ILLUSTRATING THE MANHATTAN PURCHASE

By Peter A. Douglas 

If you know anything about the Dutch acquisition of Manhattan in 1626 you're sure to be familiar with the tenacious myth that Peter Minuit paid the Indians with beads and baubles. One of the reasons for the longevity of this fable is surely the number of descriptions of this event over the last century and a half. In addition to the accounts in history books and fictional works, there are numerous artistic depictions of the celebrated meeting. These contain various bogus elements, the main one being a chest brimming with cheap trinkets that the Dutchmen are displaying to the natives as payment for their land.

By necessity (for all we know of the Manhattan transaction is contained in a few words of second-hand reporting) these paintings and sketches are fanciful, and artists have let their imaginations run wild within the context of the universal myths that befog the event. It's hard to forgive professional historians and other authors who have swallowed and then enabled the fantasy, but those who illustrated this event can perhaps be forgiven for using a little artistic license, especially when they are falling into the same trap as most people regarding how it went down. It would be fair to say that the myth is responsible for what the illustrations depict, and also that the illustrations immortalize the myth. The illustrations are thus both victims and perpetrators. While misleading and overly romanticized, the artistic renderings of the "purchase" nevertheless offer quite an entertaining vision of this occasion, despite the need to take them with a pinch of salt.

Sometimes the Dutch are shown as slim and youthful; sometimes they are the more traditional burghers with the generous waistline. At times they appear earnest, sincere, and importunate; at other times they look rather formal, haughty, and grand, bearing flags, muskets, and swords as they overawe the Indians, urging them to accept the chests of trinkets. The natives too show a mixture of reactions to the outsiders, appearing naïve, deadpan, mystified, curious, dubious, noble, and in one sketch they are like children or jabbering caricatures of Indians as they cluster, awestruck by a length of striped cloth, around the stolid Dutch party. No illustration gives any clear sign of fear or enmity from either party. The impression conveyed is that of probably just what it was—a rather uncomfortable gathering of mutually uncomprehending strangers from hugely different backgrounds feeling their way towards areas of shared understanding. If it weren't for the cliché of chests full of trinkets, and perhaps some of the contrived settings, these illustrations would probably be acceptably accurate, at least in terms of simple human interaction.

It's clear that many of the artists were clueless about the Indians and did little research in order to get it right. Notable is the Indians' wildly differing appearance. Some illustrations show them almost naked or bare-chested, and with a couple of feathers in their hair, while others are elaborately dressed in leggings and ornate tasseled tunics. Some Indians have spiky feathers sticking up, while many others are more familiar to us because they are wearing richly eagle-feathered headdresses and thus look very much like Midwestern Plains Indians of the nineteenth century. It's as if Minuit were trading with the Sioux or the Cheyenne. Clearly many of the illustrators had very little idea of what northern American tribes looked like, nor did they take the trouble to find out about the observable differences among native peoples in terms of costume and ornament. What seems to emerge from these illustrations, therefore, is a rather careless and patronizing attitude towards the Indians along with the easy assumption of their innocent fascination with the white man's cheap and sparkling goods.

An example of these illustrations that contains a lot of detail is Alfred Fredericks' (d. 1926) painting Purchase of Manhattan Island by Peter Minuit, 1626. This shows a beach scene where there is a gathering of native inhabitants of Manhattan beneath a tree. Some are wearing out-of-place many-feathered war bonnets and richly decorated and fringed garments. They are being shown strings of beads, various jars, bowls, a small casket, and a candlestick. Many of these riches spill decoratively out of a chest at the feet of a bearded and mustachioed Dutchman holding a document, presumably Peter Minuit, and presumably the deed for the sale of Manhattan. He is gesturing towards the lavish and glittering display, some of which has been removed from the chest and is set out on a cloth on the sand. His kneeling companion is proffering an embroidered tasseled cloth to the impassive Indians, who seem as yet unconvinced by these strangers in funny hats. Seated in the foreground, two natives, one clutching a pipe, discuss the curious visitors. In the background we see a large ship from which a small boat has beached, its crew hauling up another heavy chest.

In all the illustrations there invariably appears one or more chests in which the Dutch have brought their trade goods. Sometimes, as in this case, another chest is being heaved to the site by some of Minuit's group. The chest's lid is always open and trinkets are draped over the edge, down its sides, and spilled on to the ground to display the contents, both to the Indians and to us. 

A 1939 oil painting in the collection of the New York Historical Society by an unidentified artist depicts the scene in a very similar way. Here again we see Indians, this time bare-chested and simply clad, also in a shady spot under a tree next to a beach. (It's worth noting that although the "purchase" took place in May, more than a few of the illustrations show trees in full summer foliage. This error is doubtless just more artistic license, something that none of these depictions lack.) Wearing little more than loincloths, these Indians are more suitably dressed for their eastern tribe than those in Fredericks' drawing; one carries a bow and two nubile women are also present. (Women occasionally feature in the illustrations, often showing great interest in necklaces and bolts of cloth and such traditionally more feminine concerns.) The pokerfaced Indian spokesman is standing with his arms folded, apparently not entirely persuaded yet by the display before him. Two Dutchman are near an open chest; the one who seems to be the leader wears a red suit with a tall hat and a sword, and he is gesturing at the chest's contents. The Dutchmen have open, eager faces, and are trying to convince the stern sachem to accept their offer. One is kneeling and holding up a length of red cloth. Again there is a ship in the distance, and two of its crew are carrying another chest up the beach. In this painting three axes are leaning against the chest, suggesting that the artist was aware at least that some useful goods must have been part of the deal too. In fact, although various trinkets and lengths of cloth predominate as trading items in these illustrations, if ever there are any useful items visible it is axes.

In a drawing in Charles B. Todd's A Brief History of the City of New York, published in 1899, we see a very different setting, for here the meeting is taking place inside a building. Minuit is lounging in a chair, wearing a hat and a sword, and holding a pipe. It is interesting to note the treatment of the subject by different artists. Minuit's demeanor here is very different from the Minuit in the 1939 painting, where he looks sincere and unsure of success. Here in Todd's book he is captured at a later point in the transaction where he looks relaxed and satisfied because the deal has been concluded. This is clear because Minuit is regarding a 4 very scrawny un-chieftain-like native who is hunched over a table with a quill in his hand, putting his mark on a document. At Minuit's elbow is a big chest from which the usual baubles are dangling. In the background another Dutchman is offering an Indian a beaded necklace. The veracity of the illustration can be gauged by Todd's reference to the Indians as "unkempt long-haired savages" who are "only too glad to give their island in exchange for the glittering baubles."

Another of the many improbable illustrations of the purchase event includes a large crowd of Dutch settlers in a fiesta-like atmosphere, including women, children, soldiers, and a priest. Another, a postcard from 1909, shows five bare-chested Indians seated at Minuit's feet in front of a longhouse. Each has a headdress consisting of a few vertical feathers; one smokes a long pipe while three companions hold up and examine strings of beads that the Dutchmen have pulled from a chest, along with some red cloth. A soldier with a musket stands in the rear.

Yet another drawing shows two Dutchmen in big floppy hats, beribboned shoes, and knee breeches meeting beneath a tree with three over-dressed and po-faced Indians. Here we again see the familiar error of a flamboyantly feathered Western war bonnet, extending right down the native's back. Before them stands a chest in which can be seen cloth and various baubles. Inevitably, the head Indian is gazing at a string of beads in his hand. One of the Dutchmen is pointing at a piece of paper that lies on a table set between them. No deed to Manhattan survives, but many of the artists who have depicted the transaction assume that one was completed, for their illustrations show such a document. In one painting it seems as if Minuit is holding up the deed, showing it to the chief Indian, while around them a varied tableau of characters shows Dutch children and women, an Indian examining a hatchet, a relaxed colonist sitting on a chest, smoking, and a barefoot northern Pocahontas shopping for cloth among the beads.

One detail of an illustration in Martha Lamb's History of the City of New York (1877) is of particular interest for its egregious error. It shows a Dutchman leaning over the usual chest in a gesture of munificence, offering a string of beads to a couple of Indians. To the left at his feet is a smaller box containing more goods overhanging its edge, including, surprisingly, a rosary—a highly unlikely trade object for a fiercely Protestant country like the Netherlands.

Apart from disregarding the facts about the true nature of the trade goods, what's especially noteworthy is that so many of the illustrations show the rendezvous taking place on or very close to a beach or a shoreline. In one illustration, the Indians have traveled to the meeting to meet Minuit in at least three canoes, which have been drawn up part way onto the land.

Another shoreline gathering is depicted on a postcard produced for the 1909 Hudson- Fulton Celebration. We see six Indians wearing long ceremonial war bonnets and elaborate robes gathered beneath a gnarly-rooted tree. Minuit, clutching a rolled up deed, and his companions have just hauled their longboat up on the shore and unloaded a few chests. One native sits casually, another smokes a pipe, but little interest is being shown in the goods. The meeting as shown is completely stiff and stylized, and the two groups seem to be just staring at each other. 

In many of these illustrations, an ocean-going ship, sometimes with sails incongruously set, is visible just offshore. Wherever the rendezvous took place, it hardly seems likely that the Dutch attendance required the use of a seagoing vessel. Although it's not known just where the meeting took place, the most likely location would be somewhere near the southern tip of the island, near where the Battery is today, close to the original settlement on Nut Island and to the small community on Manhattan. A shore meeting is certainly possible, and water transport would have been appropriate for hauling the heavy trade goods. It would be just as likely for the Dutch party to go by land, requiring a few horses and a wagon or two, though no illustration shows this.

This large sailing ship is probably just an attractive artistic motif rather than an attempt to recreate the circumstances of the famous meeting with any accuracy. Even if it proved more expedient to transport men and the trade goods by water, small boats would have sufficed, not a seagoing and impractical three-masted ship requiring a deep anchorage. Along with the meeting's shoreline setting, the problem with this ship being so often featured in the illustrations is the contrary implication that the viewer may take from this image. This is the unrealistic idea that Minuit has only just arrived in New Netherland and has been brought ashore right away, accompanied by some of his crew lugging chests full of trinkets, to make the trade with the Indians, who have somehow already been mysteriously summoned to the rendezvous. This was hardly practical, though we do know that Minuit struck the deal with the Indians soon after he set foot in the colony due to the pressing need to re-settle the colonists in the relative safety of Manhattan because, following the Daniel van Crieckenbeeck disaster in Fort Orange, he feared a full-scale war with the Mohawks. As the Dutch had instructions that the land must be purchased by legal title, Minuit wanted it formally acquired before he could begin the construction of the fort. Thus the matter of the purchase was urgent, but it was clearly not the first thing he did upon disembarking from his newly arrived ship.

Once standing south of Castle Clinton, a unique three-dimensional representation of the “purchase” may now be seen in New York’s Battery Park. Created for the 1926 tercentenary, the granite base of a flagpole shows a relief sculpture of an Indian wearing nothing more than a breechcloth and a many-feathered headdress receiving strings of beads from a well-to-do Dutchman wearing a ruff and a fine suit and hat. This being a work of art perhaps we should be more forgiving about the historical inaccuracies. However, because it marks such a proud and prominent event (as the inscription says “…Thus was laid the foundation of the city of New-York”), we should also deplore that what it depicts is so flawed and condescending.

However this meeting took place, these visualizations of it are nothing more than the artists’ overcooked ideas, without exception fitting in with the generally accepted “beads and baubles” notion of the event. Despite the long existence of more realistic and fact-based presumptions concerning what was traded, the belief that Manhattan was bought for trinkets is not easily shaken, and such shopworn formula illustrations go a long way to make sure of that. 

 


IMAGE 1

This information may be read beneath the image: “Purchase of Manhattan Island by Peter Minuit 1626.” “From the painting by Alfred Fredericks (died 1926) for the Title Guarantee and Trust Company,” circa 1910. Fredericks was a nineteenth century American illustrator, a member of the National Academy, and was active as a landscape and figure painter in New York City. He is remembered primarily for his book and magazine illustrations.

There are numerous images of this drawing on the Internet. One may be found at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/112814/The-Purchase-of-Manhattan-Island-by-Alfred-Fredericks-1910.

IMAGE 2

This is a painting of the Purchase of Manhattan Island by Peter Minuit by an unidentified artist, 1939. In the collection of the New York Historical Society. I found the illustration on the web. This information comes from the citation in the following book: “Peter Stuyvesant and the Origins of New York” by L.J. Krizner and Lisa Sita, 2001.

The painting was found here

IMAGE 3 (Indians seated before longhouse)

Several versions were found on the web. The version I used is a postcard. Given the visible date ((9/27/09) it might be from the Hudson-Fulton commemoration. URL is: http://myinwood.net/inwood-postcards-2/. Another is:

http://www.cardcow.com/299491/purchase-manhattan-island-from-indians-ethnic-native-americana

IMAGE 4 (Signing deed at a table)

No Information. Found on the web with the description “Purchasing Manhattan” The URL is:

http://www.heritage-history.com/?c=read&author=pratt&book=ahs1&story=dutch

IMAGE 5 (Canoes drawn upon shore)

The only information I have on this is that it’s a nineteenth century engraving. This detail comes from the website:

http://patrickmurfin.blogspot.com/2012/05/fanciful-19th-century-engraving-of.html

IMAGE 6

A postcard produced by the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission, 1909. Titled “Float – The Purchase of Manhattan.”

IMAGE 7 (Battery Park)

This monumental flagstaff commemorates the Dutch establishment of New Amsterdam and the seventeenth century European settlement that launched the modern metropolis of New York City. Designed by Hendrik Albertus van den Eijnde (1869-1939), an architectural sculptor from Haarlem in the Netherlands, the monument was dedicated on December 6,1926, to mark the tercentenary of Dutch settlement, and the so-called “purchase” of Manhattan from Native Americans. Several versions of this image can be found on the web. This one is at:

http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/hgvn/webroot/files/File/extra/atlanticworld/atlanticworld1EN/tentoon5.html

IMAGE 8

I have no information about this drawing. I found it on the web at:

http://www.pogues.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=38&t=11490

IMAGE 9

Painting by Edward Percy Moran (1962-1935).

Found on the web at:

http://boulderjewishnews.org/2011/ny-trivia-now-thats-a-bargain

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