- 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
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.