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Where’s the Receipt? That So Shady $24 Manhattan Sale

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Way too much conjecture and contradiction prevails regarding the alleged “sale” of Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626. For starters, the consensus among historians is that nothing more than a handwritten letter from one Peter Schaghen, the Dutch parliament’s liaison with the West India Company, to the States-General in The Hague confirms the island of Manhattan was actually purchased “from the savages” by the Company’s adventurous representatives on the far side of the Atlantic. No receipt, no bill of sale—let alone any sort of transferred deed.

Among the myriad questions that immediately arise, the first must be: Purchased from which “savages” exactly? In other words: Manhattan—23-odd square miles of what became some of the most valuable real estate on Earth—was sold by whom?

And if a “sale” was made for what Schaghen—writing from the comfort of Amsterdam, more than 3,600 miles from where the supposed transaction took place—reported as “the value of 60 guilders,” was that in actual Dutch currency? Almost certainly not. But nothing like a manifest of in-kind tangibles has come down; material items of trade are assumed to constitute the “value,” but we all know what happens when we assume. So far as the archives show, there’s no evidence of even a handshake between parties A and B.

Ah yes, party B. Back to the first question: Sold by whom?

The Dutch, it’s agreed, “purchased” Manhattan from one of the tribes of indigenous peoples that then flourished in the region. That’s where agreement ends, though, as researchers waffle between one Native American band and the next: Canarsee? Lenape? Weekquaesgeek?

Those myriad questions cascade: Was this “sale” a fair exchange of value? (No-brainer #1: One way or the other, no way.) What were the legal processes—according to either side—involved in such a transaction? Were there any at all? Scholars concur that Manhattan had been prime hunting ground since time immemorial—did the guilder-getters here really believe they were selling the island for keeps or just renting out some temporary rights? In other words, did indigenous Americans at the time have a system of “closeout” different from Europeans? (No-brainer #2: Of course they did.) And how would any one tribe in the area have a legitimate interest over another in this exchange? Or was it even a tribe, and not just a few jokers claiming to be the island’s “proprietors”?

Indeed, why Manhattan mijn Nederlanders? Why spend even 60 guilders’ worth to buy this skinny riverine island then way past the edge of nowhere? There’s way better beaches within a few hours’ barge ride. Getting into the nitty-gritty, why is there not the faintest record of any attempt to create even the crudest bill of sale to substantiate this international transfer of over 14,000 acres of real estate? And—oops!—Schaghen reported that it was “11,000 morgens in size,” about 22,000 acres: Did the Company reps get conned by the “tribe,” or was he bigging up the deal to the “High and Mighty Lords” to whom he addressed his letter? And just who the heck was Peter Schaghen? For the sole source of one of the most momentous business deals of all time, there’s precious little in the historical record about him.

See where I’m goin’ with this?

Then there is that red-flag U.S. dollar figure: $24. Twenty-four clams is no more or less than a post facto imagining of what might be or totally probably is not the equivalent of the claimed price point of 60 guilders in 1626—U.S. currency, of course, wouldn’t even exist for another century and a half. Most pointedly, that poignant number shock-’n’-awes us moderns, making this once-in-a-planetary-lifetime “sale” that much more provocative and OMG-worthy given Manhattan’s current valuation. Twenty-four bucks might as well be 24 cents. Or 24 pebbles collected along the banks of the Hudson on a hot summer’s day. Or 24 dead leaves that have helplessly fallen off a branch in Central Park abruptly ending their green cherry-tree days of glory.

Hey, Mom! I sold Masters of the Universe Island for diddly, and all I got was genocide!

There are events in history whose depiction over time becomes . . . well, “mythologized” is the nice term, “screwed up” the more accurate one. And then there are the outright whoppers. The more you read and think about the Biggest Sale of 1626! It’s Manhattan—And Everything Must Go!, the more it smells like the latter.

Clearly, 2017 is not the first year in a long-time Harlem residents have experienced controversial rezoning and renaming.

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Kiri Close

Kiri Close is a U.S Indigenous from American Samoa, and a graduate student at the Sotheby's Institute of Art. She is also affiliated with the Oglala Lakota tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she leads arts movements and supports social justice programs. She enjoys spending time with family, writing, and creating cartoon concepts for television and the internet.
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