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South Street Seaport Museum

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The South Street Seaport Museum of New York was chartered in April 1967. It pains me to admit that I was “chartered” in New York even before the museum. I’m even further pained to confess that I had never been to the museum until a few weeks ago.

This is a small, understated museum with a certain charm. Currently there are two exhibits on display. New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World explores the early Dutch settlement. Replete with maps, letters, grants and proclamations, many on loan from the National Archives of the Netherlands, it is a fascinating glimpse into the life and politics of the inhabitants of early to mid 17th century New Amsterdam. While most of the documents are official and somewhat dry, there are some all-too-human elements as well. I found myself smiling while reading several letters bitching and moaning about Peter Stuyvesant’s method of governance.

The highlight of the exhibit for me was the original letter from Peter Schaghen, written late summer 1626, advising the government in Amsterdam of the “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the local Native Americans. This is the earliest surviving record of the transaction. The accompanying description makes it clear that two enduring, commonly held beliefs about this are incorrect. When the letter was re-discovered in the 19th century, the purchase price of 60 guilders was simply converted into dollars at the then prevailing rate of exchange, thus $24.00. In 1626, however, 60 guilders was actually much more valuable, roughly equivalent to eight months average wage. Looking out my office window down 51st Street, I would still consider this a bargain!

The more fundamental misconception, however, is the notion of “purchase”. In the Native American worldview, they could no more sell land than they could sell air. In their view, they were more accurately granting the right of access and use to the Dutch. This wasn’t necessarily unique access either. They could just as easily grant such rights to other settlers, a situation which did, in fact, arise in other areas, much to the consternation of the groups involved.

The other exhibit is FDR at Sea, an exploration of Franklin Roosevelt’s lifelong love of the sea, primarily through items from his large collection of naval memorabilia. Much of this is on loan from the Presidential Library at Hyde Park. This exhibit was a bit drier and less interesting to me. I’m sure, however, that someone more interested in this sort of collecting would find the exhibit fascinating.

The Museum is at 12 Fulton Street, on the East side of Lower Manhattan. If you have the opportunity, it’s well worth a visit.

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