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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Early Black History in Wisconsin

Here's a pop quiz for anyone who thinks they know Wisconsin history.

The record of African-American life in our state begins in the year:

a. 1967, with Milwaukee's fair housing marches;

b. 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie won the right to vote;

c. 1792, when Black fur traders settled at Marinette;

d. 1724, when an African-American slave was killed by the Fox Indians;

e. none of the above.

The correct answer is d (you can read the original text here). The heritage of African-Americans in our state begins before the birth of the United States, before the arrival of the Yankees, or of the first Germans, deep into the era of the French fur trade.

African-American Fur Traders

Probably the best-known early African-American family in Wisconsin were two generations of fur-traders in the Lake Superior region. Jean and Jeanne Bonga are thought to have come to Mackinac before 1786 as slaves belonging to English Capt. Daniel Robertson, who commanded British troops there. 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 asa guide and voyageur first for the British North West Company and later for the American Fur Company, who listed him on their payroll in 1818. Pierre criss-crossed northern Wisconsin and Minnesota for years, ultimately marrying into the Ojibwe tribe and settling near modern Superior. 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.

Learn More

To discover more about Wisconsin's African-American heritage, start at our page devoted to "Black History in Wisconsin."

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 1, 2013
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