By Leo

Promoting justice has never been the explicit goal of Chequamegon History.  However, it would be historically irresponsible not to acknowledge that the stories we tell are stories of dispossession, colonialism, and white supremacy.  As our country is in a moment of reckoning its racist history, we have been reflecting on how our work relates to the current national discussion, and have come up with a few connections.

Ideas of white supremacy, in relation to European-Ojibwe interactions, were ubiquitous in the early written history of Chequamegon.  However, like white identity itself, supremacy was complicated and differed in significant ways from the way it works in today’s racial America.  If you are interested in this large and complex topic, I tackled small parts of it in three recent posts:  Race, Identity, and Citizenship in the U.S. Census… in 1850, 1823andMe™: Perceptions of Race in Pre-Civil War Chequamegon Society, and Kohl, J. G. “Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion”  .  My co-blogger Amorin Mello, has also recovered stories from the 1850s of individual racism of a more modern flavor. They deserve particular attention:  1855 Inquest on the Body of Louis Gurnoe and They Called Him “Gray Devil.”

This post will zero in on a few anecdotes of Chequamegon History dealing with Black lives, slavery, abolition, and the legacy of the Civil War era.  None is a full historical treatment, but we hope this post will inspire you to investigate further:


George Bonga (Wikimedia)

The Bonga Family

Pierre Bonga was a child when he arrived, with his parents, at Mackinac in 1782.  Growing up on the island, it was probably inevitable that he would grow up to enter the fur trade and work for the North West Company, and the American Fur Company.  It was a typical story.  What was not typical of the Bongas in Anishinaabe Country, was that they were African and had come into the region enslaved to a British officer.  Pierre’s parents, Jean and Marie-Jeanne Bonga obtained their freedom in 1787 and became prominent residents of Mackinac.

Pierre went west to Lake Superior, and had a career in the fur trade until his death in 1831.  He was known in Ojibwe as Makadewiiyas (Black Meat, a term that when generally applied to Black people has stirred some recent controversy) and married into Ojibwe society, living mostly around Fond du Lac.  I can’t say for certain if Pierre was the first person of African descent to visit western Lake Superior, but he was the first to settle and leave a lasting legacy.


Stephen Bonga (WHS)

His children, George, Stephen, Margaret, and Jack, grew up in the Ojibwe mix-blood culture, and figure into many stories of 19th-century Lake Superior.  George and Stephen were sent east to be educated, and their skills with English made them highly desirable to the United States Government as interpreters and guides.  Their African ancestry was noted by outsiders, but within Lake Superior society, they were seen as members of a prominent mix-blood family.

However, the American racial system would inevitably crash up against the Bongas.  In January 1856, a hearing was held in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature regarding the legislative vote from Superior County.  While it appeared Marcus W. McCracken had the most votes, the seat was awarded to John Ludden on the grounds that several of the votes had been fraudulently cast.  Mostly, the voters were accused of being Wisconsin residents and therefore ineligible to vote in Minnesota, but Jack Bonga’s vote was rejected for another reason:


This testimony, from Douglas County Sheriff Asa Parker, was not only inaccurate, it was dangerous. There were dire consequences to being labelled a runaway in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Fortunately, the record was set straight:


Having the “habits of the white man” and being “regarded as a Half-Breed” apparently did not give Jack the right to vote in Minnesota Territory, however.  These words appear in the committee’s decision:


With the end of the fur trade, and the influx of American settlers in the mid 19th-century, the children of Pierre Bonga settled into new careers.  George Bonga kept a lodge at Leech Lake.  Stephen settled in Superior, where he would glibly nod to the bygone racial order of his youth and inform newcomers that the Bongas were the first “white” family to the live in that city.  Bonga (Bunga, Bungo, Bongo) descendants live throughout Ojibwe country, in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.  A story on the Bonga legacy was reported by Robin Washington of the Duluth News Tribune in 2009.

Ne na baim

I do not, Ne na baim, own a slave, and I never again expect to be a slave-holder, though it is a high moral vocation to civilize and christianize the heathen, brought to our very doors in the South by the providence of God;–still, in the deepest recesses of my conscience, from the study of the Bible, and my own experiences among Africans all my life, I am so satisfied that slavery is the school God has established for the conversion of barbarous nations, that were I an absolute Queen of these United States, my first missionary enterprise would be to send to Africa, to bring its heathen as slaves to this Christian land, and keep them in bondage until compulsory labor had tamed their beastliness, and civilization and Christianity had prepared them to return as missionaries of progress to their benighted black brethren.

~Mary Howard Schoolcraft, The Black Gauntlet


Mary Howard Schoolcraft (Find a Grave)

An Ojibwe word opens the text of a grotesque novel, The Black Gauntlet: A Tale of Plantation Life in South Carolina. Published in 1860, the book is a prime example of an “anti-Tom,” a genre of southern literature that flourished just prior to the Civil War.  Anti-Toms expounded the virtues of slavery in reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular abolitionist work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Still, how did Ojibwemowin get in such a book?

Ne na baim (ninaabem in the modern spelling) means “my husband,”  and the author of The Black Gauntlet was none other than Mrs. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

Wait, wait, you might say. “Isn’t Mrs. Henry Schoolcraft”  Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe (Jane Johnston), the sister of George Johnston, and daughter of the early 19th-century Sault Ste. Marie power couple of John Johnston and Ozhaawashkodewekwe?”  Readers might recognize that Mrs. Schoolcraft, granddaughter of the famous Chequamegon war chief Waabojiig, among the faces in the Chequamegon History title banner.  She is recognized as one of the earliest authors American Indian literature.


Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe or Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Wikimedia)

By the 1850s, Henry, her husband, became something of an American celebrity for his numerous works on native culture and history.  Much of the content of these works came from Jane and her mother. This included the Ojibwe traditional stories that were co-opted by Longfellow for the Song of Hiawatha.

However, Jane did not live to see all of that.  She died in 1842, leaving two teenage children.  Henry moved to Washington D.C. and remarried to Mary Howard.  From an elite South Carolina family, the second Mrs. Schoolcraft was a fierce defender of slavery.  While she was okay with using an Ojibwe term of endearment for her husband, she had no love for his Ojibwe children.  Janee and John Schoolcraft would become estranged from their father as Henry’s views drifted towards those of his second wife.

Over time, Anti-Tom novels like The Black Gauntlet have faded into obscurity.  However, an argument can be made that their skewed, romanticized view of the planter class and downplaying of the cruelty of slavery influenced later works of profound cultural impact such as Gone With the Wind.  The full text of The Black Gauntlet is available online, but it’s a pretty dull read.  Instead, I would recommend checking out the works of a certain Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe, granddaughter of Waabojiig of Chequamegon.

Early Lake Superior Abolitionists

One might ask why Mary Schoolcraft felt it so necessary to couch her defense of slavery in such religious, virtuous terms.  To understand this, we need to take a minute to understand her enemy:  the Abolitionists.

Anti-slavery efforts, mainly in Black communities, had been around since colonial times, but the movement we typically associate with the term “abolitionism” dates to Boston in the early 1830s, with a small group of white radical religious zealots.  For all their passion, the abolitionist message did not reach very far in these early years, even in the northern states.  Surprisingly, though, it could be heard on Lake Superior, more than a thousand miles from Boston, New York, or any slave state (hundreds of miles from any free state, for that matter).

Fell into conversation with Mr. Scott on the subject of slavery, the rights of man, sin of withholding education from him, be he black or white–expansion of mind on earth, in heaven–led us to personal religion.  

Edmund F. Ely, April 4, 1836, Fond du Lac (Lake Superior) Mission

In 21st-Century America, Conservatives report much higher rates of church attendance, and atheism and agnosticism are often associated with the political left.  However, much of what we think of as American liberal and social reformist thought has its roots in the Second Great Awakening, a groundswell of Christian zeal in the early 19th-century.  In the northeast young men and women rejected the teachings of their Calvinist Puritan ancestors that only a small preordained Elect would find salvation while the majority of humanity would be cast into the pit of fire.  They found an an echo of the Declaration of Independence and latched onto the idea that all were born equal before God.  This radical notion of equality, and the accompanying passion to improve the lives of the less-fortunate, would lead to movements for Abolitionism, Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, prison and asylum reform.


E. F. Ely (Duluth Public Library)

While his friends stayed in the northeast and dabbled in those movements, Edmund Ely signed up to work for the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions in 1833.  After all, what could be more kind and noble than saving another human’s immortal soul?  Rather than send him to China or the South Pacific, however, the Board sent him to that most foreign of places, Lake Superior, to convert the Ojibwe to Protestantism.

The ABCFM missionaries labored in this region for more than three decades, and failed spectacularly in their quest for converts, the number of which could be counted on your fingers.  Local Ojibwe people, it seems, did not particularly care for having their religion condemned as devil worship.  And while they sometimes sought out the missionaries for Western thoughts on literacy, science, and medicine, the notion that “civilization” required changing one’s name, clothes, and way of life did not seem to hold much appeal.  I highly recommend reading Ely’s journals for a window on this conflict.

That isn’t to say the missionaries had no impact on history.  They did, and it was decidedly mixed.  Their eastern connections allowed them to influence American policy toward the Ojibwe, their efforts laid the groundwork for future assimilation efforts like Indian boarding schools favored by the next generation of benevolent “Friends of the Indian.”  Finally, as a vanguard for American settlement, they were a sort of 19th-century version of first wave gentrifiers.

On an individual level, the missionaries also have a mixed legacy.  Rev. William T. Boutwell of Leech Lake left his mission for more lucrative work as an Indian trader and helped facilitate the Sandy Lake Tragedy.  Rev. Sherman Hall of La Pointe tried to stay out of politics and failed his Ojibwe neighbors, while the Rev. Leonard Wheeler of Odanah took a principled stand against removal, and continued to advocate for his Ojibwe neighbors into the 1860s. Along the way, he earned unexpected friends among the Bad River leadership.

Ely followed Boutwell and washed out of missionary life, but stayed in the Lake Superior region long enough to become something of a pariah in both the Native and non-Native communities around Fond du Lac, Duluth, and Superior.  He was one of the primary opponents of McCracken’s election in the McCracken-Ludden affair mentioned above, and despite his professed abolitionist sentiments, he does not appear to have made any defense of Jack Bonga’s right to vote.

The national discourse of the moment includes discussion on the nature of allyship.  How can those with privilege best help those without?  How do you keep the voices of well-meaning allies from drowning out or distorting the wishes of those in need of justice?  (As a white man writing these words, believe me, the irony is not lost.)

Well-meaning do-gooders, prone to getting in the way, failing to listen to the real needs of the community, or worse:  promoting policies that harm the communities they are intended to help have long histories in African-American and American Indian communities.  White northerners need to acknowledge this and do more than smugly take glee in the destruction of symbols of the Old South.  We need to consider the legacy of northern liberalism and whether it has always served good ends.  We also need to realize the “Old South” is closer to home than we think.

Rice’s Confederate Cronies

A few years ago, residents of Minneapolis were surprised to find out their beloved Lake Calhoun was named after arguably the foremost political and intellectual advocate of slavery in American history.  This led (with significant resistance) to bringing back the original Dakota name of the lake, Bde Maka Ska.  For those who wondered how Calhoun’s name got on the lake to begin with, they may have learned that John C. Calhoun was Secretary of War during the establishment of Fort Snelling.  However, they may not have realized this wasn’t an anomaly.

We northerners sometimes forget that while slavery was primarily a southern institution, its impacts on the politics and economics of the north were tremendous. Many of the political elites of the northwestern frontier, (what would become Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota) were especially sympathetic to southern interests.  This started with the Jacksonian Lewis Cass, who led the first major American incursion into Lake Superior. It continued through to George W. Jones, the pro-slavery Iowa governor and senator who played a key role in the 1849 Ojibwe delegation to Washington.

This coziness between southern and western Democrats continued right up to the eve of the Civil War.  In 2014, while writing the post Steamboats, Celebrities, Soo Shipping, and Superior Speculation, I stumbled across this photo:

Promoters & Proprietors of Old Superior:  (Clockwise from upper left)  U.S. Senator W[illiam]. A. Richardson, Sen. R[obert] M. T. Hunter, Sen. Jesse Bright, Sen. John C. Breckinridge, Benjamin Brunson, Col. John W. Fourney, Henry M. Rice (Flower, Frank A.  Report of the City Statistician [1890]  Digitized by Google Books) 

It was not surprising at all to see Henry Mower Rice, among the original “Promoters and Proprietors” of Superior.  After all, Rice seems to have had his fingers in just about every major political and economic enterprise in the Upper Mississippi and western Lake Superior country from 1847 to the 1860s.  (Several CH posts have covered Rice’s career.)

It did come as a bit of a shock to see some of the other faces in the array.  Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky would both go on to serve in Jefferson Davis’ cabinet.  Breckinridge was also the 14th vice president of the United States, under Buchanan. Senator Jesse Bright of Ohio, also in the picture would go on to be one of the most notorious Copperheads (Northern Confederate sympathizers).

In the Steamboats post, we showed how Rice brought these well-known pro-slavery Democrats to La Pointe in 1855 to encourage them to speculate in real estate and to lobby for a federally funded military road and greater development of the region.  We also covered how Breckinridge may have tried to buy Basswood Island before the Great Lakes real estate collapse in 1857. It is notable that the well-known abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, visited the same summer, in a visit seemingly unconnected with Rice. Infamously, Sumner would go on to beaten near death by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate.

The Superior Chronicle, a brand-new newspaper in 1855, covered these dignitary visits in detail alongside editorials pushing for a military road, Rice’s pet project, from Superior to Stillwater.   The Chronicle, itself also seems to have been backed by Rice.  However, while the paper espoused the popular sovereignty views of the northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Rice would go on to support Breckinridge in the election of 1860.  Abraham Lincoln defeated both Breckinridge and Douglas, prompting the southern states to secede, something Rice was supportive of until 1861, before switching his allegiance to the North and preserving the Union.

“Panic of 1862”

New readers of Chequamegon History might be surprised at how Rice could get away with playing both sides, but hose who have researched his career, will know that it fits his character to a T.  From the Ho-Chunk removals to the Treaty of 1847 to the Sandy Lake Tragedy, we see him operating behind the scenes like a mob boss, always appearing to have clean hands, while profiting from the tragedy of others and switching sides as the political winds shifted direction.  This is evident in his actions during the Civil War.

Many readers will be aware of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, often called the Minnesota Sioux Uprising, and how it ended with the executions of 38 Dakota people in Mankato, the largest mass execution in American history. (The Mankato hangings are one of the reasons why some are currently calling for the removal of Abraham Lincoln statues). Fewer readers, however, will be aware of the ripple effects in Ojibwe country:


Benjamin Armstrong recalls the Panic of 1862 on page 62 of his memoir, Early Life Among the Indians. Other, more-detailed, sources say the person killed in Superior was a white teenager shot in a “friendly fire” incident.

It is true that white settlements across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota were panicked that summer.  It is also true that the Ojibwe had the same grievances as the Dakota–namely that the cash-strapped wartime government chose to pay treaty annuities in paper money rather than in gold.  However, aside from some rumblings in the Crow Wing country by Young Hole in the Day, the Ojibwe leadership was against a violent uprising.  That did not stop whites in Superior from forming a vigilante group.

In at least one quarter, the dispatch of troops to Bayfield was condemned as unnecessarily adding gasoline to the fire.  The Reverend Leonard Wheeler of Odanah spoke out against the diversion of Union troops from the war front. He saw the motives behind the move for what they really were, a scheme by Henry Rice to get his military road.

Who to remember and who to honor?

There is no question that Henry Rice left a profound impact on history and we see his name attached to tributes, statues and place names across Minnesota and Wisconsin.  I certainly do not think his legacy should be ignored, and I would encourage the reader to look deeper into his career.  You may come to the conclusion, particularly after looking into his machinations during the tragic Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe removals that he, along with Alexander Ramsey, is someone who should be remembered but not necessarily honored with statues.  In that vein, I have two places to start.


Should a statue of The Artist replace H. M. Rice in the National Statuary Hall?  (Images:  Wikimedia)

If you live in Minnesota, write to your state legislators and ask them to revive HF3979, a 2016 bill introduced by Joe Atkins.  The bill died in committee but it would have replaced the Rice statue in the U. S. Capitol with one of Minneapolis’ favorite son:  Prince.

Closer to home, let’s have a discussion about Rice Avenue in Bayfield.  Opponents of changing the name will have a number of arguments against it, namely that Rice is arguably the founder of the city.  To that I would argue that he was merely richer and better-connected, so he got the jump on the other land speculators in the region.  He did not live in Bayfield, but he reaped its profits and wasn’t above provoking racial tensions in the name of greed.

So, I humbly submit for the consideration of the citizens of Bayfield, “Artishon Avenue.”

Frank Artishon was a local boy, the son of Joseph Artishon (Dejadon, Atichout, etc.) and Naawajiwanokwe (“Current Woman,” also called Adishonikwe “Artishon Woman”).  While Rice diverted troops from the front, Frank joined several other young Ojibwe men from the Lake Superior country to go fight for the abolition of slavery.

Artishon was killed on one of the final and most consequential days of the Civil War: the Breakthrough at Petersburg. After a 292-day siege, the Union troops finally got through the Confederate fortifications and put Lee on the run. He would surrender to Grant a week later, effectively ending the war.

Let’s remember Rice, but let’s honor someone more deserving.