Peter Minuit was born in Wesel, at the time part of the German Duchy of Cleves, near the border with Holland. In 1625 he sailed for the new Dutch colony of New Netherlands which was sponsored by the privately held West India Company. Whatever status in life Minuit had reached, he was prominent enough to be listed as a member of the Director’s Council.
The head of the colony at that time was Willem Verhulst, but in September 1626 he was dismissed and sent back to Holland. Minuit was named his successor, and he was officially appointed director-general.
It was in this capacity that he “purchased” Manhattan from the local Indians. He is said to have paid the Indians with trinkets worth about $24 at that time; certainly their value would be far more in today’s money, but still it was a bargain. In any case, the natives did not regard it as a sale, but simply a rent to allow the Dutch to use the land.
Minuit constructed a solid fort on the island and made it the center of the settlement he called New Amsterdam. He then worked to bring all the nearby Dutch settlements under the control of his colony. In 1627 he sent representatives to Governor Bradford and the Plymouth colony and began trading with the English there.
Meanwhile, Minuit had become engaged in a quarrel with the leaders of the colony’s powerful Dutch Reformed Church. In 1631, the Amsterdam authorities of the West India Company recalled Minuit to Holland. After a hearing, they dismissed him. Minuit retired to the place of his youth, the Duchy of Cleves.
In 1637, the Swedish government decided to sponsor a Swedish trading colony on the Delaware River. A former director of the West India Company who admired Minuit recommended him as the right man to head such an enterprise. Minuit agreed, and he even invested a large sum of his own money in the undertaking. He sailed in the fall of 1637, and in March 1638 purchased a large tract of land on the Delaware River.
The settlement was named New Sweden, and Minuit directed the building of Fort Christina, on the site of modern-day Wilmington, Delaware. When the trading post was completed, Minuit sailed for the Caribbean island of St. Christopher, where he exchanged his cargo for tobacco. While he was visiting another Dutch ship there, a hurricane struck and he was lost at sea.
Minuit was a hard-working and harddriving—and perhaps even hard-headed— businessman. Men like him made valuable contributions to establishing colonies in North America. The settlement Minuit founded at New Amsterdam would eventually be renamed New York City.