Most everyone knows (or think they know) how Manhattan Island, today the jeweled centerpiece of New York City, was purchased by the Dutch from the Indians for $24 worth of beads and trinkets back in the 1600s. But what do we know about the actual Indians who supposedly made the sale? What really went on between them and the settlers?
It should come as no surprise that there is much more to the story than the legend. The details are recounted in First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York, by Robert S. Grumet (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), a history so detailed that it reads like a soap opera.
Beginning with the first European contact by Giovanni da Verrazano, who glimpsed Manhattan before his ship was pulled back out to sea, and continuing with such figures as the little-known Willem Kieft and the iconic Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant, Grumet paints a nuanced portrait. At the heart of the story are the Munsee Indians, whose lands stretched south past the Jersey Shore, into what is today Delaware, north through the Berkshires in Massachusetts and as far west as the Poconos in Pennsylvania.
From first contact in 1524 through 1766, when the Munsees—who seemed to comprise the Lenape and various other tribes—were eventually disbanded, conflicts raged, truces were struck, and treaties and land deeds were signed for parcels all over the Northeast. In the end the Munsee, scattered and dispossessed, were absorbed by other tribes far from their original homelands.
Grumet, a retired National Park Service anthropologist and a senior research associate with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, offers considerable insight into Indigenous Peoples who were not quite saints but not quite victims. The tale is often sordid, with bloodshed and vengeance on all sides, even among the Indians. Massacres, disease, alcohol and other horrors all play their parts in this intricate narrative.
And as for that $24, well, the written record on the historic transfer is sparse. “Few documents—and, significantly, no deed or bill of sale—chronicle the purchase of Manhattan,” Grumet writes. There is a mention in a 1633 pamphlet promoting the Dutch East India Co. by one Johannes de Laet that “our people have bought…the island separated from the rest of the land by the Hellgate.” There is also a reference in a letter from another agent to the Dutch government. “The agent dryly observes,” Grumet notes, “that company officials ‘purchased the island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders; it is 11,000 morgans [22,000 acres] in size.’ ”
The unfolding tale is a gripping, detailed account of the fate of an entire people. First Manhattans affords the reader a bit of time travel, allowing us to see how tiny Manhattan Island and its environs—today known as the tristate area, festooned with highways and laden with skyscrapers—appeared before the first Europeans sailed into the bay.