Over the course of the history of the United States, and what would become the United States, some incredible land deals have taken place on the continent. Here are four of the most impressive.
The Purchase of Manhattan Island 1626
The Dutch National Archives hold the only primary source reference to the sale of Manhattan, it is a letter composed by Dutch merchant Pieter Schaghen and directed to his employer, the West India Company. It states “they have purchased the Island of Manhattes from the savages for the value of 60 guilders”. Generally, “they” is thought to be Peter Minuit, also employed by the West India Company. No deed survives from this transaction, so it is impossible to know exactly who the contra-party was. Evidence suggests the Dutch were dealing with a Lenape tribe, though which one cannot be determined. It is also unclear if the tribe that conducted the transaction actually occupied that area, or if they were just passing through and so in effect sold another tribe’s land.
“For the value of 60 guilders.” What exactly made up those 60 guilders? Myth holds that it was beads and trinkets. However, the purchase of Staten Island (also for 60 guilders) was better documented and consisted of kettles, axes, hoes, harps and awls. 60 guilders in 1626 is worth $918.73 in today’s dollars. It has been suggested that the Native Americans were willing to trade the island for so low a price because they did not have the same conception of land ownership as the Europeans. However, there is conflicting evidence on this front, as even communal hunting ground was not other tribe’s land for the taking.
Since property values in Manhattan today average over $1000 per square foot, this ranks as one of the top land deals in North American history.
The Louisiana Purchase 1803
Many rank the Louisiana Purchase as the best American acquisition. Napoleon’s France had only recently gained ownership of the territory from Spain and Napoleon possessed dreams of building a French empirical foothold in Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the territory for $15 million was well worth it, in terms of the 530,000,000 acres (in today’s dollar that amounts to less than 42 cents an acre) purchased and from the perspective of insulating America from European influence.
The Alaska Purchase 1867
Prior to the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward began engineering the purchase of Alaska. Though the war delayed the deal, a renewed agreement with Russia was accepted in 1867. This purchase, like the Louisiana Territory acquisition, helped to solidify the United States’ ascendant role in the world. It reserved Alaska for American traders and explorers and secured to the United States the new state’s enormous oil and mineral resources, and at roughly 2 cents an acre in today’s values, it paid off.
There are a few other deals worth noting, like the aforementioned purchase of Staten Island, and the Treaty of the Danish West Indies that gave the U.S. a piece of the Virgin Islands, but these are some of the most noteworthy, both for their economic returns and for their strategic implications.