Historical African American gave his name to Cass County landmark, township
George Bonga was an advocate for fur traders and Native Americans throughout Minnesota
PINE RIVER — February is Black History Month and a time of year when Americans are reminded of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.
One lesser known historical African American figure gave his name to Bungo Creek and Bungo Township west of Pine River.
According to the "Cass County Heritage" centennial book, George Bonga was the son of an African American father, Pierre, and his Ojibwe wife, Maria, of Fort Michilimackinac on Mackinac Island.
Pierre was the freed son of Jean Bonga, and another figure famous in his own right for his works to interpret between British settlers and Pillager Ojibwe.
Of late the Indians have had a poor opinion of the government. I must say, they have good reason for it. Most of this feeling has brought on through the selfishness and negligence of the agents.
Like his father, Bonga was fluent in French, English and at least one Native American language. His skills in these regards and his knowledge of the land put him in high demand fairly early in life.
Native Americans, fur traders, government agents dealing with Native American treaties and members of Congress all looked to Bonga as an intermediary, likely due to the reputation he built.
Some records say Bonga was over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. Accounts of his strengths said he could carry as many as six packs (weighing a possibly exaggerated 700 pounds) while traveling, making him not only big and tall, but strong to match his frame.
An entry in the Pine River Centennial "Logsleds to Snowmobiles" book reads: "In 1820, at age 18, George Bonga became a member of the party of Governor Lewis Cass's unsuccessful expedition to locate the source of the Mississippi River."
He also served as Cass' interpreter during a treaty council with the Ojibwe at Fond du Lac, and has his signature on treaties from that era. The Cass expedition is the one best known by Bungo Township residents.
Bonga, who at the time was just a teenager hired as a paddler, said to Cass, 'If you give me three canoes, I will have him back to Fort Snelling in just a matter of three days,' which was thought to be basically impossible.
"We grew up knowing the name George Bonga, and there's been several stories told about him," said Greg Leverington, Bungo Township resident. "He was involved in the Cass expedition to find the headwaters of the Mississippi, and there's a monument for him in Itasca."
Stories say Bonga's familiarity with his trading territory allowed him to travel it much faster than those who were just exploring, which may have come in handy for the Cass expedition, if true.
"I remember hearing about him on the expedition," Leverington said. "One of Cass' trusted companions was very sick and they didn't know what to do. They traveled for several days until they were very worried.
“Bonga, who at the time was just a teenager hired as a paddler, said to Cass, 'If you give me three canoes, I will have him back to Fort Snelling in just a matter of three days,' which was thought to be basically impossible,” Leverington said.
“Cass agreed because they were concerned for the guy, and Bonga traveled west through the Steamboat swamps that connected to the Crow Wing instead of fighting the Mississippi and all its curves. He got him back and in a short time rejoined the expedition," he said.
Bonga operated as a fur trader with the American Fur Trading company. He used his bilingual skills to trade with, negotiate with and advocate for his Native American neighbors, including Chief Hole-in-The-Day.
"Logsleds to Snowmobiles" says: "Being respected by both Indian and white, he was frequently sought as an arbitrator."
Bonga was involved in the first criminal proceedings in what would later become Minnesota. In 1837 an Ojibwe man, Che-ga-wa-skung murdered Alfred Aitken, a half-Ojibwe man at what is now Cass Lake. Aitken was son of William Alexander Aitken, Aitkin county's namesake. According to the Star Tribune's "Unflappable fur trader was at heart of state's first murder case", the suspect escaped from custody, prompting Bonga to track him for five days and six nights in the winter before capturing him and bringing him back for trial.
Bonga, referring to his participation in European American culture, and probably with a bit of jest, often called himself one of the first two white men in northern Minnesota, according to MnOpedia.org and Leverington.
Being respected by both Indian and white, he was frequently sought as an arbitrator.
The letters of George Bonga to Joel B. Bassett, government agent to the Chippewa Native Americans in a young Minnesota, were printed in the historical book, "The Journal of African American History,” published by the University of Chicago Press.
Bonga often wrote in support of the concerns of the local Native Americans, sometimes expressing worry of a possible uprising.
His letters in 1866 include a plea that Hole-in-the-Day and his group be given a large tract of land that they believed was included in the original treaty. Bonga describes the land as having ample wild rice beds, maple trees and fishing.
Bonga wrote: "It is a great pity, that there is a strip of land, that does not come in their reserve, which if it did, would be one of the best countries to locate Indians on, that could be wished for, I mean that part of the country, that would take in White Earth Lake in a straight line to the headwaters of Buffalo Creek — there is only a little of this country that a white man would think of settling on, whereas it would add to their reserve, a strip of land well adapted to their mode of living. There is more sugar trees in that country than I was aware of. It would also add two or three extensive rice fields."
Bonga also complained on behalf of the Native Americans of the quality of the government officials handling their business.
"Of late the Indians have had a poor opinion of the government. I must say, they have good reason for it. Most of this feeling has brought on through the selfishness and negligence of the agents," Bonga wrote.
Bonga was a prominent trader, likely due to his charisma, intelligence, local knowledge and physical strength.
"Bonga trading posts were known to have been built on Leech Lake, Ten Mile Lake, as far south as Lac Platte (Platte Lake), and on several lakes and streams 'west of the Mississippi between Leech Lake and Morrison's.' Reportedly, a 'Bonga post' was located on the south branch of the Pine River west of the present village site. Such a post would explain the names 'Bungo Creek' and 'Bungo Township'," the Pine River centennial book reads.
Along with Dred Scott, George Bonga is one of the two (African Americans) who profoundly influenced the early history of Minnesota, and his influence was even more direct than Scott. George Bonga's death in 1885 was noted in newspapers throughout the country.
In the "Cass County Heritage" book, contributor Warren Huffman said Bungo Township has long claimed in oral tradition to have been the location of a Bonga wintering post. As a result, Bonga's photo hangs in the township hall, and his story has been shared by some Bungo residents.
Some speculate the post may have been merely a fanciful rumor, but tradition has long said otherwise near Pine River.
Bonga's name was sometimes changed to various other forms, including Bungo and Bonka. "Logsleds to Snowmobiles" says there are six lakes, streams and townships in the United States and Canada named after Bonga.
He had made a significant mark on Minnesota history. He was featured in Charlie Maguire's album "Wilderness Road" Which talks about Minnesota history. Author Barry Babcock is also releasing a book about Bonga called "Book of Bonga: A Safe Home in the Wilderness" in May.
"Logsleds to Snowmobile" says of his death: "Along with Dred Scott, George Bonga is one of the two (African Americans) who profoundly influenced the early history of Minnesota, and his influence was even more direct than Scott. George Bonga's death in 1885 was noted in newspapers throughout the country."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.