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From voyageur to mediator, Bonga stands tall

n Editor's note: Barry Babcock of rural Laporte may be best known as a canoeist and wilderness advocate, but he's also an amateur historian of American history and the fur trade. Last week, he brought the story of George Bonga alive in a presenta...

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n Editor's note: Barry Babcock of rural Laporte may be best known as a canoeist and wilderness advocate, but he's also an amateur historian of American history and the fur trade. Last week, he brought the story of George Bonga alive in a presentation for the Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning.

George Bonga's story begins in Michigan in the late 1700s.

According to Barry Babcock, a British officer stationed at Fort Mackinac owned a male black slave named Jean Bonga. When the officer died, Jean became a free man and married another former slave named Jeanne.

"One can only imagine the life these former slaves led in this rugged wilderness," Babcock said. The Bongas prospered and had children, including a son, Pierre, who became a voyageur for the Northwest Fur Co. and took an Ojibwe wife.

Babcock explained voyageurs provided "the muscle of the Northwest fur trade," but history treats them as a class. History books overlook voyageurs as individual people, when, in fact, Babcock said, men, including the Bongas, have earned a place as cultural icons like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

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"These men had the ability to travel great distances (from Leech Lake in northern Minnesota to Mackinac in northern Michigan) in the wilderness on snowshoe and by canoe on a regular basis. They knew the north woods on an intimate basis and were as tough as spring steel," Babcock said.

Voyageurs carried tobacco and a Meerschaum pipe in their sashes and smoked when they took an occasional rest. They measured distances by "pipes," Babcock explained.

A fur trader with the Northwest Fur Co. named Alexander Henry Jr. employed Pierre and took him along to the Red River Valley in 1802-03. During Henry's absence in January 1803, he put Pierre in charge of the trading post.

Pierre Bonga had two sons, Stephen and George, who also became involved in the fur trade and who were legendary for their physical strength and wilderness skills. The brothers were over 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, which was extraordinary in those days.

Extraordinary strength

Stephen boasted he carried eight 90-pound packs across the nine-mile Grand Portage, the longest portage in the canoe route from Montreal to the Rocky Mountains. Some say George carried 700 pounds on the portage around the Dalles on the St. Louis River.

Stephen was in charge of the American post on Basswood Lake in the area that is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Babcock relates that about the time George was born in 1802, the fur trade was in transition from an era dominated by the French to one when the British and Americans were taking over.

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George was born at Fond du Lac (where Duluth is now). Because Pierre prospered, he sent George to boarding school in Montreal. When he returned to Minnesota, George "had good penmanship and his education was considered far above average for the times," Babcock said. George also could speak six or seven languages, including French, Ojibwe and Cree.

George worked for the American Fur Co. in the Flambeau area of Wisconsin and ended up "in headwaters country."

"I am certain George Bonga made many trips to the Headwaters of the Mississippi before Schoolcraft and others, including Lewis Cass," Babcock said. Cass had used George's skills as an interpreter at Fond du Lac and brought George to the area as his interpreter in 1820.

Babcock related that Cass came during a drought. At a powwow, Cass asked if a river flowed out of the lake (Upper Red Cedar, later renamed as Cass Lake) that he might follow and was told none did - not that year, anyway.

Henry Schoolcraft was with Cass on the journey and returned in 1832. "He had other things he was supposed to do," Babcock said, but Schoolcraft was ambitious and hired Ozawindib as a guide to take him to the source of the Mississippi. According to Babcock, Ozawindib was married to George's sister, Margaritte.

Babcock said from what he has read, Schoolcraft was an "egotistical, pompous, megalomaniac. It seems funny to think the real story is George Bonga and his sister 'discovered' the source, but were not concerned about promoting themselves."

'Safe in the wilderness'

Titling his presentation, "A Safe Abode in the Wilderness," Babcock concludes that if George Bonga had lived anywhere else in the United States, he couldn't have achieved what he did.

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His status attracted visits from US senators and railroad magnates. He represented Native Americans in treaty negotiations and when the fur trade died, he pleaded for Native Americans' well-being.

Evidence of his compassion is contained in a letter George wrote to Bishop Henry Whipple beseeching mercy for the Dakota Sioux before the infamous Mankato hanging in 1862. According to Babcock, as a result of George's intercession on the Dakotas' behalf, President Lincoln pardoned 265 Sioux who would have otherwise died.

Babcock recounts another story that casts George as a legendary figure in the state's history.

William Aitkin worked for the John Jacob Astor Fur Co. and his son, Alfred, was put in charge of the fur trading post at Cass Lake. Alfred became involved in a love triangle and was killed in 1837.

Babcock said, "George tracked down the alleged killer, an Ojibwe man named Ghe-ga-wa-skung. After doggedly pursuing him for six days and six nights in the winter wilderness, George found Ghe-ga-wa-skung and turned him over to authorities. Ghe-ga-wa-skung was tried in the first criminal trial in what was to become the state of Minnesota."

The court decided it had no jurisdiction and threw out the case 12 years before Minnesota became a territory and 21 years before it became a state.

The deed elevated George's stature even farther. According to Babcock, Judge Charles Flandrau visited George at his home on Leech Lake in 1856 and wrote an account of his two-week stay. The judge commented on Bonga's wealth and his being a man of consequence and prominence.

Flandrau wrote, "I was his guest for two weeks at Leech Lake...when I made a canoe voyage to the source of the Mississippi. He was a thorough gentleman in both feeling and deportment, and was very anxious to contribute to my pleasure during my stay with him.

"He (George) got up an excursion on the lake in a splendid birch bark canoe, manned by 12 men who paddled to the music of a French Canadian boat song, led by himself."

Babcock points out that George's story ends at about the time the fur trade in Minnesota was pretty much over. George was still living in 1872, when he wrote a short summary of his life.

It is believed he is buried at Onigum.

Accepted everywhere

Babcock said ultimately the importance of George Bonga's story is that he always took the high road and could cross over into two worlds. He represented Native Americans in negotiating treaty rights and also visited Dred Scott at Fort Snelling before the Supreme Court's 1857 decision that no black - free or slave - could claim US citizenship. The decision helped precipitate the civil war because of the angry resentment it aroused.

George is remembered (although his last name is misspelled) in Cass County where a creek and township (Bungo) are named after him. Lake Bonga, located north of Itasca State Park on the White Earth Reservation, also bears the name of this man of the wilderness.

Babcock's admiration for George as a figure in history is deeply rooted in the role he and other voyageurs carved out as men of the wilderness.

Acknowledging the richness of the wilderness here in the mid-1800s when George made his home on Leech Lake, Babcock points out there is more water surface in the Chippewa National Forest than any other except the Tongass in Alaska.

"This was his home. It's a beautiful story and one with a great deal of humanity," Babcock said.

For him, George Bonga's story also carries a message for the ages, delivered in a quote by Edward Abbey: "It is my fear that if we allow the freedom of the hills and the last of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may die with it."

"The lesson," said Babcock, "is that people came to America to escape something and where else can you find freedom, but in the wilderness.

"When you are backpacking in the Boundary Waters or canoeing on the Mississippi, it doesn't matter if you are an investment banker or a student, the wilderness is the great equalizer."

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