Of his arrival in Leech Lake in the early 1800s, George Bonga, a successful trapper and guide, described himself as "one of the first two white men that ever came into this [region]."
As told by frontier politician and early Minnesota jurist Charles Flandrau, however, Bonga was "The blackest man I ever saw."
Today, most of Bonga's known descendants are Ojibwe.
"I always suspected that. I was always more than a little curious," Mike Bongo of the Leech Lake Band said two years ago when told he may be a direct descendant.
The spellings -- Bonga, Bongo, Bungo -- vary, as do the exact family histories, but most accounts trace them to Jean Bonga, recorded as being an African slave, or free servant, to an English captain who brought him to the Great Lakes in the 18th century.
"I understood my father to say, that all his father's family came to MacKinac, this I am certain of," a70-year-old George Bonga wrote in 1872. "My father [Pierre Bonga] was in the employ of the [Hudson Bay Co.] ... As to My self, I was born, somewhere near where Duluth now is."
Records show Pierre and his Ojibwe wife, Ogibwayquay, had four or five children. One of them, Stephen, born in 1799 on Park Point, expressed the same sort of humor as his brother George, stating he was "the first white child born at the Head of the Lakes" -- a claim that would mean Duluth's black history predates its white.
But the Bongas obviously knew who and what they were, even if they wanted to know more.
"I have always been sorry," George Bonga wrote, "that I did not ask my father while living, if he knew where he immigrate[d] from."
If history was fading after two Bonga generations, it's understandable 21st century descendants would be left in the dark. In some cases, literally.
"I am dark-skinned," Francis "Chunky" Brun of the Red Lake Band mused when told of his possible ancestry two years ago. "It's the first time anybody's ever indicated it to me."
The source linking Bongas and Bongos to the Bruns, Jourdains and many other names found today in the Minnesota and Wisconsin Ojibwe communities is an extensive family tree compiled in the 1980s by an Ojibwe couple, the late Wub-e-ke-niew and his wife, Clara NiiSka.
"The reason we did it was he was putting a family history together for his kids," NiiSka said from Minneapolis last week. "He went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and asked about his great-grandfather. The Indian agent there said 'Oh, we don't have that. It burned up in a fire.'
"He was outraged and found out the BIA kept records in triplicate. I went to the National Archives and found them. We showed them to people in the community, and people were just deeply moved."
If American Indians were surprised to find they had black forebears, it's a mirror image of the oral history of many African American families -- my own included -- that suggests Native Americans account for as much as a quarter of their ancestors. The real reasons for what was or wasn't written down or archived were usually money and land, NiiSka said, with black and native people left out.
Maybe that will change, Brun said.
"It was great to see Obama elected president. It's about time that blacks, Native Americans and all the minorities start realizing some of the so-called freedoms," he said when called for an update Saturday.
"It was a surprise when you called me a couple years ago," he said, explaining it turns out the Brun his mother was married towasn't actually his father.
"I've got two brothers and a sister still surviving. They're Brun Bruns. If I was really a Brun Brun, I'd be proud of it," he said.
As was Mike Bongo, who in a quick conversation Saturday did not have time for an update but previously said he looked at his connection to the famous black frontiersmen with pride.
"I've run across people at the state Capitol who say, 'Oh, you're a pretty famous guy,'" he said then. "It would be something nice to share with my son."
So if Bongo and Bonga and Bunga are all the same family, could it also be true of Bong, the family name of the famed Twin Ports World War II aviator?
No -- genealogy charts seem to indicate it's a Swedish name meaning "bang."
At least that's what's written down.
Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune and may be reached at email@example.com. He can be heard with Clara NiiSka at 7 p.m. today on Twin Cities radio station KFAI-FM, 90.3 or 106.7 in the metro area, or online at www.kfai.org.