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Blacks in colonial upper Great Lakes

George Bonga

The first people of African descent entered New France or Canada with the French. Louis XIV, in May 1689, permitted slavery in the colony. This was further legalized by decree and extended to the Upper Peninsula when the French settled here. However, in the early days most of the slaves were Native Americans and not blacks.

Although blacks possibly accompanied the earliest 17th century French traders and missionaries, the records of St. Anne’s Catholic Church at Fort Michilimackinac indicate the first known black residents. The first black slave to be clearly identified was a little girl, Veronique, who was baptized on January 19, 1743. She was the daughter of Bon Coeur (Good-Hearted) and Marguerite. They were both slaves belonging to a voyageur, Sieur Boutin, who had been forced to winter at Michilimackinac on his way to Illinois.

Other blacks were brought to the area and remained on a permanent basis. Sieur de Vercheres, the commandant of Fort Michilimackinac, owned Charles, who after religious instruction, was baptized in January 1744. In 1762 the Jesuit priest, Pierre du Jaunay, had a black slave, also named Pierre, who rather than being personal property, was considered the property of the church.

Under the French regime slaves were utilized to carry out domestic chores or to help with the many facets of the fur trade. One interesting fact was that unlike the British, the French has a provision whereby slaves could be freed at any time. Most of these freed slaves remained part of the frontier community.

According to the Treaty of Paris (1763), which transferred New France to the British, slavery was allowed to continue. During the British regime more black slaves entered the region. In the 1770s John Askin, a prominent merchant at the fort, held three black slaves: Charles, Jupiter Wendell, and Pompey, who were used in connection with the fur trade.

Blacks provided other important services in the little community. They were used in construction projects, especially when Fort Mackinac was built on Mackinac Island. In November 1779, two black lumbermen were rafting a load of lumber across the Straits of Mackinac when a strong wind drove the raft out of control. They were eventually saved by the crew of the Welcome near Bois Blanc Island.

Blacks also provided the music for the parties and dances in the community which were so popular during the long winters. A unique practice was to hire slaves out and then have the fee split between the slave and the owner.

One of the more complete stories of blacks in the region during the colonial and early American periods revolves around the Bonga family of Mackinac Island (also spelled Bongo and Bungo). Jean and Marie Jeanette Bonga were among 13 slaves captured by the British when they unsuccessfully attacked St. Louis in the spring of 1780 during the American Revolution.

The slaves were brought to Fort Mackinac and eventually Jean and two of the women were held by Captain Daniel Robertson. He eventually freed them, and Jean and Marie were married in St. Anne’s Church, after which they made Mackinac Island their home for a number of years. They purchased a house and lot, opened a tavern and the first hotel on the island and raised their family. Eventually the Bongas sold their property and moved to Detroit.

A number of their children remained in the North Country where they engaged in the fur trade. One son, Pierre, became a fur trader operating out of Fond du Lac (present day Duluth). He was known by the Ojibwa name Makadewiiyas or Mukdaweos which translates to “black-skinned.” Sources differ in accounts of Pierre’s marriage and family but it appears that like many fur traders he married an Ojibwa woman, Ogibwayquay.

Pierre and Ogibwayquay had several children, with various sources naming them as Etienne/Stephen, George, Jack, Marguerite, Rosalie and Charlotte. As Pierre Bonga was a relatively successful trader, he sent at least two of his sons to the east for schooling. George went to Montreal while Stephen went to Albany, New York, to become a Presbyterian missionary. Stephen did not finish his schooling and eventually the brothers returned to the Lake Superior region where they followed their father into the fur trade working for the American Fur Company. The brothers were known to speak multiple languages including English, French, and Anishnaabe allowing them to also work as translators.

In 1820 George drew the attention of Lewis Cass, who hired him as a guide and as a translator for the government’s negotiations with the Ojibwa. Henry R. Schoolcraft’s account of the expedition also mentions the grandchildren of the Bongas. At an Ojibwa village located three miles above the St. Louis River, Schoolcraft saw four Afro-Ojibwa children and met their mother. Their father was dead by this time.

Like his brother George, Stephen was often called upon as a translator assisting with native and non-native communications. In 1837, Stephen served as the interpreter at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling for Wisconsin Territory Governor Henry Dodge, who was trying to negotiate peace between a band of Ojibwa and a band of Dakota.

Also in 1837, George tracked down an Ojibwa man, Che-ga-wa-skung, who was accused of murdering Alfred Aitkin at Red Cedar Lake (now Cass Lake) and who had escaped from custody. George trailed him over five days and six nights during the winter before bringing him back to Fort Snelling. The ensuing criminal trial was reputedly the first in what was then part of Wisconsin Territory, and Che-ga-wa-skung was acquitted. The acquittal was based on the fact that Alfred Aitkin was half-Ojibwa and therefore the court decided it had no jurisdiction over the case. George was unpopular with some Ojibwa because of his role in the case, but he continued living with or near the tribe for the rest of his life.

In January 1839, George settled at Leech Lake, Minnesota. In 1842, he married Ashwinn, an Ojibwa woman. They had four children together. Around that time, the fur trade that had been the family’s livelihood dramatically declined due to the near extinction of the beaver and changing European fashions. In its place George and Ashwinn turned to lodge keeping. For many years, they welcomed travelers into their lodge on Leech Lake, although in May 1845, charges were filed against him for trading and selling liquor without a license. Some travelers reported on George’s storytelling of early Minnesota and singing for their enjoyment.

During the bitterly cold December of 1850, Stephen and his Ojibwa wife were part of a band of 3,000 Lake Superior Ojibwa who traveled 500 miles from Wisconsin to Minnesota’s Sandy Lake to receive annuities promised them by treaty. The meeting place was a disguised effort by the government to force the tribe to permanently relocate. With no provisions, the tribe returned home without their payments, losing more than 400 members to hunger or exposure.

As an expert voyageur, in 1857 Stephen was asked to guide artist Eastman Johnson through the Lake Superior region to paint Ojibwa people and their land. The tour included present-day locations of Grand Portage National Monument, Apostle Islands National Monument, and Isle Royale National Park. The resulting oil paintings, charcoals, and pastel drawings have gained renewed interest recently through national exhibitions.

Although Stephen left the seminary to join the family fur trading business, he was known for his piety throughout his life. In 1881 he helped organize the Methodist Episcopal Church in Superior, Wisconsin.

George died at his lodge in 1880 while his brother Stephen died near Duluth in 1884. Bungo Township in Cass County, Minnesota, is named after the family and their descendants can still be found in the local Ojibwa community.

The story of the Bonga family, as incomplete as it is, is indicative of what happened to the small number of black people who made the upper Great Lakes region their home in the early days.

Editor’s note: This work was adapted from an article originally published in WNMU-FM’s “Preview,” February 1985.

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