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Historic Diaries: James Doty, 1820

July 5, 1820: An African-American Fur Trade Family

Editor's Note:

This day they finally left wind-swept Lake Superior behind them and penetrated into forest, 18 days after leaving the Sault. They entered the harbor of Duluth-Superior, then called Fond du Lac, and up the St. Louis River that serves as the modern boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The fur trade post where they stopped was located near Oldenburg Point, in modern Jay Cooke State Park, Minn.


Schoolcraft made a note about one of Wisconsin's best-known fur trade figures, African-American trader Pierre Bonga:


"Three miles above the mouth of the St. Louis river there is a village of Chippeway Indians, of fourteen lodges, and containing a population of about sixty souls. Among these we noticed a negro who has been long in the service of the fur company, and who married a squaw, by whom he has four children. It is worthy of remark, that the children are as black as the father, and have the curled hair and glossy skin of the native African... "


Pierre Bonga was the son of Jean & Jeannie Bonga, slaves at Mackinac who were freed in 1787. One of the children whom Schoolcraft described was his son Stephen (1799-1884; pictured here), who went on to be a prominent trader and interpreter in the western Great Lakes (photo courtesy of Timm Severud, Winter, Wis.). Stephen Bonga liked to make the deliberately confusing boast that he was "the first white child born at the Head of the Lakes" (meaning non-Indian child).


Location: St. Louis River,

another helpful map of the region is here

View Doty's handwritten manuscript of this page

View page in the 1895 printed edition

View the original page in Schoolcraft's 1821 Narrative

We embarked at 1/4 before 3 this morn, and with the aid of a little fair wind we reached the Fond Du Lac river [St. Louis River, at modern Superior-Duluth] at 12 o'clock, 48 miles from the river Brule or Burnt wood, which we passed yesterday...


We came to an Indian village of 7 lodges where Indians were obtained to assist us in conveying
our things over the portage. This river is very crooked, and is enclosed on both sides by mountains. About 5 miles up we passed an old establishment of the N. W. Co's which they deserted during the late war. We reached the S. W. Co's establishment an hour before sunset where we are encamped, 21 miles from the m. of the river, and making 63 miles travel this day.


In ascending the river the wind was frequently fair. This place was first occupied 3 years since, during which several buildings have been erected. It is pleasantly situated on the brow of a high hill and at the head of several small Islands formed in the river. A spot of land of 3 or 4 acres from which the timber had been cut for fires, is tilled, and is now bearing very fine potatoes. The soil is a rich black mould. The Co. with great difficulty have transported to this place 3 horses, 3 cows, one yoke of oxen and 4 bulls. They also have the implements of husbandry. It was a great treat to obtain milk at this distance in the wilderness. A young crane about 3 ft. high had been tamed and was running around here.


Mr. Cotes had charge of the establishment. He informed me that Fort William, at which the S. W. Co. have a house, lies 78 leagues from this within 1/4 of a mile of Lake Superior, and at the junction of three rivers. These rivers rise in a high range of mountains which extend along the whole western shore of the Lake. Vessels may go up with safety to the Port.


Notwithstanding the river Brule [Bois Brule] is a rapid stream, it is frequently used in gaining the water of the Mississippi. It is ascended until it interlocks with the St. Croix river, where a portage is made to a branch of that river. On both sides portages are made around the rapids. Goddard's river lies between the river Brule and the Fond du Lac, as Mr. Cotes stated to me. There is scarcely any current perceptible in this river until you arrive at this place.

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