Born in Wesel circa 1580, Peter Minuit joined the Dutch West Indian Company in the 1620s. Named director of the New Netherland colony in 1626, he is said to have negotiated a deal for the island of Manhattan with a Native American tribe and helped develop a profitable fur trade in the region. Minuit later founded a Swedish colony in the Delaware Bay before his death in a Caribbean hurricane in 1638.
Peter Minuit was born circa 1580 in the port city of Wesel, then part of the Duchy of Cleves. Little is known of his early years. The son of a Wallonian immigrant named Johan, who likely left his homeland to avoid religious persecution, Minuit grew up in a period marked by continual strife between the Dutch and Spanish over control of the area.
Minuit established himself as a church deacon and a diamond cutter. In August 1613 he married Gertrude Raedts, the daughter of a burgomaster, and they likely settled in the Dutch city of Utrecht by 1615. He eventually joined the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC), which formed in 1621 to regulate colonization and trade with overseas outposts.
New Netherland Director
In 1625, Minuit made the voyage to New Netherland, a Dutch colony that stretched from modern-day Delaware into Connecticut. Then under the command of colony director Willem Verhulst, Minuit was assigned to explore the upper reaches of the North and South Rivers (the Hudson and the Delaware), and establish trade relations with indigenous tribes.
He returned to Holland that year, but with Verhulst ousted from his position, Minuit arrived in New Netherland again in May 1626 and settled in as the colony's third director. One of his first tasks was to "buy" Manhattan from its inhabitants, and sometime shortly after his arrival, he reputedly traded 60 guilders worth of beads, cloth and ornaments to the Lenape Indians for what he believed to be the rights to ownership of the island.
(Despite this widely spread anecdote, there are questions as to the veracity of this transaction. Some scholars have pointed out that Native-American communities did not have hold the same notions of land ownership as Europeans of the time, and in fact the Lenape might have seen the 60 guilder deal as only an offer to ensure safe passage through their territory. There's also the question of whether the Lenape were specifically involved in the deal, as opposed to another tribe, and if they would have legitimately held land rights for the entirety of Manhattan. Complicating the story further, a 1649 deed for Manhattan held by New Netherland Director General Petrus Stuyvesant put the land title in the name of Native-American representatives, begging the question of the existence of Minuit's deal two decades earlier.)
The deal enabled Minuit to consolidate the colony's scattered settlements, an important goal in the aftermath of a bloody battle at Fort Orange (present-day Albany) earlier that year. With the construction of Fort Amsterdam at the bottom of the island already underway, he commenced efforts to build 30 log cabins, a stone trading house and a horse-powered mill, with its second floor to be used for prayer services. Minuit also established a governing council of five members to enforce laws, though he remained the colony's ultimate ruling authority.
Establishment of Patroon System
Described as a large man of coarse manners, Minuit proved skilled at trading with Hudson and Delaware Valley tribes. During his tenure as governor, he exported more than 50,000 valuable fur pelts, worth more than 400,000 guilders. However, the settlement's focus on the fur trade at the expense of farming limited its growth, and by 1628 there were still only 270 colonial residents of Manhattan.
As a result, the WIC in 1629 established its patroon system, granting large tracts of property to any Dutchman who brought 50 workers to live in the colony. Although the system was developed for the purpose of cultivating the land, many patroons took advantage of loopholes to smuggle fur pelts and tobacco, and Minuit was accused of helping his favorites. After colony minister Jonas Michaelius wrote to the company about the director's various misdeeds, Minuit was ordered to return to Holland in 1631.
Upon stopping in England, Minuit was detained under the charge of illegally trading in English territory. The Dutch government eventually arranged for his safe passage home, at which point he was officially stripped of his title as governor of New Netherland and replaced by Sebastiaen Jansen Krol.
Swedish Service, Death and Legacy
Minuit resumed his business dealings in Europe, but he remained enamored with the opportunities that lay across the Atlantic. Teaming up with Samuel Blommaert, a WIC director and patroon, he successfully convinced the Swedish government to establish a colony in the Delaware region.
Given command of two ships, Minuit reached the Delaware Bay in March 1638 and began construction of Fort Christina at the site of modern-day Wilmington. Set to return to Sweden later that year, he detoured to Saint Christopher in the West Indies to acquire tobacco, but died at sea when a hurricane decimated the area.
Largely remembered for his purchase of Manhattan, Minuit's contributions are commemorated throughout the island. A stone marker in Inwood Hill Park indicates the alleged spot of his famed transaction, while children in East Harlem frequent a school and playground named after the former colony director. In addition, Peter Minuit Plaza is located outside the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan, the point from which the early Dutch settlement developed into a thriving metropolis.
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