On May 24th 1626, Peter Minuit (also spelled ‘Minuet’) purchased the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of $24 worth of beads and trinkets. Even adjusted for inflation, this is probably the real Greatest Trade Ever, with apologies to John Paulson.
Here’s some historical/legendary color on the trade:
On May 24 1626, he is credited with the purchase of the island from the natives — perhaps from a Metoac band of Lenape known as the “Canarsee” — in exchange for trade goods valued at 60 guilders. This figure is known from a letter by a member of the board of the Dutch West India Company Peter Stuyvesant to the States-General in 1626; in 1846 the figure was converted by a New York historian to $24, and “a variable-rate myth being a contradiction in terms, the purchase price remains forever frozen at twenty-four dollars,” as Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace remarked: a further embellishment in 1877 converted the figure into “beads, buttons and other trinkets.” A contemporary purchase of rights in Staten Island, New York, to which Minuit was also party, involved duffel cloth, iron kettles and axe heads, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, “Jew’s Harps,” and “diverse other wares”. “If similar trade goods were involved in the Manhattan arrangement,” Burrows and Wallace surmise, “then the Dutch were engaged in high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness in tasks ranging from clearing land to drilling wampum.” If the island was purchased from the Canarsees, they would have been living on Long Island and maybe passing through on a hunting trip. The “purchase” was understood differently by both parties, the local group having no conception of alienable real estate, as is always pointed out in modern accounts of the supposed transaction.
Here’s the punchline…after a series of brutal conflicts between the new Dutch inhabitants of Manhattan and various tribes who really had no concept of real estate or land ownership ensued, Peter Minuit was recalled back to the Netherlands to explain himself. He was then fired. Sometimes a bargain isn’t really a bargain.