The Preposterous Pathfinder


Beltrami’s negotiations finally collapsed when the tribe managed one night to get hold of several barrels of whiskey. A terrific orgy ensued. The men and their squaws, all of them roaring drunk, rushed about the encampment brandishing knives, clubs, and muskets. The baying of their savage dogs added to the general din, and Beltrami’s half breed prudently hid himself. Poor Beltrami was terrified. He found a safe spot just outside the ramp and stayed there. “Standing on a mound of earth with my cutlass in my girdle, my gun in my hand, and my sword half unsheathed at my side, I remained a spectator of this awful scene, watchful and motionless. I was often menaced, but never answered except by an expressive silence, which most unequivocally declared that I was ready to rush on the first who should dare to become my assailant.” Once he had to venture into camp to rescue Cloudy Weather, who was drunkenly defending himself against two opponents with a piece of wood. With the help of the half-breed, who conveniently reappeared for a moment, Beltrami pushed the raving chief into his hut and sent in one of his own faction to protect him. Cloudy Weather promptly went berserk, seized a knife, and repeatedly stabbed his guard until he was pulled away. Next morning Beltrami counted the casualties of the previous evening’s excitement—twenty-four wounded and two dead. Understandably, his half-breed had decided to defect, and no amount of pleading could persuade him to continue the trip. Beltrami was forced to employ Cloudy Weather as his guide to Fort St. Anthony, and left the rest of the tribe to sort out their own problems.

The explorer’s homecoming was not as glamorous as Beltrami had hoped. Cloudy Weather, suffering from a monumental hang-over, proceeded slowly. He also stole Beltrami’s cooking pot, reducing the Italian to eating from a tin cup. But the returning “promeneur” refused to be daunted. He set up his red umbrella as a flag of peace, shot a skunk and cut up its corpse to see what made the animal smell so strong (getting himself soaked with the animal’s fluid in the process), and clutched the sides of the canoe as Cloudy Weather shot the rapids “with an intrepidity and dexterity truly surprising.” Eventually they reached the fort, where Beltrami jauntily scrambled ashore, dressed for maximum effect in moccasins, clothes made from skins, and a homemade hat of bark. Colonel Snelling and his family greeted this bizarre figure kindly and listened patiently to his flowery account of his adventures. Then, on October third, Beltrami, complete with his jumble of Indian souvenirs, took passage by keelboat clown to St. Louis and from there travelled to New Orleans, determined to write a book about his heroic Mississippi pilgrimage. With suitable embellishment the reports he had been writing for Countess Medici-Spada became his text.

Beltrami’s book did not receive the acclaim he had anticipated. Two editions were printed, one in New Orleans and the other in London, and neither sold well. Few people took his discovery seriously. It was obvious that the Italian had approached the source from the wrong side of the watershed. He had merely ascended the Red Lake River, crossed the divide, and claimed the first southward-flowing stream as the head of the Mississippi. To make his disappointment more acute, Beltrami found that the public was no longer interested in the whereabouts of the source of the Mississippi anyway. The topic was stale, and after a few invitations to high-society parties in New Orleans and a handful of favorable notices in the popular newspapers, the luckless Italian was largely forgotten. Only the professional academics and the serious map makers read his book carefully, and of course they demolished his claims with biting sarcasm. In fact, the rest of his life was sad. Most of it was spent in exile from his beloved Italy. Ignored both as an explorer and as a writer, Beltrami survived until 1855.

It would have cheered him immeasurably if he could have known that eleven years later the Minnesota state legislature would honor him in a way that even Beltrami would have considered suitable. Grateful for his rapturous descriptions of Minnesota’s natural beauties (and undeterred by his questionable geography), the legislature named part of the state after him. To this day, 2,500 square miles of upper Minnesota are called Beltrami County.