- Historic Sites
The Preposterous Pathfinder
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.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
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.”