A Mighty Woman of the Mighty River

In honor of National Equal Pay Day, we are taking a look at the life of an influential woman in the history of JNPA partner park Mississippi National River and Recreation Area who never received equal pay nor recognition in her lifetime, Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom.

Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom and Jacob Fahlstrom. Credit: Historic Fort Snelling

Marguerite was born in 1797 in Duluth, Minnesota. Her father, Pierre Bonga, was the son of former slaves and a successful fur trader. Her mother, Ogibwayquay, was an Ojibwe woman. Her lineage was notable in that the slave trade was very much alive at the time, and while it was somewhat common for fur traders to marry Ojibwe women to establish trading partnerships, these typically involved white traders. Two of Marguerite’s brothers, Stephen and George, went on to become well-known fur traders in their own right.

Stephen Bonga (left) and George Bonga (right)

Today, Marguerite is best known for being the wife of Jacob Fahlstrom, a Swedish immigrant known as the “first Swede of Minnesota” who helped establish the Swedish community of Minnesota. But Marguerite’s role has largely been forgotten. As Haddy Bayo, National Park Ranger at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, notes in Women of the Mississippi: Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom, “It’s unlikely that Fahlstrom would have risen to the social position, which has so captured historians and the public, without Bonga’s contribution.”

Marguerite provided Jacob with critical knowledge and social connections in order to establish trade with the native Ojibwe community. Additionally, traders’ wives did not stay home to tend the house and children like other women of the time. Instead, they were travel partners who fully participated in the work. Later, as a minister’s wife, Marguerite was also expected to assist with her husband’s missionary work in addition to raising the couple’s 10 children!

Despite her influential role in early Minnesota history, she has largely been forgotten, and very few photographs of her exist. Today, we celebrate Marguerite and all women who never received the recognition they so deserved in their lifetime.

You can learn more about Marguerite and other influential women in the history of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area by exploring Women of the Mississippi River, an NPS interactive map that highlights the narratives of women who shaped the history of the Twin Cities and the greater American Midwest.

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