Was Manhattan Really Bought for $24?

TomasSereda/iStock via Getty Images
TomasSereda/iStock via Getty Images

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.

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

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Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

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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