Have you ever wondered how New Amsterdam came to be New York? Why did the Dutch buy Manhattan in the first place, and did it really only cost them $24?
However, as odd and unappealing as this sounds, the renowned Dutch stinginess had a role to play in one of the most fascinating deals in the Netherlands’ history.
The nation of skilled traders managed to snatch a $1.7 trillion worth piece of land in one of North America’s largest cities for a mere couple of bucks… Or at least that’s how the story goes. But did the Dutch really manage to pull off such a steal?
The first settlers
Before the Dutch arrived in North America, the area where New York lies today was inhabited by Native Americans.
Then, in 1624, the first Dutch settlers sailing under the Dutch West India Company arrived at the Hudson River and based themselves on what is now known as Governor’s Island.
With that, they essentially created the first permanent European settlement in the continental US — Fort Orange. Some time passed in the newly founded colony, and the tiny island soon started to become too small for the new inhabitants.
One year later, the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam on the southern part of Manhattan Island — a piece of land which, at that time, still belonged to the Native Americans.
Was it really a steal?
The legend says that to fully legalize this settlement, the Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam at the time, Peter Minuit, fabulously stepped in. He offered the Natives trinkets and glass beads worth, in today’s money, around 24 bucks, in exchange for ownership of the land.
This shameless deal sounds almost too good to be true. Why? Well, because it is.
Peter Schaghen — a representative of the Dutch West India Company — was the first one to mention this purchase of Manhattan Island in a letter to the other company’s representatives. According to his letter, the Dutch actually bought Manhattan for the value of 60 Dutch guilders.
Some argue that these 60 guilders are equivalent to today’s 24 dollars. Yet this is also not entirely accurate. This number was calculated by historians in the 19th century, but as we all know, the value of a currency doesn’t stay unchanged for decades.
This means that the more accurate price for Manhattan in today’s money is around 1000 dollars! Perhaps a bit less of a steal now, but still pretty good if you think about New York’s property prices today. 😉
The fading new colony
Despite this successful buy, the Netherlands and the West India Company had little interest in permanently colonizing and developing the area of New Amsterdam.
Instead, they focused their attention on trade (particularly in fur and tobacco) which contributed to the general expansion of the Dutch empire.
The way the governance of the new colony was organized also didn’t really help the cause. The governors appointed by the Dutch West India Company were autocratic, ruthless, and not very popular with the colony’s inhabitants.
Why would the Dutch let such a precious piece of land fade away? The most likely reason for their lack of interest is the stability and prosperity of the Dutch Republic at that time.
With the absence of religious and political feuds, Dutchies back in Europe had no incentive to go chase their dreams in the newly established colony overseas.
Flourishing in the hands of the English
The lack of incoming migrants from the Netherlands, low investments, and despotic leadership eventually cost the Dutch their colony. In 1664, the English naval force sailed into the harbour and took over New Amsterdam without firing a single shot.
The governor of the time, Peter Stuyvesant, tried to resist the English takeover. However, this was ultimately unsuccessful because the inhabitants of New Netherland refused to help him.
The colony of 7,000 people accepted the English rule peacefully. Charles II of England gave the territory to his brother James II of England — the Duke of York — in whose honour it was later renamed to New York.
The new governor appointed by James II treated the Dutch inhabitants well, allowing them to keep their land, language, as well as religion. However, peace didn’t last very long after this takeover.
Exchanging New York for Suriname
In 1672, the Third Anglo-Dutch War broke out. During this naval conflict between the Dutch Republic and the alliance of England and France, the Dutch seized New York again in 1673.
The seizure was short and sweet, as a year later, the Dutch signed a peace treaty with the English, which returned New York to the hands of the English. As part of the same treaty, the Dutch were able to keep Suriname which they’d captured a few years prior in South America.
Even though, at that point, the Dutch influence over New York’s future development diminished significantly, signs of their presence are still visible in the city today. Some of the famous names, such as Haarlem or Brooklyn, come from their Dutch equivalents — Haarlem and Breukelen.
New York’s history is rich and fascinating. The role of the Dutch is just a speck, albeit an important one, in the city’s hundreds of years of existence.
Do you think the Dutch got a bargain with New York? What surprised you the most about this story? Let us know in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2021, and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.