George Bonga was born in 1802 to Pierre, a freed enslaved African, and his mother, Ogibwayquay. His birth marked the beginning of the freed movement in Minnesota. Bonga was well educated, having gone to school in Montreal, and he spoke many languages, including English, French, and Ojibwe. When Bonga was 18 years old, he was hired by explorer Lewis Cass to help guide the Mississippi River headwaters’ search. The expedition, which lasted for 124 days, departed Detroit in four large canoes on May 24, 1820.
Besides guiding and working as a translator, George Bonga was also a trapper and fur trader like his father. In 1837, he became well known as he used his wilderness skills to capture an accused murderer after tracking him for six days and nights. After his fur trading career waned in the 1840s, he and his wife, Ashwinn, and their four children operated lodges for tourists at Leech and Otter Tail Lakes. Upon his death in 1880, Bonga was honored by the United States Congress.