Race Relations in Morrison County

When Morrison County was being settled by European immigrants (between 1849 and the early 1900s), a large diversity of cultures lived shoulder-to-shoulder in the county. People of at least eleven different nationalities immigrated to the area and started communities. Nationalities included Norwegian, English, Swedish, German, Irish, Polish, Danish, Russian, Czechoslovakian, French-Canadian, and Scotch-Canadian. The original immigrants spoke their native languages, but attempted to learn English and made sure their children learned the language of the New World. They tried desperately to become Americans by giving up many of their cultural practices. Morrison County has retained a largely white community to this day.

So, how do American Indians and Blacks or African-Americans fit into this picture? In researching this article, I was surprised to find a general acceptance of American Indians and blacks by the white settlers. Racism was certainly exhibited, but it seemed to be more limited than many of us have been led to believe.

The Ojibwe Indians, who lived in the area prior to European settlement, were forced to give up their land and their culture as the federal government formed reservations. Many of the Ojibwe Indians from Morrison County moved to the White Earth Reservation. Others moved to the Mille Lacs Reservation. Some remained in the area, but felt they had to be quiet about their nationality and try to blend into the white culture.

Reactions to the Ojibwe Indians by white Europeans ranged from respect and understanding to fear and hatred. Nathan Richardson, first mayor of Little Falls, seemed to have a good relationship with the Ojibwe. The collections of the Morrison County Historical Society contain a bandolier bag and other items given to Richardson by Indians. A photo in the collections shows Richardson seated among a large group of local Indians. According to an Internet article by Joe Fellegy at www.citizensalliance.org, “One of Richardson’s main causes in life was the welfare of the Mille Lacs Band, whom he defended at every turn.”

The 1857 lynching of three Indian men by a group of white men shows the opposite extreme. The three Indians had been taken into custody for killing a German peddler. Sheriff Jonathon Pugh was taking the men to St. Paul to be tried for their crime when a group of citizens overtook the men and brought the Indians back to Little Falls. There, they were hung without benefit of a trial.

Some immigrants displayed a quieter form of displeasure with the Indians. Marie Louise LaChance Richard’s W.P.A. biography states, “There were many Indians around in those days and they often came to the LaChance farm, much to the distress of Louise, who was greatly afraid of them.”

Fortunately, most stories of interaction between white settlers and Indians were benevolent. From the 1937 W.P.A. Biography of Ernest LaFond, Mrs. Mary LaFond recalled, “Often when I went to Belle Prairie for my catechism, I would stop at the Indian wigwams and play with the Indian children. We used to bury potatoes in the ashes of the wigwam fire until they were baked, then poke them out with a stick and eat them.”

In Lars M. Larsen’s 1937 W.P.A. Biography, he recounts a story from his childhood. “At a very young age he was sent by his father to get an almanac from Mr. Houde’s store on First Street where the Harris building now stands. The store was so full of people, mostly Indians he could not attract Mr. Houde’s attention. ‘An Indian picked me up and passed me over his head to the one in front. This one repeated the action and I soon found myself on the bar facing Mr. Houde and asking for my father’s Almanac. I reached the door by the same route.'”

Blacks and African-Americans have not immigrated in large numbers to Morrison County, but certainly made an appearance here since before the county was formed. The first known black family in the area was the Bonga family. Stephen Bonga, who was also part Ojibwe, served as an interpreter for Chief Hole-in-the-Day I. His brother, George, worked as a fur trader. Their grandfather, Jean Bonga, was brought as a West Indies slave to Fort Mackinac on Lake Huron by a British commander.

While we have no information on the treatment of the Bongas by other Morrison County residents, Mrs. Rose L. Winch had a mixed reception in the county. As Glenn King states in his history of Hillman School District number 144, “Our first teacher [Rose] was a colored lady, yet the children liked her very much and some did not know she was colored.-That is, to them she was just their teacher.” He goes on to say that, “She was first hired in the Jake Nohner district east of Pierz but when the people saw her they wouldn’t have her.”

Blacks seem to be an appealing curiosity in the following incident. On January 26, 1917, the Congregational Church of Little Falls announced plans to host a supper for the Ladies’ Working Club of the church. “As an added attraction six colored waiters have been secured for the occasion and the very best of service will be the aim of those in charge.” (Little Falls Daily Transcript, Jan. 26, 1917) The supper, held on February 15, 1917, was a great success with the food running out mid-way through the evening. Due to the lack of food, many diners were turned away. “Even the waiters, those dusky, nimble fellows, with a Rogers café color and local bodies, nimble of feet and untiring in their efforts to serve (without tips) waited too long. A local gentleman, seeing their plight had them as his guests for dinner at the Buckman after the church supper.” (Little Falls Daily Transcript, Feb. 16, 1917.

Figures from the 2000 Census show that Morrison County has a minority population of between 1.2 percent and 4 percent. A trip to Coborns’ grocery store or Wal-Mart in Little Falls has become a multi-cultural experience. Often, one can hear Mexican families conversing in Spanish. Asian and African-American peoples are increasingly choosing Morrison County as their home. The 2000 Census reports that in Morrison County there are 66 Blacks/African-Americans, 102 American Indians/Alaska Natives, 80 Asians, 11 Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders, and 49 people of some other race. Diversity in the county is nothing new. The whole-hearted acceptance of this new diversity will allow current immigrants a greater role in determining Morrison County’s history.

by Mary Warner
Copyright 2002, Morrison County Historical Society

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