The Different Views of Land

Native people and the Dutch had very different views of land. Initially, Dutch traders had little interest in Native land. This would change once the Dutch West India Company was created in 1621. To keep the fur trade away from other European competitors, they brought more Dutch people to New York. As Dutch populations grew, so did their desire for Native land. In the early years of Native and Dutch trade, Native people exchanged land as a way of allowing the Dutch to use the land while Native people continued to live on it.

Exchange and Misunderstandings


To Europeans, land was a commodity, an item which could be bought and sold and assigned to an individual owner. Native Americans, did not appreciate the notion of land as a commodity, especially not in terms of individual ownership. As a result, Indian groups would sell land, but in their minds had only sold the rights to use the lands. It seems, in fact, that when they sold land to the Dutch they did not give up their right to occupy it either. The famous purchase of Manhattan Island for sixty guilders loses some of its impact as a great real estate deal when one considers that the Indians probably never intended to give it up, but rather to “lease” it for Dutch use while they continued to occupy it…

Previously published in De Halve Maen 72, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 75–83, reprinted in Margriet Lacy, ed., A Beautiful and Fruitful Place: Selected Rensselaerswijck Papers, vol. 3 (Albany: New Netherland Institute, 2013): 41–48

The Purchase of Manhattan

In 1626 Indians did everything by trade, and they did not believe that land could be privately owned, any more than could water, air, or sunlight. But they did believe in giving gifts for favors done. The Lenape—one of the tribes that lived on the island now known as Manhattan—interpreted the trade of goods as gifts given in appreciation for the right to share the land.

National Museum of the American Indian, Do All Indians Live in Tipis? (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2018), 78–79

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