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George Bonga

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George Bonga

Birth
Duluth Heights, St. Louis County, Minnesota, USA
Death
30 Nov 1874 (aged 72)
Onigum, Cass County, Minnesota, USA
Burial
Cass County, Minnesota, USA Add to Map
Memorial ID
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George Bonga was a celebrated Voyageur both for the American Fur Company and later independently in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.

Born near Duluth in 1802 to Pierre Bonga, an African-American fur trader, and Ojibwekwe Ikwe, an Ojibwe woman.

George's grandparents Jean and Marie Jeanne Bonga, slaves from the West Indies lived as indentured servants of a British army officer on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Upon being freed at his death they started the family legacy of fur trading and are believed to be the first black family to have settled in the area.

George went to school in Montreal, Quebec and could speak English, French, and Ojibwe.

As a teen he served as an interpreter for Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass during his treaties with the Ojibwe, and continued to act as an interpreter and advocate for the Ojibwe in other settings.

He was well known for tracking down the alleged murder Che Ga Wa Skung and bringing him to the authorities and for his feats of strength. While the average Voyageur carried two 90 pound packs, George once carried nine of these packs up hill for a mile on a bet, the apparent record.

George had two brothers Stephen, and Jack who were also involved in the fur trade and two sisters Marguerite, and Elizabeth.

George was married twice, first to Nahgahnashequay and then to Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, both Ojibwe.

He had five children Peter, William, Jack, Susan with his first wife and George with his second. (Bio courtesy of FS)
George Bonga (August 20, 1802 – 1880) was a Black Indian fur trader, one of the first people of African descent born in the part of the Northwest Territory that later became the State of Minnesota. He was the second son born to an African-American father, Pierre Bonga, and an Ojibwe mother.
George Bonga was unflappable — even when folks Up North threatened to burn his trading post and wreck his canoes. George Bonga was a celebrated Voyageur both for the American Fur Company and later independently in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.
A 19th‑century North Woods fur trader, translator, canoe guide, storyteller and Leech Lake lodge owner, Bonga found himself in the middle of Minnesota's first murder case in 1837.

Alfred Aitkin, 21, who ran a trading post on what is now Cass Lake, had been fatally shot by an Ojibwe man involved in a love triangle that Aitkin tried to squelch.

Aitkin's father, William, was a big-shot trader and namesake of the county and town in central Minnesota. Alfred's mother was Ojibwe. The elder Aitkin asked Bonga to track down the suspect in his son's death, Che-ga-wa-skung, after he escaped and the initial search party failed to find him.

Son of a black father and Ojibwe mother, Bonga spoke French, English and Ojibwe. He stood 6-foot-6 and was a third-generation backwoodsman famous for singing voyageur songs while carrying hundreds of pounds of pelts and goods through northern Minnesota's swampy, mosquito-thick portage trails.

After a posse failed to track down Che-ga-wa-skung, Bonga headed out in the subzero chill of January 1837. Six days later, he returned with the suspect, tied to a dog sled, and transported him 250 miles to Fort Snelling.

Bonga warned William Aitkin that Ojibwe in the area were angry about the arrest, threatening arson and vandalism if Che-ga-wa-skung was hanged.

"For my part," Bonga wrote Aitkin, "I don't think they are really in earnest in these words."

Che-ga-wa-skung was eventually acquitted at a territorial trial in Prairie du Chien, Wis. Although he clearly killed young Aitkin, the victim's mother was Ojibwe. So jurors ruled that the murder didn't count because the deceased wasn't a full-blooded white citizen.

And it was in that jumbled racial context that Bonga grew to become the rare, well-respected person of color in early Minnesota.

"No word could be better trusted than that of George Bonga," said the Rev. Henry Whipple, Minnesota's first Episcopal bishop.

Here's the back story behind Bonga winding up one of 14 black Minnesotans counted in the 1850 territorial census: Back in the late-1700s, British military Capt. Daniel Robertson lived at a fort on Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan. He owned slaves named Jean and Marie-Jeannette Bonga — whose lineage traced from Africa to Jamaica and then the French-speaking West Indies.

When Robertson died in 1787, he freed the Bongas. They went into fur trading, as did their son, Pierre — George's father — who traversed northern Minnesota and established a trading post near Pembina, ND, on the Canadian border across from Winnipeg.

George was born near Duluth in 1802, one of five kids of Pierre and his Ojibwe wife, Ogibwayquay. Northwest Territory, United States

Pierre was successful enough to send his children to school in Montreal, where George mastered French and learned writing skills he would use later in life to craft letters detailing the wrongs perpetrated by white traders in early Minnesota.

"George was an extremely intelligent man whose letters to government leaders revealed all kinds of corruption among the white Indian agents," said Barry Babcock, a Bemidji-area historian who has been working on a book about the Bongas for a decade.

Bonga's career in the North Woods was bookended by two pivotal events. He helped lead Michigan Territory Gov. Lewis Cass' 1820 exploration that tried, and failed, to find the source of the Mississippi River. Bonga was 18 at the time. When he was 65, he helped negotiate the treaty establishing the White Earth Indian Reservation.

"He was instrumental in those talks and lobbied for a far larger reservation that would have spanned west to the Red River," Babcock said.

Bonga worked for years for the American Fur Co., opening posts on Otter Tail Lake and other sites. When the beaver pelt trade, which had been fueled by French hat fashions, died out amid over-trapping, the company went belly-up.

That same year, 1842, George married Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, an Ojibwe woman often referred to as Ashwinn. They had four children and ran one of the first lodges on Leech Lake.

Guests would recount his yarn spinning and after-dinner singing until he died near Leech Lake in 1880 at 78. Bungo Township in Cass County is named after his family and reflects the varied spellings of the era.
George had two brothers Stephen, and Jack who were also involved in the fur trade and two sisters Marguerite, and Elizabeth.

George was married twice, first to Nahgahnashequay and then to Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, both Ojibwe.
He had five children Peter, William, Jack, Susan with his first wife and George with his second.

Jack of all trades: Bonga spoke English, French and Ojibwe and served as a guide and fur trader for the American Fur Co. in the 1820s and '30s. When beaver trapping diminished, he ran a lodge on Leech Lake — singing and storytelling among his guests.
Rarity: Bonga was among only 14 blacks counted in the 1850 Minnesota Territory census.

Career highlights: At 18, Bonga helped guide a failed trek to find the source of the Mississippi River in 1820. At 65, he served as a witness at the signing of the treaty that created the White Earth Indian Reservation.
Died apparently at Leech Lake at his lodge. Leech Lake is a lake located in north central Minnesota, United States. It is southeast of Bemidji, located mainly within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and completely within the Chippewa National Forest. It is used as a reservoir. The lake is the third largest in Minnesota, it covers 102,947.83 acres (416.6151 km2), has 195 miles (314 km) of shoreline, and has a maximum depth of 156 feet(48 m).

Indian Cemetery, Leech Lake, Onigum, Minnesota
Old Agency Onigum Cemetery Onigum Cass County Minnesota, USA

daughter Susan "Susie" Bonga Wright #82429572 b.Leech Lake to George Bonga and Ashwewin.
George Bonga was a celebrated Voyageur both for the American Fur Company and later independently in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.

Born near Duluth in 1802 to Pierre Bonga, an African-American fur trader, and Ojibwekwe Ikwe, an Ojibwe woman.

George's grandparents Jean and Marie Jeanne Bonga, slaves from the West Indies lived as indentured servants of a British army officer on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Upon being freed at his death they started the family legacy of fur trading and are believed to be the first black family to have settled in the area.

George went to school in Montreal, Quebec and could speak English, French, and Ojibwe.

As a teen he served as an interpreter for Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass during his treaties with the Ojibwe, and continued to act as an interpreter and advocate for the Ojibwe in other settings.

He was well known for tracking down the alleged murder Che Ga Wa Skung and bringing him to the authorities and for his feats of strength. While the average Voyageur carried two 90 pound packs, George once carried nine of these packs up hill for a mile on a bet, the apparent record.

George had two brothers Stephen, and Jack who were also involved in the fur trade and two sisters Marguerite, and Elizabeth.

George was married twice, first to Nahgahnashequay and then to Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, both Ojibwe.

He had five children Peter, William, Jack, Susan with his first wife and George with his second. (Bio courtesy of FS)
George Bonga (August 20, 1802 – 1880) was a Black Indian fur trader, one of the first people of African descent born in the part of the Northwest Territory that later became the State of Minnesota. He was the second son born to an African-American father, Pierre Bonga, and an Ojibwe mother.
George Bonga was unflappable — even when folks Up North threatened to burn his trading post and wreck his canoes. George Bonga was a celebrated Voyageur both for the American Fur Company and later independently in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.
A 19th‑century North Woods fur trader, translator, canoe guide, storyteller and Leech Lake lodge owner, Bonga found himself in the middle of Minnesota's first murder case in 1837.

Alfred Aitkin, 21, who ran a trading post on what is now Cass Lake, had been fatally shot by an Ojibwe man involved in a love triangle that Aitkin tried to squelch.

Aitkin's father, William, was a big-shot trader and namesake of the county and town in central Minnesota. Alfred's mother was Ojibwe. The elder Aitkin asked Bonga to track down the suspect in his son's death, Che-ga-wa-skung, after he escaped and the initial search party failed to find him.

Son of a black father and Ojibwe mother, Bonga spoke French, English and Ojibwe. He stood 6-foot-6 and was a third-generation backwoodsman famous for singing voyageur songs while carrying hundreds of pounds of pelts and goods through northern Minnesota's swampy, mosquito-thick portage trails.

After a posse failed to track down Che-ga-wa-skung, Bonga headed out in the subzero chill of January 1837. Six days later, he returned with the suspect, tied to a dog sled, and transported him 250 miles to Fort Snelling.

Bonga warned William Aitkin that Ojibwe in the area were angry about the arrest, threatening arson and vandalism if Che-ga-wa-skung was hanged.

"For my part," Bonga wrote Aitkin, "I don't think they are really in earnest in these words."

Che-ga-wa-skung was eventually acquitted at a territorial trial in Prairie du Chien, Wis. Although he clearly killed young Aitkin, the victim's mother was Ojibwe. So jurors ruled that the murder didn't count because the deceased wasn't a full-blooded white citizen.

And it was in that jumbled racial context that Bonga grew to become the rare, well-respected person of color in early Minnesota.

"No word could be better trusted than that of George Bonga," said the Rev. Henry Whipple, Minnesota's first Episcopal bishop.

Here's the back story behind Bonga winding up one of 14 black Minnesotans counted in the 1850 territorial census: Back in the late-1700s, British military Capt. Daniel Robertson lived at a fort on Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan. He owned slaves named Jean and Marie-Jeannette Bonga — whose lineage traced from Africa to Jamaica and then the French-speaking West Indies.

When Robertson died in 1787, he freed the Bongas. They went into fur trading, as did their son, Pierre — George's father — who traversed northern Minnesota and established a trading post near Pembina, ND, on the Canadian border across from Winnipeg.

George was born near Duluth in 1802, one of five kids of Pierre and his Ojibwe wife, Ogibwayquay. Northwest Territory, United States

Pierre was successful enough to send his children to school in Montreal, where George mastered French and learned writing skills he would use later in life to craft letters detailing the wrongs perpetrated by white traders in early Minnesota.

"George was an extremely intelligent man whose letters to government leaders revealed all kinds of corruption among the white Indian agents," said Barry Babcock, a Bemidji-area historian who has been working on a book about the Bongas for a decade.

Bonga's career in the North Woods was bookended by two pivotal events. He helped lead Michigan Territory Gov. Lewis Cass' 1820 exploration that tried, and failed, to find the source of the Mississippi River. Bonga was 18 at the time. When he was 65, he helped negotiate the treaty establishing the White Earth Indian Reservation.

"He was instrumental in those talks and lobbied for a far larger reservation that would have spanned west to the Red River," Babcock said.

Bonga worked for years for the American Fur Co., opening posts on Otter Tail Lake and other sites. When the beaver pelt trade, which had been fueled by French hat fashions, died out amid over-trapping, the company went belly-up.

That same year, 1842, George married Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, an Ojibwe woman often referred to as Ashwinn. They had four children and ran one of the first lodges on Leech Lake.

Guests would recount his yarn spinning and after-dinner singing until he died near Leech Lake in 1880 at 78. Bungo Township in Cass County is named after his family and reflects the varied spellings of the era.
George had two brothers Stephen, and Jack who were also involved in the fur trade and two sisters Marguerite, and Elizabeth.

George was married twice, first to Nahgahnashequay and then to Baybahmausheak Ashwewin, both Ojibwe.
He had five children Peter, William, Jack, Susan with his first wife and George with his second.

Jack of all trades: Bonga spoke English, French and Ojibwe and served as a guide and fur trader for the American Fur Co. in the 1820s and '30s. When beaver trapping diminished, he ran a lodge on Leech Lake — singing and storytelling among his guests.
Rarity: Bonga was among only 14 blacks counted in the 1850 Minnesota Territory census.

Career highlights: At 18, Bonga helped guide a failed trek to find the source of the Mississippi River in 1820. At 65, he served as a witness at the signing of the treaty that created the White Earth Indian Reservation.
Died apparently at Leech Lake at his lodge. Leech Lake is a lake located in north central Minnesota, United States. It is southeast of Bemidji, located mainly within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and completely within the Chippewa National Forest. It is used as a reservoir. The lake is the third largest in Minnesota, it covers 102,947.83 acres (416.6151 km2), has 195 miles (314 km) of shoreline, and has a maximum depth of 156 feet(48 m).

Indian Cemetery, Leech Lake, Onigum, Minnesota
Old Agency Onigum Cemetery Onigum Cass County Minnesota, USA

daughter Susan "Susie" Bonga Wright #82429572 b.Leech Lake to George Bonga and Ashwewin.

Gravesite Details

Died near Leech lake at his lodge



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