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Barry Babcock: The Bonga Family in MN History

“The stories of the Bongas, all of them, are so compelling and they’re so intertwined with early Minnesota history…at nearly every treaty that was made with both the Ojibwe and the Dakota, a Bonga served as an interpreter….My book, I think, is going to rock Minnesota history a little bit, well, maybe more than a just a little bit.  ” – Barry Babcock

Barry Babcock is a curious, persistent, conscientious man who cares deeply about the land and history of northern Minnesota.  His interest in Minnesota history led him to the name of George Bonga who was a black Indian fur trader.  Digging deeper into George Bonga’s story, Babcock discovered the fascinating lineage of Bonga’s whole family and the many roles they played in Minnesota history.  Fluent in French, English, Ojibwe and Dakota, the Bongas became interpreters, essential in treaties and other governmental business.  They were so well known in the country that MN Supreme Court Judge Charles Flandrau visited George Bonga in his home on Leech Lake in the 1850s.  All of that said, the Bongas aren’t well known characters in today’s Minnesota history lessons. We just don’t hear much about them… until now.  Barry Babcock’s book about the Bonga family will be published later this year.  He’ll be speaking at the Bemidji Library Monday, March 4th at 6pm in collaboration with the Beltrami County Historical Society.

“It’s really a story, I think, that is best about America and best about being an American, about how a black person made his way into northern MN in the last 1700s, and as one historian wrote, “found this safe abode in the wilderness where all things are free, were not only able to make their life successes, but had great impact and were highly respected.  They were famous people at one time and their story has dropped through the cracks of history. Whether this has to do with racism or whatever, but I’m hoping that I can put them back into their proper place in history with this book… they’re compelling stories and they’re inspiring stories about freedom and the relation to the land and the wilderness here where they were judged on the same level as anybody else by the content of their character.  It’s just something to me that epitomizes to me what the United States should be about.” – Barry Babcock

Katie Carter started at Northern Community Radio in 2008 as Managing Editor of the station's grant-funded, online news experiment Northern Community Internet. She returned for a second stint in 2016-23. She produced Area Voices showcasing the arts, culture, and history stories of northern Minnesota.