Born after 1802, George was schooled in Montreal, and later became a fur trader. He was famous in Minnesota for being, as his brother Stephen claimed, "One of the first two black children born in the state." He was also recognized for tracking down a suspected murderer in 1837, an Ojibwe named Che-Ga Wa Skung, then bringing the perpetrator back to justice at Fort Snelling. The ensuing criminal trial was reputedly the first in Minnesota.
George Bonga was described as standing over six feet tall and weighing 200+ pounds. Reports said that he would carry 700 pounds of furs and supplies at once. He served as an interpreter, and was believed to have acted as a guide and translator for artist Eastman Johnson and for governor Lewis Cass as well. Well respected in the region, the Bonga family remained in the fur trade until the 1860s. George Bonga died in 1880.
BiographyIn 1802, George Bonga was born to a black father and his Anishinaabe wife. His father, Pierre Bonga, was the son of Jean Bonga, who had been brought to the Minnesota Territory 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 his family settled in what is now Minnesota. Pierre Bonga worked as a fur trader with the Anishinaabe near Duluth. George was not his only son, and his 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 Anishinaabe. 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 as a translator for negotiations with the Anishinaabe. 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 Anishinaabe 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 'white' culture rather than that of the Anishinaabe. However, he also spoke against white men who treated Anishinaabe trappers unfairly. Bonga wrote letters on behalf of the Anishinaabe 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 Anishinaabe, further illustrate the ways that Bonga traversed cultural boundaries during this period.
A noteworthy incident in his life occurred in 1837. That year, an Anishinaabe 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 Minnesota territory, Che-ga-wa-skung was tried and acquitted. Bonga's actions were unpopular with some of the Anishinaabe, but he continued living with or near them for the rest of his life. Five years after the incident, he married Ashwinn, an Anishinaabe woman, and they had four children together.
Unfortunately for Bonga, that year, 1842, also marked the end of the American Fur Company. With the beaver nearly extinct and European fashions changing, the fur trade that had been his livelihood receded. In its place Bonga and his wife turned to lodge keeping. For many years, they welcomed travelers into their lodge on Leech Lake. According to the reports of some of those travelers, Bonga enjoyed telling stories of early Minnesota and singing. Bonga died there when he was around seventy years old.
Bungo Township in Cass County is named after his family, even though the spelling is different.