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In search of the Mississippi’s source: Giacomo Costatino Beltrami

Beltrami published a controversial account of his travels in Minnesota in the 1820s.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Oil on canvas painting of Giacomo Beltrami. Painted in
1931 by Gian Antonio Micheli.

Born in 1779 in the Lombardy region of Italy, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami achieved fame and fortune at a young age. When political pressure and personal loss spurred him to leave home, he set out to explore the world. Today he is best known for an account of his travels through present-day Minnesota, and for his claim to have found the source of the Mississippi River.

Beltrami signed up for service in the army of the Cisalpine Republic in 1797, at the age of eighteen. At the time, the northern Italian republic was governed by France, and Beltrami was able to use his new military position to work his way into both the Masons and Napoleon’s government. He spent his early career working as a magistrate in the Napoleonic judicial system.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Italians regained control of the Cisalpine Republic. Beltrami returned to his farm in Filottrano. His Masonic membership and French connections, however, soon put him at odds with the papal government, which suspected he had conspired against the Italian state. The death of his dear friend Giulia Spada de Medici, coupled with ongoing surveillance by papal police, led Beltrami to embrace a life of travel. He toured Europe before sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia on October 25, 1822.

Having arrived in Philadelphia in December, Beltrami set off to visit several North American cities. He stayed in Washington, DC, where he met President James Monroe. He also stopped in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which he described as “a little Birmingham.”

A trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans took a turn in the opposite direction when Beltrami met Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent headed to Fort St. Anthony (now Fort Snelling). Taliaferro’s descriptions of the area’s Dakota and Ojibwe people intrigued Beltrami. He decided to reverse course and follow the agent upstream.

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At St. Louis, Beltrami and Taliaferro boarded the Virginia, the first steamboat to try to reach Fort St. Anthony by traveling against the current. They arrived at their destination on May 10, 1823.

As was his habit, Beltrami described the visit in his journal. He recorded his observations of fort life, his impressions of local Dakota and Ojibwe customs, and his resolve to locate the source of the Mississippi.

Beltrami accompanied an expedition led by Major Stephen Long as far as Pembina. In spite of his lack of experience, he was determined to explore the surrounding area with his own small party. He set out on August 9, 1823.

On August 28, Beltrami found what he believed was the source of the Mississippi and the Red River of the North. He christened the site Giulia (Lake Julia) in honor of his late friend. He acquired objects as he traveled, including two American Indian (probably Dakota) flutes.

By December, Beltrami had carried out his original plan to visit New Orleans. It was there that he set about organizing his travel notes into a book. The account, published a few months later, proved controversial. Beltrami was convinced that he had found the source of the Mississippi and the Red River of the North. The rest of the world, however, either ignored or ridiculed his claim. The Mississippi’s true source at Lake Itasca remained unknown to Euro-Americans until an 1832 expedition led by Henry Schoolcraft.

Beltrami set out on another journey in April of 1824. This time, he set his sights on Mexico. He collected local plants, art, and manuscripts, including a text that translated the Aztec language into Latin.

Beltrami continued to travel throughout 1825, adding New York to his list of visited cities. The controversy surrounding his alleged discovery, coupled with the censorship of his books by the Catholic Church, weighed on his mind.

In 1826, Beltrami returned to Europe. He lived in Heidelberg, Germany for a few years before returning to Italy. He changed his lifestyle, taking inspiration from the humble habits of Franciscan monks. He even took to calling himself “Fra Giacomo.” Having given up hope of seeing his books published in Italy, he contented himself with working on his estate. He died in 1855.

Several Minnesota landmarks reflect Beltrami’s renown as an explorer of the Upper Mississippi. Beltrami County, Beltrami Island State Forest, and the Beltrami neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis are named in his honor.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.