The Bonga's of Cass County

In a quiet, rural area of Cass County, you will find a humble place where forest and lake give way to rolling farmland

The Bonga's of Cass County

In a quiet, rural area of Cass County, you will find a humble place where forest and lake give way to rolling farmland, where steep glacial moraines give way to broad sweeping "outwash" plain, creeks and marshlands. Few know that such a place is named after some of the area's earliest residents, one of the truly great, but now forgotten families of early American history.

This is a name synonymous with the opening of the Northwest Territory, a name, while now lost to most local folks, was so highly regarded at one time that presidents, high officials and famous explorers, even the country's major newspapers, held it in the highest regard.

What is the name of this place and where is it located?

It's Bungo Township and it is located about seven miles west of the City of Pine River.

And what is the great family story this nameplace embodies?

The story begins in the mid 18th century, many thousands of miles away in the West Indies where a black slave by the name of Jean Bonga is born. Jean is brought to the upper Great Lakes' most prominent military post at Mackinaw as the property of and aide to the post's first British commandant, Capt. Daniel Robertson. When Robertson is reassigned in 1787, Bonga is freed in reward for his valuable service and remains to become Mackinaw Island's first inn-keeper, establishing the Island's great lodging industry that remains a world legacy to this day.

At Mackinaw, Jean Bonga and his wife have a son Pierre who later exceeds even his father's accomplishments. Pierre carves out an illustrious career as explorer and one of the Northwest Territory's most sought-after translators. Also born a slave, he wins his freedom for the vital service he provides as chief guide to the famed British exploration of the Red River Valley of the North, and, due to his great command of French, English and all the languages of the Great Lakes' Indians, is instrumental in critical treaty and trade negotiations between the Indians and the British, and soon after, the Americans.

With his newly won freedom, Pierre Bonga settles in northcentral Minnesota, and marries the daughter of the chief of the feared Pillager Indian Tribe, whose major village is located at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Gull rivers in Cass County. Together with his growing family and because of his strong relationship with the surrounding Sioux, Pillager and Chippewa Tribes, Pierre Bonga establishes an extensive network of fur trading posts extending from the Platte River south of Little Falls north to Leech Lake and all across central Cass County. It is one of these posts on the western branch of the Pine River, and the various interpretation of his name as "Bonga", "Bonza" and "Bungo" that later gives rise to the naming of both the township and the creek that runs through it.

But the family's fame reaches its zenith with the accomplishments of Pierre's two sons, Stephen and George. While continuing in the father's footsteps, these sons also become much sought-after guides, translators, traders, and intermediaries between the tribes and the whites. Stephen is recognized by scholars of early Minnesota history for his critical role in convincing the belligerent Pillager Chief "Hole-in-the Day" to lead the Minnesota Tribes to the negotiation table with the American military at Fort Snelling. This resulted in the opening of the key lands in Minnesota (then Wisconsin Territory) and northwestern Wisconsin to white settlement.

But George, quite possibly Cass County's first Black native son, outdid them all. George Bungo (Bonga) is considered by many national historians to be comparable to Dred Scott (another famous black man) in influencing the course of American history. Being half Black and half Indian, over 200 lbs and 6' 6" tall, he commanded the respect and awe of all with whom he came into contact. Like his father and brother, he was a highly respected trader, translator, guide and negotiator. He was a key member of the Cass Expedition of 1820, seeking the source of the Mississippi. And he was frequently asked by both sides to negotiate complex agreements between Indian Tribes and government officials all across the upper Midwest, often calming heated hostilities and bringing confidence where before there was only deep mistrust. His death in 1885 brought notice in the halls of Congress and in the major newspapers of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere across the country.

George Bungo and his family ancestors can be considered true early American, not just northern Minnesota, heroes and great symbols of the pioneering spirit of those who came to Cass County.

While those pioneering days of early exploration and settlement are long gone, signs of early American history can still be experienced on foot, paddling a canoe and from the comfort of a motorized vehicle from many vantage points across Cass County. They await your rediscovery. Check out Cass County's driving tours, hiking trails and canoe routes to retrace the steps of these.


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