The Preposterous Pathfinder

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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.