The First Swede, Part 2: Minnesota, marriage, and Methodism

Jacob Fahlstrom arrived in Minnesota before Fort Snelling was built, spent decades making history.

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Fort Snelling (Ken Lund/Flickr)

After Jacob Fahlstrom’s boyhood in Sweden, then several years working for the British in what’s now Canada, his life as an American began in 1817. Once he had fulfilled his contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he left the firm at Sault Ste. Marie on the east end of Lake Superior and began working for the American Fur Company. As a trader, his travels took him to Leech, Cass, and Red Lakes, and many other points — he was reportedly at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, the sacred site known to the Dakota people as Bdote, in 1819, before construction began on Fort Snelling the following year.

Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom and Jacob Fahlstrom

In 1823, at age 30, having been without family for at least 12 years, Fahlstrom married Marguerite Bonga, an Ojibwe-African woman. Their union represented cultural connections across three continents. Marguerite’s father was a prominent fur trader, son of Jean and Marie Jeanne Bonga, British slaves of African descent.

The Bongas’ enslaver, British officer Daniel Robertson, had been to the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1762 when Great Britain invaded the French territory. Martinique was known for its sugar cane fields, which around that time were worked by more than 60,000 enslaved African people, many of whom were originally sold into slavery in Senegal in western Africa. It’s likely that Robertson acquired the Bongas on Martinique. He eventually brought them to Mackinac Island, near the junction of Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, in 1782, when he took over the post there. When he returned to Montreal in 1787, he freed the Bongas, their children, and other slaves. Jean and Marie Jeanne stayed at Mackinac and became tavern owners.

A decade after the Bongas’ emancipation, in 1797, Jean and Marie Jeanne’s granddaughter Marguerite was born, probably at Fond du Lac along the lower St. Louis River, near present-day Duluth. Her father was the Bongas’ son, Pierre, a well-established fur trader and the self-declared first Black man born in what would become Minnesota; Marguerite’s Ojibwe mother’s name was not recorded. Some reports say she was from the Pillager Band of Anishinaabe, which had settled on and around Cass and Leech Lakes, others say Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs.

Marguerite would have been raised mostly in the Ojibwe culture, as was typical with Métis families in the fur trade, in which the mothers raised the children with their extended family while the father traveled far and wide in search of furs. At about age 26, Marguerite Bonga married Jacob Fahlstrom. She would be his essential partner in life, business, and everything else over the following decades. She would also come to be known as a remarkable person in her own right.

“Margaret Bungo [sic], a woman of fine mind,” wrote W.H.C. Folsom. “With her limited educational privileges, very few of any age or race can be found her equal.”

Over the next 20 years, the Fahlstroms bore 10 children, two of whom died young. Their birthplaces show the family’s nomadic ways: the babies were born at Sandy Lake, Mille Lacs, the Minnesota River, Fort Snelling, and elsewhere. These children, born before Minnesota became a state, had grandparents from Africa, Europe, and North America.

Mississippi mystery

The Fahlstroms spent much of the 1820s and 1830s based in the area around Fort Snelling. Jacob worked as a blacksmith and woodcutter for the Army, among other jobs. He carried mail, grew crops, and all the other parts of rustic living.

He may have also guided perhaps the most famous exploration expedition in Minnesota history. In 1832, Henry Schoolcraft set out for the source of the Mississippi River, to be the first white person to see it. In his reports, he says he was guided to the headwaters by an Ojibwe man named Ozawindib — Yellow Head.

“At the mouth of the River Broula [Bois Brule River] I encountered Ozawondib, or the Yellow Head, and Mainotagooz, or the Handsome Enunciator, two Chippewas from the Cassinian source of the Mississippi, being on their way to visit me at the seat of the agency,” Schoolcraft wrote.

On entering Cass Lake, which was as far as white explorers had previously ventured up the Mississippi, Schoolcraft mentions Yellow Head again: “Ozawindib, or the Yellow Head, our Chippewa guide, had preceded the party a little, as he often did, to get the first glance of little bays and inlets, where water fowl are usually found.”

Schoolcraft later explained that the hunting grounds of Yellow Head’s band on Cass Lake include the Mississippi headwaters, and their village on an island in the lake was the last known point of navigation.

But whether or not Fahlstrom was Schoolcraft’s Ozawindib remains a point of debate.

”From the accounts it is clearly established that Oza Windib, the Yellow Head, lived as an Indian among Indians, had a home at Cass Lake, was familiar with the regions around there and the route to Lake Superior,” wrote Emeroy Johnson in a 1984 article for the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly. “Schoolcraft mentions him many times but never hints at the possibility that he really was a white man. Schoolcraft refers to him as an Indian, ‘the Yellow Head,’ but he never comments on the reason for such a name. Was Oza Windib an Indian, or was he Jacob Fahlstrom? Fahlstrom was not Ojibwe but had been living as a member of the tribe for decades at this point.”

Fahlstrom was in the general area at the time. He knew the territory. He was called “Yellow Head.” He may have adopted many Ojibwe ways of dressing, acting, and living. He was commonly called the “Swede-Indian” throughout his life because of his adoption of Ojibwe ways. After Fahlstrom had been in North America for 20 years, could Schoolcraft have mistaken the Swede for a born-and-raised Ojibwe man? Would Fahlstrom not have mentioned it? If Schoolcraft understood Yellow Head’s heritage, would he not have mentioned it?

Adding to the complexity, there is another person in the historical record with the name Oza Windib, alive around the same time in the same area. John Tanner, who spent decades living among the Ojibwe in Kentucky in 1789, wrote of meeting Yellow Head while living in northern Minnesota.

“Some time in the course of this winter, there came to our lodge one of the sons of the celebrated Ojibbeway chief, called Wesh-ko-bug, (the sweet) who lived at Leech Lake,” Tanner wrote in his memoir. “This man was one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians. There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes; they are commonly called A-go-kwa, a word which is expressive of their condition. “This creature, called Ozaw-wen-dib, (the yellow head) was now near fifty years old, and had lived with many husbands.”

Some writers have said this was the person who guided Schoolcraft to the Mississippi headwaters, but the explorer described the person as a man, and didn’t see fit to remark on a possible transgender identity. It’s also possible Ozawindib was living as a man at that time. The question of Fahlstrom’s involvement in the Schoolcraft expedition remains unresolved.

Methodist mission

Rev. Alfred Brunson, leader of Methodist mission to Minnesota.

In the later 1830s, Fahlstrom rediscovered Christianity, in the form of the Methodist church. It was in the midst of the Great Awakening, as religious fervor swept through America and the Midwest in particular. In 1837, the Methodist preachers Alfred Brunson and David King traveled to Minnesota to attempt converting Dakota people to the faith. The trip was considered a failure, although the missionaries disagreed, saying one conversion made it all worthwhile: the Fahlstrom family.

Chauncey Hobart recounted the fateful encounter in his 1887 book, “Methodism in Minnesota,” published 50 years after the event. Hobart wrote that Jacob had received reports of the coming of the Methodist missionaries, who were described as “noisy” and “boisterous” in their preaching. It was an enticing idea of religion for Fahlstrom, and he made sure to be there when Reverend David King preached his first sermon in Minnesota.

“Major Plympton, of Fort Snelling, in order to accommodate the people who were anxious to hear the ‘Methodist missionary,’ had fitted up the hospital, the largest room in the fort, with a temporary pulpit. There Brother King preached on the first Sabbath after arriving. His test was: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” [Ephesians 5:14] Mr. King belonged to the school of demonstrative preachers, and after a while becoming very much engaged wish his subject, he brought down his hand with considerable force upon the Bible, and away went the pulpit!”

Fahlstrom was enchanted and became an enthusiastic Methodist from that day forward. He added preacher to his list of roles, and served as a missionary to the Ojibwe, primarily in northern Minnesota. Hobart wrote: “And this man, who had been a forsaken Swedish orphan boy—whose inheritance had been stolen—found, after that Sabbath afternoon, his way to the cross, and became the possessor of an inheritance which grew more and more valuable, until not long since, he went up with exceeding joy to enter fully into its abundant riches. His life from this time onward, proved that he was savingly converted.”

Fahlstrom and Marguerite’s entire family were founding members of the first Methodist congregation in Minnesota, in what’s now the city of Newport. In addition to evangelizing to Native Americans, Jacob traveled between scattered settler homes, holding prayer meetings, sharing his faith, welcoming newcomers.

Soon after their conversion, the Fahlstroms found a permanent home. The final decades of Jacob’s life, much of it spent on the move, saw him settle down with his family in the St. Croix River valley.


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4 responses to “The First Swede, Part 2: Minnesota, marriage, and Methodism”

  1. John Leinen Avatar
    John Leinen

    Greg, are you familiar with the newly published, “Bonga – A Safe Abode in the Wilderness”, by Barry Babcock? I recently received my copy, but haven’t read it yet.

  2. Laurie J Larsen Avatar
    Laurie J Larsen

    This story is kind of mind-blowing! One of the best things I have read in St. Croix 369- thanks.

  3. David L Trudeau Avatar
    David L Trudeau

    Great article. I wonder about the location of the Dakotah village as Newport. Most accounts establish Little Crow’s village at Kaposia on the west side of the river in what is now South St. Paul. Checking https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaposia the band relocated from east to west bank by 1833. I am pretty sure the Eastman painting is of Kaposia looking downriver. Eastman was at Ft. Snelling from 1841-1848 and did several paintings of Kaposia.

  4. Troy Howard Avatar
    Troy Howard

    Very good story! John Tanner is generally thought to have hunted and traveled more along the canadian border and the very northwestern portion of Minnesota. Not aware of him traveling southward into central Minnesota.

    Troy

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The First Swede, Part 2: Minnesota, marriage, and Methodism