Pierre Bonga (Ojibwe: Makadewiiyas, "Black-skinned"; recorded as "Mukdaweos") (b.c. 1770s) was a black (African-American) trapper and interpreter for the North West Company, based in Canada, and later for John Jacob Astor's the American Fur Company, working primarily along the Red River of the North and near Lake Superior in present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Early life and education
Pierre was among the children of Jean and Marie-Jeanne Bonga, a slave couple. With their family, they had been brought to Mackinac Island by their master Captain Daniel Robertson, commander of the fort there from 1782 to his death in 1787. Freed at Robertson's death that year, the couple legally married. They stayed on the island, a center of the fur trade, and opened its first hotel. Jean Bonga died on Mackinac Island in 1795.
Pierre Bonga learned Ojibwe and English, as well as becoming highly skilled at trapping and scouting. He entered the fur trade in the region, working for the North West Company, based in British Canada, and later for the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor, as well as others in the area.
Sources differ in accounts of Bonga's marriage and family. According to the National Park Service and the Wisconsin Historical Society, Bonga married an Ojibway woman and they had four children, including Stephen, George, Rosalie and Charlotte Bonga. Some sources say all their children were sons, including a boy named Jack. The ethnologist Henry R. Schoolcraft, recorded meeting the unusual family in 1820 in his Narrative Journal of Travels, remarking that the children looked more African than Indian. Stephen Bonga later liked to describe himself as the "first white child" born in Wisconsin, as the Ojibwe classified all non-Native Americans as "white".
Historian William Sherman Savage documented the Bonga children as Marguerite (b. 1797-98 in the Lake Superior area-d. 1880) (m. Jacob Fahlstrom in 1823 at Fond du Lac); Stephen (b. June 1799 near Superior, Wisconsin -d. 1889) (m. Susan); and George (b. abt. 1802 near Duluth, Minnesota-d. 1884) (m. to two Ojibwe women).
- Both Stephen and George Bonga established reputations as interpreters and guides in the fur trade. Stephen Bonga acted as a guide to Eastman Johnson when the American artist traveled to the Wisconsin frontier on a trip to his sister. Bonga's introduction to the Ojibwe enabled Johnson to paint intimate studies of the people.
In popular culture
Sinclair Lewis, in his novel Kingsblood Royal (1947), presents his protagonist Neil Kingsblood as descended from Xavier Pic, a freed slave from the French colony of Martinique who had a life on the American frontier. Lewis describes Pic's life in the novel so that it loosely parallels that of the historic Pierre Bonga. In addition, Lewis directly refers to the Bonga family in the novel.