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John Eggers: Was Beltrami right?

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John Eggers: Was Beltrami right?
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

It was 190 years ago when a young man from northern Italy left his home; traveled through Europe; took a ship across the Atlantic; proceeded west to St. Louis; found his way as a passenger on the first steamboat north to Fort Snelling; joined a survey party where he canoed northwest on the Minnesota River and then the Red River north to Pembina; left his party to paddle and pull his canoe to Red Lake and then journey south on the Mud River to Mud Lake (now Puposky Lake). This remarkable voyage ended when some Native American guides led him to a small lake.

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Standing on top of the hill we now call Buena Vista and viewing a heart shaped lake to the northwest, Giacomo Constantino Beltrami named the lake, Julia, after a close friend in Italy. Of more importance, Giacomo Beltrami, often referred to as Count Beltrami, declared that this beautiful lake was the source of the Mississippi.

All of this happened 190 years ago this summer. Is it too early to begin planning a 200-year anniversary celebration of Count Beltrami's voyage to Minnesota and for identifying Lake Julia as the source of the Father of Waters, the Mississippi?

Native Americans knew of the existence of Lake Julia for hundreds of years. Beltrami, however, declared the lake as the source of the Mississippi. I say this with a little equivocation because Native people may have recognized Julia as a waterway to the mighty Mississippi long before Beltrami even thought about it.

There are many naysayers who would disagree with those of us who believe Lake Julia to be the northern most source of the Mississippi. Let's not forget that history makes mistakes. Let's count a few of the ways.

We all agree that Native Americans have been inaccurately portrayed in our history books for decades and decades. The same is true of African-Americans. The whole truth just wasn't told.

We know that Mary Surratt was hung for plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. According to many reports today, the hanging of Mary Surratt was not justified. Again, the whole truth was not told.

Did Paul Revere make the ride alone to warn that the British are coming and did he shout, "The British were coming. The British were coming." "No," on both accounts. He actually rode with about 60 other people and they shouted, "The regulars are coming. The regulars are coming.

Did George Washington chop down a cherry tree and then proceed to tell his father, "Father, I cannot tell a lie?" Sorry, it never happened. Did Marie-Antoinette say, "Let them eat cake?" Historians now say, "no".

Was Columbus the first European to discover America? Probably not. It was actually a Viking named Leif Erickson, who is believed by historians to have made his way from Scandinavia to Newfoundland a good five hundred years before Columbus was born.

We know that history gets things wrong. History teachers would be the first to agree. So, what about Beltrami? Did he really discover the source of the Mississippi?

Let's remember that things looked much differently around here in 1823. It's hard for us to imagine what geological changes occurred since that time. Who knows, there may have been ample flowage of water going south from Lake Julia into Little Turtle Lake and then into Big Turtle and on it's way to Cass Lake and Leech Lake. If you take Lake Julia Drive on the south shore and pass through the low points, you can see how water could have easily flowed south into Little Turtle.

Beltrami was no dummy. He had a well-rounded education in literature and law and he was also a soldier. He had a penchant for learning and documenting things.

Beltrami collected botanical and geological samples and is responsible for the discovery of the only existing texts to provide Latin translations from the Aztec language. He was a man of character and integrity. Would such an intelligent, conscientious man like Beltrami make such a haphazard claim unless he felt certain that what he was saying was the truth?

Native Americans knew about the "Great River" as they called it. They had a familiarity with the headwaters region. When Beltrami made his wishes known to the Red Lake people, they led him to Lake Julia. That certainly seems plausible.

To this day there is some dispute even with Schoolcraft's claim of the source of the Mississippi. Explorers Bower, Glazier and Nicollet all had their own opinion about the true source.

Giacomo Constantino Beltrami is as important to Minnesota as many of its celebrated explorers. He should be recognized more for his achievements. I can envision a statue of Count Beltrami being unveiled on the courthouse lawn in 2023 at the 200th anniversary of Giacomo Beltrami discovering the northern most source of the Mississippi.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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