by William Durbin
George Bonga was born near Duluth in 1802 to an African-American father and an Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) mother. He grew up to be a fur trader and a wilderness guide. Due to his strength of character and talents, he was well known in the Lake Superior region.
Bonga was well educated, as he attended school in Montreal and spoke English, French, and Ojibwe. He claimed to be both the "first black man born in this part of the country" and one of the "first two white men that ever came into this country." In the language of the time, Bonga was correct. He was one of only 14 African-Americans counted in the Minnesota Territory in the 1850 census. But sometimes, such as at treaty signings, Bonga was considered "white," because it was common for people to be classified only as Indian or non-Indian (or white). Many African-Americans in the United States were slaves in the early 1800s, but Bonga was a free man. His grandfather, Jean Bonga, had been an indentured servant to a British Army officer in Michigan. After the officer died, Jean was released from his contract and gained his freedom. George Bonga's grandfather and grandmother became fur traders.
Bonga's father, Pierre, was a fur trader and a guide for the famous explorer Alexander Henry Jr. George learned wilderness skills from his father and mother and followed in the family tradition of fur trading. He worked for the American Fur Company in the 1820s. In the 1830s, he traded at posts throughout northern Minnesota. The following story, "Meet the Guide," imagines a journey that George Bonga may have taken from Fond du Lac to Leech Lake in August 1836.
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