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Was Manhattan Really Bought for $24?

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One of the most persistent myths in American history is that European explorers really got one over on the Native Americans by purchasing the entire island of Manhattan—where property has averaged $1000+ per square foot over the last few years—for a measly $24 worth of beads and trinkets. It seems like the ultimate bargain, but the truth of the story is more complicated and murkier than that.

Adjusted for Inflation

In the Dutch National Archives is the only known primary reference to the Manhattan sale: a letter written by Dutch merchant Pieter Schage on November 5, 1626, to directors of the West India Company, which was instrumental in the exploration and settlement of “New Netherland.” In the letter, he writes, “They have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders.” (There is a surviving deed for Manhattan and Long Island, but this was made well after this initial Manhattan purchase, when the Dutch had already been inhabiting the island for several decades.)

Nineteenth century historians converted those 60 guilders to U.S. dollars and got what was then $24. That same figure has been repeated for almost two centuries since, frozen in time and untouched by changes to the value of currency—but those guilders don’t stand at $24 today. According to this converter from the International Institute of Social History at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 60 guilders in 1626 was equivalent to 734.77 euros in 2011. The exchange rate to the US dollar varies, but a conversion as I’m writing this gets us $951.08 USD, which puts us more in the ballpark.

While $951.08 is less of a steal than $24, there are still some other confounding factors to the deal. For one thing, Schagen’s letter does not mention who actually made the deal with the Dutch or the tribe on whose behalf it was sold, and the deed for the land has been lost. Without confirmation from a primary source, historians are left to infer who the island was purchased from, and can’t seem to agree.  A few accounts say that the Dutch got the wool pulled over their eyes, and bought the land from a group of natives that lived on Long Island and were only traveling through Manhattan. Coming upon the European rubes, they traded away land they had no claim to and continued on home with the Dutch loot.

Goods Are Good

Another detail that Schagen leaves out of his letter is what the Dutch actually used to make the purchase. He says only that they traded “for the value of 60 guilders,” but doesn’t specify if that was actual Dutch coins, native currency, food, or other goods. It certainly doesn’t mention any beads. The purchase of Staten Island a few decades later has more surviving documentation, including the deed, which says the Dutch traded “10 boxes of shirts, 10 ells of red cloth, 30 pounds of powder, 30 pairs of socks, 2 pieces of duffel, some awls, 10 muskets, 30 kettles, 25 adzes, 10 bars of lead, 50 axes and some knives.” If the Manhattan trade was made with similar goods, the Native Americans got less shafted than legend implies, and received 60 guilders worth of useful equipment and what was high-end technology at the time.

Also missing with the deed or any additional documentation of the sale are records of any intangibles that might have been traded with the 60 guilders worth of whatever it was. Early Dutch settlements in the area were established to participate in fur trade with the natives, and whichever tribe made the Manhattan deal likely could have counted on the Dutch as trade partners and potential allies in the future, making the deal that much sweeter.

Sale or Rental?

One last thing to consider—which further complicates the story of the Manhattan deal—is the ideological difference between the Europeans and the Native Americans regarding the sale of land. The sale may seem particularly lopsided, even aside from the small price tag, because of the popular conception that the Native Americans didn’t think of the land as property or something that could be traded, and had no idea what they were getting into. But that's not accurate. “European settlers and early Americans misunderstood tribal economies and property rights," says Robert J. Miller, a specialist in American Indian law at the Lewis & Clark Law School, in the Oregon Law Review. "Even today, there seems to be an almost universal misunderstanding that the American Indian culture had and still have no appreciation or understanding of private property ownership and private, free market, capitalist economic activities. This mistaken idea could not be further from the truth.”

In reality, Miller says, American Indians were continuously involved in free market trade situations before and after European contact and, while most of the land that Indians lived on was considered tribal land owned by the tribe or by all the tribe’s members in common, almost all the tribes recognized various forms of permanent or semi-permanent private rights to land. Individual tribe members could, and did, acquire and exercise use rights over specific pieces of land (tribal and not), homes, and valuable plants like berry patches and fruit and nut trees, both through inheritable rights and by buying and selling.

In Law in American History: Volume 1, law professor G. Edward White interprets the Manhattan “sale” from the Indians' point of view as “not relinquishing the island, but simply welcoming the Dutch as additional occupants,” in the context of a property rights system that was different from the Europeans’, but not nonexistent. He thinks they “allowed the Dutch to exercise what they thought of as hunting or use rights on the island” and assumed continuing rights of their own, in which case the deal seems much better for the Indians than legend would have us believe.

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Big Questions
Where Did the Myth That Radiation Glows Green Come From?
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by C Stuart Hardwick

Probably from radium, which was widely used in self-luminous paint starting in 1908. When mixed with phosphorescent copper-doped zinc sulfide, radium emits a characteristic green glow:


Quora

The use of radioluminescent paint was mostly phased out by the mid-1960s. Today, in applications where it is warranted (like spacecraft instrument dials and certain types of sensors, for example), the radiation source is tritium (radioactive hydrogen) or an isotope of promethium, either of which has a vastly shorter half life than radium.

In most consumer products, though, radioluminescence has been replaced by photoluminescence, phosphors that emit light of one frequency after absorbing photons of a difference frequency. Glow-in-the-dark items that recharge to full brightness after brief exposure to sunlight or a fluorescent light only to dim again over a couple of hours are photoluminescent, and contain no radiation.

An aside on aging radium: By now, most radium paint manufactured early in the 20th century has lost most of its glow, but it’s still radioactive. The isotope of radium used has a half life of 1200 years, but the chemical phosphor that makes it glow has broken down from the constant radiation—so if you have luminescent antiques that barely glow, you might want to have them tested with a Geiger counter and take appropriate precautions. The radiation emitted is completely harmless as long as you don’t ingest or inhale the radium—in which case it becomes a serious cancer risk. So as the tell-tale glow continues to fade, how will you prevent your ancient watch dial or whatever from deteriorating and contaminating your great, great grandchildren’s home, or ending up in a landfill and in the local water supply?

Even without the phosphor, pure radium emits enough alpha particles to excite nitrogen in the air, causing it to glow. The color isn’t green, through, but a pale blue similar to that of an electric arc.


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This glow (though not the color) entered the public consciousness through this early illustration of its appearance in Marie Curie’s lab, and became confused with the green glow of radium paints.

The myth is likely kept alive by the phenomenon of Cherenkov glow, which arises when a charged particle (such as an electron or proton) from submerged sources exceeds the local speed of light through the surrounding water.

So in reality, some radionuclides do glow (notably radium and actinium), but not as brightly or in the color people think. Plutonium doesn’t, no matter what Homer Simpson thinks, unless it’s Pu-238—which has such a short half life, it heats itself red hot.


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This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
How Are Royal Babies Named?
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images

After much anticipation, England's royal family has finally received a tiny new addition. The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second son was confirmed by Kensington Palace on April 23, but the name of the royal newborn has yet to be announced. For the heir to the British throne and his wife, choosing a name for their third child—who is already fifth in line to the throne—likely won't be as easy as flipping through a baby name book; it's tradition for royals to select names that honor important figures from British history.

According to ABC WJLA, selecting three or four names is typical when naming a royal baby. Will and Kate followed this unwritten rule when naming their first child, George Alexander Louis, and their second, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Each name is an opportunity to pay homage to a different British royal who came before them. Some royal monikers have less savory connotations (Prince Harry's given name, Henry, is reminiscent of a certain wife-beheading monarch), but typically royal babies are named for people who held a significant and honorable spot in the family tree.

Because there's a limited pool of honorable monarchs from which to choose, placing bets on the royal baby name as the due date approaches has become a popular British pastime. One name that keeps cropping up this time around is James; the original King James ruled in the early 17th century, and it has been 330 years since a monarch named James wore the crown.

If the royal family does go with James for the first name of their youngest son, that still leaves at least a couple of slots to be filled. So far, the couple has stuck with three names each for their children, but there doesn't seem to be a limit; Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to George VI in 1936, shouldered the full name of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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