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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Black Fur Traders on Lake Superior

If you ask most people about African-American history in Wisconsin, they're likely to think of Milwaukee's civil rights struggles in the 1960s. In fact, black settlers had been living here for nearly two centuries by then, and perhaps the best-known early African-Americans in the state were two generations of fur-traders in the Lake Superior region.

Jean and Jeanne Bonga are thought to have come to Mackinac with their children before 1786 as slaves belonging to English Capt. Daniel Robertson, who commanded the British garrison there from 1782 to 1787. After his death in 1787 they were freed, legally married, and opened the first hotel on the island. Jean Bonga died there in 1795.

Their son Pierre worked in the fur trade, first for the British North West Company and later for the American Fur Company, who listed him on their roles in 1818. Pierre criss-crossed northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, ultimately marrying into the Ojibwe tribe and settling near modern Superior/Duluth. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft visited his home there in the summer of 1820 and left this account:

"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... " The children were probably Stephen, George, Rosalie, and Charlotte.

Stephen Bonga (1799-1884; pictured here) went on to be a prominent trader and interpreter in the western Great Lakes. Sent away to be educated as a missionary, he rejected white society and returned to live with the Ojibwe. He worked as a fur trade clerk, traveling extensively throughout northern Minnesota and western Ontario between 1827 and 1833, and surviving the notorious Sandy Lake death march in 1850. In later life, he served as a guide and interpreter for artist Eastman Johnson. 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). He is the subject of this short biography from the National Park Service.

Descendants of Jean and Jeanne Bonga continued to live in Wisconsin well into the twentieth century.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on July 8, 2008

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