Anyone who does any amount of reading of history will start to get a sixth sense about famous stories and legends that deal with historical moment. This feeling is little more than a simple distrust of any common historical anecdote that’s easily understood by a five year. The reason for this distrust is remarkable simple – life is never simple, and any event is often far more nuanced than a one sentence retelling of the event. Europeans did not think that the world was flat at the time of Columbus; Paul Revere didn’t shout out “The British are coming!”; and Peter Minuit didn’t buy Manhattan for $24.
For one, a member of the Dutch West India Company, Pieter Janszoon Schagen, mentions in a report to the States-General in November 1626 that he heard from someone who heard from someone else about the sale price of 60 guilders. Schagen stated:
[T]hey have bought the island Manhattes from the wildmen for the value of sixty guilders.
This difference of currency alone should be enough to raise enough doubt in the $24 story. But the deal itself is worth looking into deeper than the exchange of monies.
First, there’s no distinct record on which natives Minuit dealt with in the first place. While both the Lenape (who resided on Manhattan) and the Canarsee (who resided on Long Island) are likely probabilities, there’s no evidence to state that Minuit even dealt with the correct tribe.
But, assuming he did deal with the Lenape, they were receiving more than the 60 guilders. The technological superiority of the Dutch would have been obvious to the tribe, and making friends with them would have been advantageous. Nothing keeps long standing rivals out of your neighborhood than having new friends with louder, quicker, and more deadly weaponry.
Additionally, having sudden access to new and/or improved technologies that the Dutch also added to the deal (such as pick axes, hoes, and awls) could have been seen as tremendously beneficial.
Still, all of this is mostly circumstantial speculation because whomever the Dutch dealt with left no record of the event. Presuming that the Dutch weren’t out to screw the aboriginal population (always a sketchy presumption when talking about the Dutch of that era – see any most recounting of the exploits for Jan Pieterszoon Coen if you doubt my position), then we can also presume that the local population saw benefit to the deal. That there’s no record of an immediate uprising (but those would come) of the natives soon after the deal points to a relatively smooth acceptance of the deal.
So where did the $24 number come from? Michelle Nevius and James Nevius, in their book Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, note the following:
In 1844, New York State historian John Romeyn Brodhead announced to the New-York Historical the discovery of (the Pieter Schagen) letter and it was Brodhead who converted the 60 guilders into $24.
The $24 number has stuck ever since, because it’s easy to remember, and paints the Lenape or Canarsee as to be so unsophisticated that they were easily swindled. This was a view of the Native Americans that was held by many of those with European heritage, and the statement by Brodhed soon became legend.