The Preposterous Pathfinder

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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.