The Preposterous Pathfinder


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.