are still good prices for thirty square miles of prime real estate. But that doesn't necessarily mean than the Indians got rooked, because we don't even know who Minuit did his deal with. Some accounts suggest that Minuit gave his guilders to members of a Long Island tribe who were just passing through and decided to sell some other tribe's land to make a quick buck. Even if the deal did involve the local Lenape tribe, they may have just been following their custom of trading away hunting rights, not realizing that the Dutch were settling in for the long haul.

Quick Quiz: Today, the National Museum of the American Indian is located at the northeast corner of what park on the southern tip of Manhattan?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.