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Bonga, George (1802–1874)

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George Bonga

George Bonga, c. 1870.

Fur trader and translator, George Bonga was one of the first black men born in Minnesota. His mother was Ojibwe, as were both of his wives. Through these relationships, Bonga was part of the mixed racial and cultural groups that connected trading companies to American Indians in the Minnesota territory and guided white immigrants and traders through the region. Comfortable in many worlds, Bonga often worked as an advocate for the Ojibwe in their dealings with trading companies and the Minnesota government.

In 1802, George Bonga was born to a black father and his Ojibwe wife. His father, Pierre Bonga, was the son of Jean Bonga, who had been brought to Minnesota Territory after the American Revolution by a British officer. Either a slave or indentured servant, Jean Bonga was freed by the British soldier's death. He married and his family settled in what is now Minnesota. Pierre Bonga worked as a fur trader with the Ojibwe near Duluth. George's younger brother, Stephen Bonga, was also a notable fur trader and translator in the region.

Pierre Bonga was a relatively successful trader, and he sent George to Montreal for school. When he returned to the Great Lakes region, George spoke fluent English, French, and Ojibwe. Bonga followed in his father's footsteps and became a fur trader with the American Fur Company. While working for the fur company, Bonga drew the attention of Lewis Cass. Cass hired Bonga as a guide and translator for negotiations with the Ojibwe. Bonga's signature is on treaties in 1820 and 1867.

As a translator Bonga would have had to earn the trust of both sides in the negotiations, and he often moved between white and American Indian communities. Comfortable in white and Ojibwe society, Bonga identified with both. Reportedly, Bonga called himself one of the first two white men in Northern Minnesota. He was not speaking of the color of his skin, which was dark, but instead about his participation in European American culture. However, he also spoke against white men who treated Ojibwe trappers unfairly. Bonga wrote letters on behalf of the Ojibwe complaining to the state government about individual Indian agents in the region. His letters, which point out both his connections to the white government and the Ojibwe, further illustrate the ways that Bonga traversed cultural boundaries during this period.

A noteworthy incident in his life occurred in 1837. That year, an Ojibwe man Che-ga-wa-skung was accused of murdering a white man at Cass Lake, known as Red Cedar Lake at the time. Though initially in custody, Che-ga-wa-skung escaped. According to contemporary accounts, Bonga trailed the man over five days and six nights during the winter, eventually catching him. Bonga brought the man back for trial. In one of the first criminal proceedings in Minnesota Territory, Che-ga-wa-skung was tried and acquitted. Bonga's actions were unpopular with some of the Ojibwe, but he continued living with or near them for the rest of his life. Five years after the incident, he married Ashwinn, an Ojibwe woman, and they had four children together.

Unfortunately for Bonga, that year, 1842, also marked the end of the American Fur Company. With the beaver nearly extinct and European fashions changing, the fur trade that had been his livelihood declined. In its place Bonga and his wife turned to lodge keeping. For many years, they welcomed travelers into their lodge on Leech Lake. According to the reports of some of those travelers, Bonga enjoyed telling stories of early Minnesota and singing. Bonga died there in 1874.

Bungo Township in Cass County is named after his family, even though the spelling is different.

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Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Athaneum, 1986.

McWatt, Arthur C. Crusaders for Justice: A Chronicle of Protest by Agitators, Advocates, and Activists in their Struggle for Human Rights in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1802–1985. Brooklyn Park: Papyrus Publishing Inc., 2009.

White, Bruce M. "The Power of Whiteness: Or, the Life and Times of Joseph Rolette, Jr." Minnesota History 56, no. 4 (Winter 1998/1999): 178–197.
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/56/v56i04p178-197.pdf

Related Audio

MN90: George Bonga: Minnesota's First Fur Trader | Details

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George Bonga
George Bonga
Stephen Bonga
Stephen Bonga
William Bonga, Ojibway.
William Bonga, Ojibway.

Turning Point

In 1837, George Bonga tracks an accused murderer for six days and five nights in the Minnesota winter. He brings the man back for one of the first recorded trials in Minnesota.

Chronology

1802
George Bonga is born near what is now Duluth. His father, Pierre Bonga is the son of a former slave or servant; his mother is Ojibwe.
1820
Lewis Cass hires Bonga as an interpreter. Having attended school in Montreal, Bonga spoke fluent English, French, and Ojibwe.
1837
Bonga tracks a fugitive Ojibwe man accused of murder. The man is ultimately acquitted in one of the first jury trials in the region.
1842
Bonga marries Ashwinn, an Ojibwe woman. The same year, the American Fur Company goes bankrupt. Some time after, Bonga leaves the fur trade to host visitors in lodges at Leech Lake and other locations with his wife.
1856
Charles Flandrau spends two weeks in Bonga's lodge.
1867
Bonga's name appears as translator on a treaty between whites and Ojibwe at White Earth.
1880
The generally agreed upon year of George Bonga's death.