Portrait of Stephen Bonga | Photograph | Wisconsin Historical Society


Portrait of Stephen Bonga

Portrait of Stephen Bonga | Photograph | Wisconsin Historical Society
Portrait image of Stephen Bonga (1799-1884) pictured with a hat and walking stick.
Portrait image of Stephen Bonga (1799-1884) pictured with a hat and walking stick.
Image ID:55160
Creation Date:
Creator Name:Unknown
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Bonga was born at Park Point (opposite Wisconsin Point in today's Canal Park Duluth), the son of Pierre Bonga and his Ojibwe wife and the grandson of Jean & Jeannie Bonga who were slaves at Michlimackinac. He was on the Death March to Sandy Lake in the 1850s and on the Sandy Lake Annuity Role was listed #79 with the Fond du Lac Band.

The first Bongas were likely an enslaved couple belonging to a British officer commanding at Mackinac Island in the 1780s. Freed in 1787, Jean and Jeanne Bonga began a family. Their son, Pierre Bonga, worked in the fur trade for the North West Company, and later for the American Fur Company. Pierre married into the Ojibway tribe and fathered four sons, all of whom participated in the fur trade. One of them, Stephen Bonga was proud of his role in the non-native population and often made the confusing boast of being "the first white child born at the Head of the Lakes, " the region near the present-day cities of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.

As a young man, he was sent away for an education to become a Presbyterian missionary. He quit school, however and returned instead to the Lake Superior area where he married an Ojibway woman and entered the fur trade as an interpreter.

With brothers George and Jack, he spent the Winter of 1823-1824 with an American Fur Company party at a post named "Fort Misery" near the present location of Grand Portage National Monument. Promoted to the position of clerk, Stephen Bonga enjoyed considerable responsibility as he advanced in the fur trade hierarchy. He traded for the company in the border lakes region of northern Minnesota and western Ontario between 1827 and 1833.

As a clerk, Bonga frequently traveled through the waterways that would later become Voyageurs National Park. Stephen traveled widely during his lifetime and canoed on Lake Superior and many of the waterways of the western Great Lakes region, including the area that would later become the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.,

In later life, after he left the fur trade, he served as a guide and interpreter for artist Eastman Johnson. He accompanied Johnson during his Lake Superior travels to the areas of present-day Grand Portage National Monument, Apostle Islands National Monument, and Isle Royale National Park, where the artist sought subjects to portray.

Stephen Bonga died in 1884 near his birthplace, a well respected African American member of both the American Indian and non-native communities of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border region.

This image presented courtesy Ray 'Duke' Wolf of the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Tribe.

A detailed biography of Bonga is available online at the National Park Service's Telling All Americans' Stories.

Clothing and dress
Suits (Clothing)
Ojibwa Indians
African Americans

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Location:Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, 4th Floor, Madison, Wisconsin

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