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John Eggers: Was Giacomo Beltrami a nut?

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It disturbs me to even suggest that Giacomo Beltrami did not have all of his marbles intact when he left his home in Bergamo, Italy and set out on an adventure that would eventually result in the naming of our county after him. (This would occur in 1866 by Governor Sibley.) Unfortunately, many historians, then and now, treat him as if he were the 19th Century equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield and he just doesn’t get any respect.

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So, let’s examine both sides. Is there some evidence to suggest that Beltrami was a fruitcake and what evidence is there that he was a very remarkable, intelligent and courageous individual?

First on the fruitcake side we know that he came from a family of seventeen children. He was number sixteen. With that many siblings his childhood was anything but normal. His father was a busy person and, no doubt, didn’t have the time to play catch or go fishing. I’m sure his mother spent most of the time just picking up her kid’s clothes and planning birthday parties.  Poor little Giacomo had to feel some neglect.

Beltrami joined Napoleon’s army when he was 18. France controlled the northern part of Italy and because of Beltrami’s association with Napoleon; he was under suspicion from Italy’s papal government. The Vatican had ruled Italy since the 500’s. To go against this authority was very dangerous and could get a person jailed if not killed. Still, Beltrami defied the Pope because he wished for all of Italy to be an independent state. Wasn’t this kind of crazy? I can just hear Beltrami’s friends and even family say, “Giacomo are you some kind of nut? Get real! Leave matters to people who know what they are doing.”

Beltrami left his home in 1821 to travel in Europe. He had no plan of action, he just went. After he left Europe he traveled to America. Still no plan. He just went. Normally, wouldn’t a sane person have at least a list of hotels to stay in? What is really crazy, Beltrami thought he would like to pay a visit to the President and he did. Would you be so bold as to pay a visit to a head of state in a country you were visiting?

Beltrami made two huge errors in judgment that also make someone question his thinking. First he decided to make the trip to find the source of the Mississippi alone. Taking a party of people to validate his exploits, would have led more credence to Beltrami’s discoveries plus they could have helped paddle the canoe, which he ended up towing with a piece of buffalo hide. Had he not broken off his ties with Major Long who led the expedition from Fort Snelling to Pembina, he could have asked him to loan him a few good men.

The second error in judgment occurred when he decided not to go to the western source of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca. Beltrami knew of this source because Native Americans had told him there was a western source. He even put it on his map, which was printed in his books in 1828, four years before Schoolcraft claimed his discovery. Had Beltrami gone there rather than return to Fort Snelling, we would have a charter school in Bemidji named after Beltrami and not Schoolcraft.

For me and for many other people, Giacomo Beltrami was anything but a nut. He was by all standards a very intelligent, bold, extraordinary, courageous individual. How so?

As a soldier in the army he quickly rose in the ranks to be in charge of all of the rationing for two divisions of Napoleon’s army. A division is made up of 10,000 to 30,000 soldiers. He also worked as a magistrate in the Napoleonic judicial system where he accumulated a considerable fortune.

He became close friends with Luisa d’Albany and Giulia Spada dei Medici. Both of these ladies were very influential. Luisa d’Albany married Bonnie Prince Charles of the family of Stuart, heir to the throne of England. Luisa was 19 at the time and he was 52. For a few years, people referred to her as the Queen of England even though their residence was in Italy.

I don’t think you can become close friends with people of this lineage without showing some wisdom. Let’s not forget that Beltrami was also a jurist, an author, spoke several languages and possessed the ability to impress people.

He had an audience with President Monroe. He became close friends with Colonel Snelling and his wife as well as with Indian Agent, Major Taliaferro who sparked the interest in him to search for the river’s source.

Beltrami had a keen interest in others, especially Native Americans. He enjoyed visiting with them and learning their culture. He had the foresight to barter with them for many Native artifacts, which are now on display at a historical museum in Bergamo. One of his possessions is the earliest Native American flute known to exist.

What sets Beltrami apart from us common folk is that he had the courage (sometimes blind courage) to look for the northern source of the Mississippi and, with the help of Native Americans, he found it. As he stood on top of a high hill (most likely Buena Vista) and as he gazed over a heart shaped lake, which he named Lake Julia, he noted that the waters were flowing north as well as south. This he proclaimed was the Julian source of the Mississippi.

Exploring this region in 1848, scientist Joseph Norwood confirmed Beltrami’s account. “That at high water the waters of Lake Julia could flow into the present Summit Lake and from there into Little Turtle, an important observation, for it gives support to Beltrami’s statement that the waters from Lake Julia did indeed flow into Little Turtle and that Lake Julia was indeed the Julian Source of the Mississippi.”

Beltrami wrote two volumes of his exploits in 1828 as well as countless other books and documents of his travels and his encounters with people he met along the way. The people of Beltrami County ought to feel very proud to have our county named after such a remarkable individual. He is deserving of our highest respect.

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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