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buyer of Manhattan Island and founder of the first Swedish colony in America
Peter Minuit was born in Wesel, Germany, sometime around 1580, the son of Wallonean immigrants who were expatriated by the Spanish due to religious reasons. He moved to the Netherlands as a young man. Almost nothing is known about his early life except that his father died in 1609 and he took over the management of the household and his father's business at that time. On August 13, 1613 (some sources say 1615), he married Gertrude Raedts, who came from a wealthy family. By the late-1610's Minuit had established himself as a broker in trade goods; the exact goods he traded is not known, but his will suggests that diamonds made up at least part of his business.
Minuit joined the Dutch West India Company upon its founding in 1621, and in 1625 he was appointed Director-General of the company's New Netherland colony in America. He and two ships full of emigrants arrived at New Amsterdam on May 4, 1626. Within months of his arrival, Minuit concluded a treaty with an unknown group of Native Americans in which the natives agreed to allow Minuit's colony to occupy Manhattan Island in exchange for a variey of trade goods. Which tribe Minuit negotiated with was never recorded, nor was a complete listing of goods traded ever compiled. Although popular accounts say that Minuit bought Manhattan for the equivalent of $24 worth of trinkets, that figure is based on incomplete information. A letter from a Dutch West India Company director to the States-General of the Netherlands states that 60 guilders worth of goods were given to the natives in exchange for the island, but does not specify what types of goods were actually exchanged. That 60 guilder figure was converted into 24 U.S. dollars in the 1800's, but that figure assumes that the letter represented only a market value of the goods traded, and excluded the value assigned to those goods by the natives who received them. In other words, the natives quite likely valued those goods very highly and therefore believed they were getting a fair trade; they may even have believed they were getting more than the land was worth.
Aside from securing Manhattan Island for the Dutch, Minuit's time as Director-General was uneventful. For reasons unknown, he was relieved of his position in 1631, and sailed back to the Netherlands the following year.
In 1636 or 1637, Minuit was hired by the Swedish government to help establish a colony in America. Minuit and a group of colonists arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River in 1638, and established Christina near the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware, that same year. Not long after getting the colony established, Minuit was sailing back for Sweden when he made a side trip to the Caribbean to pick up a load of tobacco. His ship was subsequently caught in a hurricane, and Minuit was apparently lost at sea (his ship made it back to Sweden in 1641, but Minuit did not).
This page was last updated on January 15, 2017.