Peter Minuit


Peter Minuit, Pieter Minuit, Pierre Minuit or Peter Minnewit (1580 – August 5, 1638) was from Wesel, in present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, then part of the Duchy of Cleves. He was Director of the Dutch colony of New Netherland from 1626 until 1633, and founded the Swedish colony of New Sweden in 1638. According to tradition, he purchased the island of Manhattan from Native Americans on May 24, 1626 for goods valued at 60 Dutch guilders, which in the 19th century was estimated to be the equivalent of US$24 (or $680 today).


Early life and education

Peter Minuit was born into a Protestant family that had moved from the City of Tournai, Hainaut, part of the Southern Netherlands, presently part of Wallonia, Belgium, to Wesel in Germany, in order to escape the Catholic Spanish Inquisition. Peter Minnewit, Minuit’s birth year is not exactly known but it is somewhere between 1580 and 1589.

Peter Minuit married Gertrude Raedts on August 20, 1613. From a wealthy family, Gertrude probably helped Peter Minuit in establishing himself as a broker. What products he dealt in is not known. That it involved diamonds is derived from a legal document, a Will, drawn up in 1645, in the Dutch City of Utrecht mentioning Peter Minnewit as a diamond cutter.

In 1625 he left Wesel and went to Holland, perhaps in flight from the Spanish who had occupied the town.

Career as Director of New Netherland

Minuit joined the Dutch West India Company, probably in the mid 1620s, and was sent to New Netherland in 1625 to search for tradable goods other than the animal pelts which were then the major product coming from New Netherland. He returned in the same year, and in 1626 was appointed the new governor general of New Netherland, taking over from Willem Verhulst, the previous governor general. He sailed to North America and arrived in the colony on May 4, 1626. On May 24, 1626, Minuit was credited with purchasing the island of Manhattan from the native Americans in exchange for traded goods valued at 60 guilders.

The figure of 60 guilders comes from a letter by a member of the board of the Dutch West India Company, Pieter Janszoon Schagen, to the States-General in November 1626. In 1846, a New York historian converted the figure of Fl 60 (or 60 guilders) to US$24. “[A] variable-rate myth being a contradiction in terms, the purchase price remains forever frozen at twenty-four dollars,” as Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace remarked in their history of New York. Sixty guilders in 1626 was valued at approximately $1,000 in 2006, according to the Institute for Social History of Amsterdam Based on the price of silver, Straight Dope author Cecil Adams calculated an equivalent of $72 in 1992.

The transaction is often viewed as one-sided and beneficial to the Dutch, although one popular history of Manhattan claims that Minuit actually purchased the island from the wrong tribe (the Canarsee, who lived on Long Island). In any event, there is no evidence that either the Dutch or the Indians believed they had swindled, or been swindled by, the other party to the deal An 1877 embellishment of the myth claimed that the Dutch offered “beads, buttons and other trinkets,” though there is no evidence for this. But according to researchers at the National Library of the Netherlands, “The original inhabitants of the area were unfamiliar with the European notions and definitions of ownership rights. For the Indians, water, air and land could not be traded. Such exchanges would also be difficult in practical terms because many groups migrated between their summer and winter quarters. It can be concluded that both parties probably went home with totally different interpretations of the sales agreement.”

A contemporary purchase of rights in nearby Staten Island, to which Minuit was also party, involved duffel cloth, iron kettles, 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.”

The calculation of $24 also fails to recognize that the concepts of property trading and ownership held by the 17th-century Dutch and East Coast natives were both different from modern conceptions. Comparisons to modern land dealing distort the reality of what Minuit was trying to do. Both the Dutch and the Indians undoubtedly included intangibles along with any hard goods in their concept of the total transactional value. For Indians and Minuit alike, both sides felt they were getting far more than a mere 60 guilders. For instance, the natives most certainly would have thought the trade included the value of the Dutch as potential military allies against rival Indian nations—a ‘good’ that could not be valued in currency alone. In addition, the value of the sale to Dutch and Indians alike would have included the prospect of future trade.

Minuit introduced a measure of democracy in the colony during his time in New Netherland. Upon his arrival in 1626, he proposed a plan to establish an advisory body to the governor general. The advisory body would be a council of five members, which would advise the governor general, and would jointly with the governor general develop, administer and adjudicate a body of laws to help govern the colony. In addition he proposed the institution of the schout-fiscal, half sheriff, half attorney-general, and all customs officer.

In 1631, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) suspended Minuit from his post for reasons that are unclear, but probably for abetting the landowning patroons who were engaging in illegal fur trade and otherwise enriching themselves against the interests and orders of the West India Company. He returned to Europe in August 1632 to explain his actions, but was dismissed and was succeeded as director by Wouter van Twiller.

Establishing the New Sweden colony

His friend Willem Usselincx, also disappointed by the WIC, drew Minuit’s attention to Swedish efforts to have found a colony on the Delaware River south of New Netherland. In 1636 or 1637, Minuit made arrangements with Samuel Blommaert and the Swedish government to create the first Swedish colony in the New World. Located on the lower Delaware River within territory earlier claimed by the Dutch, it was called New Sweden. Minuit and his company arrived on the Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel at Swedes’ Landing (now Wilmington, Delaware), in the spring of 1638. They constructed Fort Christina later that year, then returned to Stockholm for a second load of colonists, and made a side trip to the Caribbean on the return to pick up a shipment of tobacco for resale in Europe to make the voyage profitable. Minuit died during this voyage during a hurricane at St. Christopher in the Caribbean. Swedish Lt. Måns Nilsson Kling, whose rank was raised to captain about two years later, replaced him as governor. It took the government that long for the next governor from mainland Sweden to be appointed and travel to North America. Nine expeditions to the colony were carried out before the Dutch captured the colony in 1655, well after Minuit’s death.



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