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The Preposterous Pathfinder

July 2024
21min read

Giacomo Beltrami’s discoveries were mostly illusory, but he had a glorious time making them, and the people of Minnesota have never forgotten his name.

In the serious story of the exploration of the Mississippi River, there is one unique and preposterous character. He is Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, an Italian of comic-opera proportions. Beltrami was in every way a glorious misfit. He was wayward, unpredictable, and humorous. It was impossible for him to be anything but a charming maverick, and when this dilettante set forth alone to discover the true source of the Mississippi, he did so in a gush of hyperbole. His account of his explorations, written in the form of letters to a friend, is bombastic and extravagant; a delightful note of absurdity runs through every page of Beltrami’s adventures in the depths of Minnesota.

Beltrami was forty-two years old when he began what he described as his “pilgrimage.” A citizen of the Venetian republic, he had been a vice-inspector of the army and a judge in the civil and criminal courts before he was exiled in 1821 as a political conspirator. Beltrami packed his bags on a mule and, like Don Quixote, set out to seek adventure as a “promeneur, solitary, unprotected, struggling by his unaided efforts with every sort of difficulty, privation and danger.” Before he left, he promised to send back full reports to his old friend, the Countess Giulia Medici-Spada.

Determined during his exile to see and do everything expected of a gentleman-traveller, Beltrami began his pilgrimage with a Grand Tour of Europe. He poked and pried everywhere, and finally, on November 3, 1822, took ship for America from Liverpool.

Beltrami had a miserable passage across the Atlantic. He loathed ocean voyages and was violently seasick. Furthermore, because the regular packet service had its terminus in New York, and a yellow-fever epidemic was raging there, he had decided to go directly to Philadelphia aboard a small American merchant vessel. The change of route was a disaster. The ship’s cook had deserted and the regular cabin steward was assigned to the galley. To replace the steward, an ordinary deckhand was detailed to look after the passengers. As a result, Beltrami noted, “the hour of dinner discovered … that we had neither steward nor cook.” Later, conditions went from bad to worse. The cabin was filthy, the meat putrid, and the captain a drunken rogue. The newly appointed steward turned out to be a thief, and the food ran out. For weeks they were delayed by storms off the Irish coast. While the ship tossed and heaved, Beltrami clung to his bunk, refusing to eat the rotten fare and imploring the captain to put in to the nearest port. His fellow passengers, two Spanish Americans whom Beltrami firmly believed to be off-duty pirates, alternately prayed for salvation and raided the Italian’s private stock of wines until it was all gone. Finally, after fist fights among the crew, gales, and near shipwreck, they reached Philadelphia; Beltrami thankfully scrambled ashore, convinced that he had narrowly escaped a most terrible death.

Once he was safely on dry land, the Italian’s high spirits bubbled back. He “promenaded” briskly around Philadelphia and Baltimore, then moved on to Washington. There he inspected the Capitol and other public buildings, made comparisons to the senate of early Rome, and was immensely pleased to meet President Monroe in person. Travelling westward by stage coach and hired wagon, Beltrami continued his pilgrimage, carefully jotting down his impressions of the country: Kentuckians were “brave, industrious and active” but also “coarse and insolent,” the roads “detestable,” and Pittsburgh a “little Birmingham of the United States.” Very little escaped his eye, and he did not hesitate to give personal opinions. He found that American women were superior to their menfolk, being “agreeable without forwardness, modest without affectation, well-informed without pedantry, and are excellent housewives,” but he was not so enthusiastic about coeducational schools, where, he feared, “opportunity will prevail over the most austere principles.”

By April 20, 1823, Beltrami had reached the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers, intending to take a steamboat to New Orleans and then continue to Mexico. Quite by chance, the first boat to call was the Calhoun, bound for St. Louis, in the opposite direction. On board was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent assigned to Fort St. Anthony (later called Fort Snelling), an army post at the mouth of the Minnesota River. Beltrami seized on Taliaferro and bombarded him with questions about the north country. The Major’s descriptions of the upriver Indians captivated the romantic Italian. Impulsively he threw over his plan to visit New Orleans and took passage on the Calhoun, determined to visit those tribes whose “extraordinary character had, from infancy, excited both my astonishment and my incredulity.” Thus, in a fit of whimsy, Beltrami joined the ranks of Mississippi explorers.

Beltrami made a good river commentator. From the start he resolved to ignore “hydraulics, hydrometrics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, and a whole dictionary of such hard words … for all this is Greek to me.” Instead, he was interested in Indians, pioneer figures, the scenery, and of course “antiquities.” It was difficult to apply classical quotations to frontier America, but Beltrami tried hard. At St. Louis he put the Indian burial mounds in the same class as the Parthenon, Mithraic temples, and the pyramids of Giza. Nothing could deflect Beltrami from his chosen role as a gentleman-traveller of grace and education. When he was not sauntering around the deck of the Calhoun, he was sweeping dandified bows to astonished frontier farmers’ wives in their log cabins, and in St. Louis he minced happily through “a very brilliant ball, where the ladies were so pretty and so well dressed, that they made me forget I was on the threshold of savage life.”

At St. Louis, Beltrami and Major Taliaferro transferred to the Virginia. It was to be a momentous trip. The Virginia was the first steamboat to attempt the upstream journey to Fort St. Anthony, and no one knew whether she would manage to battle through the rapids. Beltrami loved the drama of the venture. In great excitement he hung over the rail to watch the paddle wheel push the stubby vessel against the rushing water. Day by day he pestered the crew for details of the boat’s progress. The Virginia’s captain was taking no chances and proceeded cautiously, so Beltrami had plenty of time to go ashore en route. Each sortie into the forest was an adventure. The Italian, draped with rifle, pistols, and sword, trod gingerly through the undergrowth, looking for a lurking savage behind every tree. He blazed away at wild turkeys, pondered on the beauty of nature, and managed to bag a rattlesnake. Of course Beltrami preserved the reptile’s skin, for he was an inveterate souvenir hunter and was busily putting together a magpie collection of Americana that included tomahawks and dried Indian scalps.

The Virginia was having a rough trip, even without Beltrami’s exaggerations. She hit a rock in the Des Moines rapids, luckily without puncturing her hull, and narrowly escaped a forest fire that threatened to engulf her. There were repeated delays while the crew cut firewood for the boilers or pulled their vessel off sand bars. The Italian did not complain; each halt was an opportunity for more exploring. On one excursion he lost his bearings and used his compass to return to the landing place only to find the boat gone. Imagining himself abandoned forever in the wilderness, Beltrami rushed frantically along the bank, firing his gun to attract attention. To his immense relief, the Virginia was just around the next bend, firmly aground on another sand bar.

To supplement the accounts of his excursions on shore, the Italian compiled notes on his fellow passengers. The prize exhibit was a Sauk chief named Great Eagle, who was returning from his first visit to St. Louis, where he had been presented with a military uniform to wear on the way home. To Beltrami’s delight, the chief’s first act on coming aboard the Virginia was to remove his uniform and strut around “in statu quo of our first parents.” Great Eagle did not stay long. Exasperated by the steamer’s slow progress, he dived into the river and swam to the bank. Next day he was waiting to greet the boat when she reached his encampment, and he came aboard to collect his belongings. Beltrami, still playing the tourist, shook him by the hand and persuaded him to sell a scalp lock that dangled from the handle of his war club. Another passenger who entertained his curiosity was a female missionary on her way to convert the savages. Evidently she was practicing on the ship’s crew—with total lack of success. She was, Beltrami concluded, “one of those women who devote themselves to God when they have lost all hope of pleasing men.” Passing his time with such gentle prattle in his reports to the Countess, Beltrami rode the steamer northward until the Virginia at last reached her destination, Fort St. Anthony, and the garrison unloaded her cargo of military supplies.

When Beltrami visited the upper river, the semisavage conditions that Zebulon Pike had encountered in 1805 were much diluted. The army had moved into the area, a smattering of settlers had arrived and set up homesteads, and the Indian threat was more imaginary than real. Fort St. Anthony (a hundred and eighty miles upriver from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin) was now the northern outpost of the white man’s civilization. Beyond the fort the wilderness was still dominant. Poor soil, bad drainage, and an inhospitable climate discouraged immigrants, so the land was left to isolated bands of Sioux and Chippewa, who eked out a meager livelihood fishing, hunting, and trapping. The only real significance of this headwater region was its position as the frontier zone between the United States and Canada; this was enough to interest the American government in sponsoring further exploration of what is now upper Minnesota.

Beltrami’s visit to Fort St. Anthony coincided with the arrival of an official American expedition under Major Stephen H. Long to define and map the line of the U.S.-Canadian border. This was a great stroke of luck for the wandering Italian. Normally he would have been turned back at the fort by its commandant, Colonel Snelling, who could not allow casual “tourists” to venture unescorted into tribal lands. As it was, Beltrami made friends with the Colonel and with Taliaferro’s help managed to get himself attached unofficially to Long’s expedition. The Italian was elated. He sent an exuberant letter to the Countess, sold his fine repeater watch to raise money to buy a horse and provisions, distributed presents to the Colonel and his family, and informed Long that he was ready to go. The Major—a gloomy and totally unimaginative man—was not pleased. He was running a military expedition under the auspices of the Department of War, and he did not relish the prospect of a civilian hanger-on. Long made his feelings brutally clear. He tried to dissuade Beltrami with descriptions of the dangers the expedition would encounter, the privations they would endure, and the expense of the trip for a private individual. Beltrami refused to be put off by Long’s rudeness. His intention, he wrote, of “going in search of real sources of the Mississippi, was always before my eyes. I was therefore obliged to sacrifice my pride.”

On the seventh of July the expedition, Beltrami included, left the fort and started up the Minnesota River. The party consisted of Major Long, a lieutenant, twenty-eight soldiers, an astronomer to determine their route, a zoologist, a professor of mineralogy and chemistry to take rock samples, and a landscape painter to help with the mapping and to draw pictures of Indian life. For guides they had Joseph Snelling, the Colonel’s son, and Joseph Renville, one of the most famous frontiersmen in the northwest. Renville’s mother was a full-blooded Sioux of good family, and the scout himself was highly respected by the Indians for his courage and tact. In the War of 1812, Renville had fought for the British and had risen to the rank of captain in the irregulars. Now he was working as an independent fur trader and guide. Naturally Beltrami was fascinated by the swashbuckling half-breed, who seemed to epitomize the courage and dash of the tearless Indian scout.

Unfortunately, although the trip went smoothly apart from one or two upsets in the Minnesota rapids, Beltrami was unhappy. The source of his troubles was his relationship with Major Long. The verbose Italian and the crisp West Pointer took an instant dislike to one another. Beltrami thought the soldier stupid and overbearing, and Long considered his supernumerary a trifler. There was constant bickering between them. Beltrami could not refrain from criticizing the management of the expedition, and Long naturally resented the Italian’s interference. By the end of the first week even the pettiest frictions became insupportable. Beltrami complained that he was not being given his fair share of food from the common stock even though he had contributed generously at Fort St. Anthony, and he privately suspected that Long assigned him the wettest sleeping place in the tent whenever a thunderstorm was brewing over the camp. Matters finally came to a head when Beltrami and another man returned to camp after a hunting trip to learn that Long had failed to warn them of a threatened Indian attack. Beltrami was incensed and decided that he could no longer tolerate the Major. He decided to leave the expedition as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the party continued northward, now along the Red River.

Beltrami’s chance to strike out on his own came when the expedition readied Pembina, the southernmost settlement of the Earl of Selkirk’s colony in the Red River valley. This was a pioneer attempt at planned colonization in which Lord Selkirk, operating through agents, had induced European immigrants to start a new life on his lands. One of Long’s tasks was to determine whether Pembina lay within the United States or Canada; from there he was under orders to proceed eastward to Lake Superior, moving well to the north of the Mississippi’s headwaters. Up to this point Long had refused to tell Beltrami the exact path that the expedition had been following, but at Pembina, Beltrami knew that he was north and west of the Mississippi’s source. He reasoned that if he worked his way back to the confluence of the Red and the Bloody (as he called the Red Lake River), and then followed the Bloody southeastward, lie would reach the swampy region in which the Mississippi was known to rise. Accordingly, he sold his horse, hired an interpreter and two Chippewa Indians, and separated himself from Long’s command, despite the “dangers which I was going to brave among the Indians, who are generally described as being very ferocious.”

Although he was undoubtedly exaggerating the Indian menace, Beltrami had made a bold decision. The journey up the Red Lake River was not an easy task. The stream ran strong and there were numerous rapids, all of which had to be portaged knee-deep on the slippery rocks as the little group dragged its canoe forward. The interpreter turned back almost immediately, and Beltrami was left to communicate with the two Chippewa by gestures. At first the Indians behaved well, and Beltrami’s little party made good progress. Then on August 14 they ran into trouble. The Chippewa were ambushed by a marauding band of Sioux, and although Beltrami escaped injury (the Sioux fled as soon as they saw his white skin), one of his guides was shot through the arm. The ambush gave the Chippewa a bad fright and they refused to go any farther by water lest the Sioux attack again. Beltrami tried to be firm, but it was useless. After a brief argument in sign language, the two Indians gathered up their belongings and decamped into the woods, leaving the Italian sitting disconsolately on the bank with his baggage and a canoe he did not know how to paddle. “I imagine, my dear Countess,” he wrote, “that you will feel the frightfulness of my situation at this crucial moment more strongly than I can express it. I really can scarcely help shuddering … whenever I think of it.”

According to his own version of that momentous day Beltrami rose to the occasion magnificently. First he mused on the late of Robinson Crusoe. Next he loaded his musket in case he had to defend himself against the white bears “which abound near the Red River” (and which, he stated, sustained themselves during their winter hibernation by sucking the fat from their paws). Then he resolved that at all costs he would continue his journey in search of the mysterious source. At that point his adventures took a comic turn, which he had the grace to describe: I jumped into my canoe and began rowing. But I was totally unacquainted with the almost magical art by which a single person guides a canoe, and particularly a canoe formed of bark, the lightness of which is overpowered by the current, and the conduct of which requires extreme dexterity. Frequently, instead of proceeding up the river, I descended; a circumstance which by no means shortened my voyage. Renewed efforts made me lose my equilibrium, the canoe upset, and admitted a considerable quantity of water. My whole cargo was wetted. I leaped into the water, drew the canoe on land, and laid it to drain with the keel upwards. I then loaded it again, taking care to place the wetted part of my effects uppermost, to be dried by the sun. I then resumed my route.

For some hours this erratic progress continued, and, it we are to believe the incurably optimistic Italian, he was thoroughly amused by his efforts at paddling. Indeed, he told the Countess that he could “scarcely help incessantly smiling,” even though it was quite obvious that he was making little or no headway. Unabashed, he tried another means of locomotion: I threw myself into the water up to my waist, and commenced a promenade of a rather unusual kind, drawing the canoe after me with a thong from a buffaloe’s hide, which I had fastened to the prow. The first day of my expedition, the 15th of the month, was employed in this manner, and I did not stop till the evening. It was natural to expect that I should be fatigued; but I was not in the least so. While thus dragging after me my canoe, with a cord over my shoulder, an oar in my hand for my support, my back stooping, my head looking down, holding conversation with the fishes beneath, and making incessant windings in the river, in order to sound its depths, that I might most safely pass; I must leave to your imagination to conceive the variety and interest of the ideas which rapidly passed in review before my mind!

Despite the discomforts of his situation, Beltrami was having the time of his life. He saw himself as a successor of the intrepid heroes of Roman legend, sternly pushing forward to his goal against all obstacles. From time to time he was forced to resume his feeble attempts at paddling, but always found that he could not master the art and made more headway by wading upstream. Everything was soaking wet--baggage, provisions, weapons, bedding, and himself. At night it was impossible to light a fire to dry out his belongings because the renegade Chippewa had stolen his flint, so he slept in his sodden clothing and relied on the morning sunshine to warm his chilled body. To add to his discomfort, the weather was sultry and there were many thundershowers. Beltrami himself did not care—wading in the river, he could hardly have been wetter—but his baggage was drenched and began to grow moldy. Therefore on the third day of his extraordinary trek he unpacked the ultimate item in his gentleman-traveller kit—a large umbrella covered with red silk. This he unfolded and stuck upright in the canoe so that his luggage was sheltered from the rain. Then he plunged back into the water, took up the tow rope, and proceeded on his “promenade.”

The progress of Beltrami and his red silk umbrella is the last flamboyant episode in the story of Mississippi exploration. There is something captivating about the idea of this lighthearted Italian coxcomb trudging purposefully up the riverbed, waist deep in water, towing his canoe behind him because he did not know how to paddle. The exact location of the Mississippi’s source was no longer important to anyone except a cartographer or the most romantic dreamer. Yet Beltrami was utterly absorbed in his mission to find it. To him, the most remote feeder stream of the “Father of Waters” was a glittering prize, an exercise in adventure for a cultivated man.

Beltrami’s labors were almost over. After one more lonely night on the bank, tormented by mosquitoes, he encountered at noon the following day two canoes of Indians paddling downstream. The natives were thrown into confusion by the sight of the half-submerged explorer. Beltrami, shouting and hallooing with relief, persuaded them to approach the extraordinary spectacle of the “great red skin” and the crazy white man walking in the water. The Indians, Chippewa from Red Lake, came forward nervously, and the Italian had to distribute odds and ends of cloth and food to all of them before they would take him seriously. After much haggling, Beltrami succeeded in enticing one of the Indians, an old man, to paddle him up to Red Lake. It was a pleasant change from wading, but the philosophical Italian still had some conclusions to draw from his adventures. “You have experienced,” he told himself, “complete solitude, you have tasted genuine independence, you will from this time never enjoy them more. The independence and solitude represented in books, or to be found among civilized nations are vain and chimerical. And, later, “I at that moment fully comprehended why the Indians consider themselves happier than cultivated nations, and far superior to them.”

On the journey to Red Lake, Beltrami was nearly abandoned a second time. His “patriarchal companion” was an accomplished canoeist and paddled the explorer upstream at a fast pace. Beltrami shot a brace of wild ducks for dinner, and after the meal settled down to sleep on the bank, taking the precaution of tying the bow line of the canoe to his ankle in case the Indian should attempt to steal his boat during the night. Awakened by something tugging at the rope, the Italian raised his musket and let fly into the darkness. With a loud yelp his elderly guide, who had been sleeping peacefully, leapt to his feet and scampered off into the forest. Realizing his mistake, Beltrami blundered about in the dark, firing his gun and shouting at the man to come back. This encouraged the Indian to believe that they had been attacked by Sioux and it was not until the next morning that he timidly emerged from cover, in daylight they found the cause of the commotion—a scavenging wolf whose carcass lay a few yards away from where Beltrami had shot him.

This incident confirmed the old Chippewa’s impression that he was dealing with a lunatic, and all that day he tried to exchange places with every Indian they met. But Beltrami did not relish another bout of haggling and urged his boatman to continue. Dusk saw them almost at the entrance to Red Lake, and as the guide wanted to paddle all night, Beltrami curled up in the bottom of the canoe to get some badly needed sleep. He awakened to find himself alone in the canoe, which had been concealed in the rushes. The guide had very sensibly returned downstream to rejoin his friends, leaving the Italian to the care of the nearest family of Chippewa. These arrived and led Beltrami to their hut, where he was immediately savaged by the household pet, a tame wolf that tore the visitors’ last serviceable pair of pantaloons. Beltrami's stay with the Chippewa was not a success. He was eager to travel on toward the source of the Mississippi but had to wait while a halfbreed guide was fetched from the other side of the lake. In the interval his hosts stole anything they could carry from his belongings and held a funeral party for a relative who had been killed by the Sioux. The funeral consisted of the family’s yelling, eating, drinking, and dancing without intermission until Beltrami, heartily sick of the din, wished that he could leave before the Indians consumed all the provisions he had brought with him. The Boisbrulé, as Beltrami called anyone of mixed blood, finally put in his appearance, and the Italian realized immediately that he was going to have trouble. The half-breed was intelligent and could read and write, but he was a shifty character and it took all Beltrami’s bluster and wheedling to induce his new guide to lead him to his destination.

On the morning of the twenty-sixth, Beltrami, the half-breed, and an Indian porter set out. The Italian was highly excited; he felt that at last he was approaching the goal of his wanderings, “the sources of a river which are most in a right line with its mouth.” The little band crossed Red Lake and headed up a small tributary river that flowed in from the south. On the other side of the gently rising ground that faced them, Beltrami was told, he would be entering the Mississippi drainage basin. There, he was confident, he would discover the most northerly source of the Mississippi. It was a moment of personal triumph for the traveller, and he made the most of it. He savored the scenery and compared himself with Aeneas wandering into the unknown.

At last, after a final portage, he came to the crest of the divide. There, cradled in the top of the low hill, lay a small, heart-shaped lake. It had no streams flowing in or out of it, but a few paces to the north a small spring issued from the boggy ground and flowed north to the Red River; on the south slope there was a second rivulet draining in the opposite direction to join the Mississippi. After dangling sounding lines in the lake, Beltrami concluded that the lake and the two streams were connected “through long subterraneous sinuosities.” At one stroke he had found the sources of the Bloody and the Mississippi rivers!

Sitting down on the shores of the lake, which he promptly named Lake Julia after one of his heroines (a lady “not my wife but a lovely woman”), Beltrami pulled out his pen and began, “THESE SOURCES ARE THE ACTUAL SOURCES OF THE MISSISSIPPI! This lake therefore supplies the most southern sources of the Red, or, as I shall in future call it (by its truer name) Bloody river; and the most northern sources of the Mississippi—sources till now unknown of both. … Oh! What were the thoughts which passed through my mind at this most happy and brilliant moment of my life! The shades of Marco Polo, of Columbus, of Americus Vespucius, of the Cabots, of Verazini [Verrazano] … appeared present, and joyfully assisting at this high and solemn ceremony.”

Beltrami was ecstatic. He had found the source, and before him the Mississippi was “but a timid Naiad, stealing cautiously through the rushes and briars which obstruct its progress. The famous Mississippi, whose course is said to be twelve hundred leagues, and which bears navies on its bosom, and steam-boats superior in size to frigates, is at its source merely a petty stream of crystalline water, concealing itself among reeds and wild rice, which seem to insult ever its humble birth.”∗ Carried away by his success, the excited Italian hurried along the course of the infant stream, scattering new names like confetti on every pond the Mississippi crossed; the Countess was given her own lake, and such names as Monteleone, Torrigiani, and Antonelli were firmly inked in on his map sketch.

Subsequent surveys have established the actual source as Lake Itasca (or, ultimately, Elk Lake and lesser bodies of water emptying into Lake Itasca), some miles to the southwest of Beltrami’s “source.”

The downstream journey became a march of triumph. Beltrami now regarded himself as the intrepid explorer who was returning to civilization to announce the success of his mission. True to his role as a gentleman-traveller, he was magnanimous in victory: he made a detour to view Leech Lake, the farthest point that Pike had reached; Beltrami acknowledged Pike as “a bold and enterprising man,” but he would brook no rival for glory. He could hardly wait to get back to Fort St. Anthony to advertise his accomplishment. He chafed at every delay and urged his half-breed guide to go faster. But the half-breed refused to be rushed and led Beltrami southward via a succession of Chippewa encampments.

The Chippewa of the upper river were embroiled in one of their periodic squabbles. Weakened by disease and liquor, the tribe had lost its former power and was dependent on government handouts. The war leaders, nearly all of them inveterate alcoholics, were quarrelling over who should be chief. The reigning warrior, a lazy drunkard named Wide Mouth, was being challenged by an equally indolent usurper, Cloudy Weather. By the time Beltrami stumbled in on the dispute, Wide Mouth had craftily suggested that if Cloudy Weather wished to prove his prowess, he should lead a war party against the Sioux. Cloudy Weather was eager to be chief but he did not want to risk his neck in order to oust his rival. As a result, the two factions welcomed the Italian as an impartial arbitrator. Beltrami was thrilled; to his reputation as an explorer he now proposed to add the role of peacemaker. His first efforts were extremely sensible—he advised the quarrelling chiefs to take their problems to Major Taliaferro, the Indian agent, who would decide between them. This suited Cloudy Weather, who saw a convenient excuse to avoid leading the proposed war party, but Wide Mouth was disappointed. Summoning Beltrami to his hut, he tried to persuade the Italian to send Cloudy Weather off against the Sioux. Beltrami replied with a solemn lecture on the responsibilities of leadership and the public benefits of peace. It was no use; the noble savage was stone drunk.

Beltrami’s negotiations finally collapsed when the tribe managed one night to get hold of several barrels of whiskey. A terrific orgy ensued. The men and their squaws, all of them roaring drunk, rushed about the encampment brandishing knives, clubs, and muskets. The baying of their savage dogs added to the general din, and Beltrami’s half breed prudently hid himself. Poor Beltrami was terrified. He found a safe spot just outside the ramp and stayed there. “Standing on a mound of earth with my cutlass in my girdle, my gun in my hand, and my sword half unsheathed at my side, I remained a spectator of this awful scene, watchful and motionless. I was often menaced, but never answered except by an expressive silence, which most unequivocally declared that I was ready to rush on the first who should dare to become my assailant.” Once he had to venture into camp to rescue Cloudy Weather, who was drunkenly defending himself against two opponents with a piece of wood. With the help of the half-breed, who conveniently reappeared for a moment, Beltrami pushed the raving chief into his hut and sent in one of his own faction to protect him. Cloudy Weather promptly went berserk, seized a knife, and repeatedly stabbed his guard until he was pulled away. Next morning Beltrami counted the casualties of the previous evening’s excitement—twenty-four wounded and two dead. Understandably, his half-breed had decided to defect, and no amount of pleading could persuade him to continue the trip. Beltrami was forced to employ Cloudy Weather as his guide to Fort St. Anthony, and left the rest of the tribe to sort out their own problems.

The explorer’s homecoming was not as glamorous as Beltrami had hoped. Cloudy Weather, suffering from a monumental hang-over, proceeded slowly. He also stole Beltrami’s cooking pot, reducing the Italian to eating from a tin cup. But the returning “promeneur” refused to be daunted. He set up his red umbrella as a flag of peace, shot a skunk and cut up its corpse to see what made the animal smell so strong (getting himself soaked with the animal’s fluid in the process), and clutched the sides of the canoe as Cloudy Weather shot the rapids “with an intrepidity and dexterity truly surprising.” Eventually they reached the fort, where Beltrami jauntily scrambled ashore, dressed for maximum effect in moccasins, clothes made from skins, and a homemade hat of bark. Colonel Snelling and his family greeted this bizarre figure kindly and listened patiently to his flowery account of his adventures. Then, on October third, Beltrami, complete with his jumble of Indian souvenirs, took passage by keelboat clown to St. Louis and from there travelled to New Orleans, determined to write a book about his heroic Mississippi pilgrimage. With suitable embellishment the reports he had been writing for Countess Medici-Spada became his text.

Beltrami’s book did not receive the acclaim he had anticipated. Two editions were printed, one in New Orleans and the other in London, and neither sold well. Few people took his discovery seriously. It was obvious that the Italian had approached the source from the wrong side of the watershed. He had merely ascended the Red Lake River, crossed the divide, and claimed the first southward-flowing stream as the head of the Mississippi. To make his disappointment more acute, Beltrami found that the public was no longer interested in the whereabouts of the source of the Mississippi anyway. The topic was stale, and after a few invitations to high-society parties in New Orleans and a handful of favorable notices in the popular newspapers, the luckless Italian was largely forgotten. Only the professional academics and the serious map makers read his book carefully, and of course they demolished his claims with biting sarcasm. In fact, the rest of his life was sad. Most of it was spent in exile from his beloved Italy. Ignored both as an explorer and as a writer, Beltrami survived until 1855.

It would have cheered him immeasurably if he could have known that eleven years later the Minnesota state legislature would honor him in a way that even Beltrami would have considered suitable. Grateful for his rapturous descriptions of Minnesota’s natural beauties (and undeterred by his questionable geography), the legislature named part of the state after him. To this day, 2,500 square miles of upper Minnesota are called Beltrami County.

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