Fur trader and translator George Bonga was one of the first African Americans born in what later became the state of 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 an African American 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 an enslaved man or an indentured servant, Jean Bonga was freed by the British soldier’s death. He married and started a family. Pierre Bonga, meanwhile, worked in the fur trade 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 brokered in 1820 and 1867, respectively.
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 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 Bonga’s life occurred in 1837. That year, an Ojibwe man named 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.
Though the spelling is different, Bungo Township in Cass County is named after Bonga’s family.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.