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Bonga, George (c.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 what later became 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 and American Indians. He frequently 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 government.

Around 1802, George Bonga was born to a black father and his Ojibwe wife. His father, Pierre Bonga, was the son of Jean Bonga. Jean had been brought to Mackinac Island 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 started a family. 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 the area, 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.

In 1842 the American Fur Company folded. Bonga continued to work as a trader and opened a lodge on Leech Lake with his wife. For many years they welcomed travelers to their lodge. According to the reports of some of those travelers, Bonga enjoyed telling stories of early Minnesota and singing. As the fur trade declined, Bonga turned to the Indian trade. He monitored annuity payments to the Ojibwe and worked with local Indian agents. His business changed with the times and by 1870 he was a retired dry goods merchant. Bonga died at Leech Lake in 1874.

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

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

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

Related Images

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 winter cold. He brings the man back for one of the first recorded trials in what later became 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.

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.

1874

The generally agreed upon year of George Bonga's death.









  

Comments

It appears that Geo. Bonga and his brother Stephen and perhaps other family members were attached to Protestant missions in Ojibwe country. George was associated with ABCFM missions and Stephen was translator for Alfred Brunson when he worked up the Methodist missions in the late 1830s. The Bongas attended Mackinaw Mission before it folded in 1836. I believe that George Bonga conducted an ethical practice but I cannot validate my hunch. The family was strongly associated with mixed-blood Ojibwe politics and entrepreneurial activities and did not seem to have a strong connection to "African-American" institutions of the time, despite what you may read on M.L. King day in the funny papers. It appears that he was treated as a colleague by others in fur trade management but he does not seem to ever have achieved the status of "factor" or head of business but was middle management, working up transportation, storage, workers, and record-keeping for whatever annually assigned sub-region of the "Fond du Lac" trading region he was to supervise.

It is not true that George Bonga went into lodge keeping as his major occupation after 1842. The old Am Fur Company was not entirely dead yet, just morphed into new configurations and the old workers were hired by new entrepreneurs. The big change was the loss of the old Lake Superior supply route, once the LaPointe warehouse was closed in late 1840s. After that time, goods were commonly brought to Minnesota Territory's Ojibwe up the Mississippi through St. Paul to the Crow Wing area for distribution.

George Bonga worked for Henry Rice in the "fur trade" and then the "Indian trade" for many years roughly 1846 to at least 1853 and perhaps as late as the Civil War as a sub-contractor in northern Minnesota, in competition with some old former AFCo Ojibwe traders (perhaps the Aitkins who were rumored to be running liquor at that time). I assume he was working as an independent contractor in the post-Civil War period. I think he worked for Joel Bassett but am not yet sure of this. He is listed in the 1870 census as a "dry goods merchant" in Cass County and probably died 30 Nov 1874 at Leech Lake. [Chronology above is probably in error as to death date.]

After the pre-treaty fur trade collapsed with the advent of annuity payments and the severe drop in demand for fur, many former fur traders became Indian traders who provided goods not only to the villages for cash but also to the U.S. Government which in turn distributed them at annuity payment time. Fur trading continued, but the business was generally conducted on a credit & money basis, not on a credit & furs basis as it once had been.
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The "white man" who was murdered in late fall 1836 was Alfred Aitkin, mixed-blood son of AFCo Ojibwe trader Wm. A. Aitken who had a long history in Ojibwe country and who was the principal supplier of goods in northern Minnesota in the 1830s from the St. Louis River to the Canadian border and the Red River and south to Sandy Lake on the Mississippi. Aitkin organized a "posse" to capture the murderer. The failure of the legal system to punish the killer became a major theme affecting Indian-white relationships in Ojibwe country and perhaps beyond. Mixed bloods felt betrayed and began to be more aggressive in working for rights through treaty provisions, esp. land grants.

The murder was considered to be the result of either a love triangle or a misguided lover seeking revenge for being spurned. The crime was intentional.

Linda, thank you for your extensive comments. They show your thorough research into the primary sources. Our editorial team has made some changes to the text in response to your corrections. Thanks again for your deep engagement with the subject.