Residents of Beltrami neighborhood should bask in the glory and aspire to the spirit of one Giacomo Constantino Beltrami! Over the years I’ve wondered why my nearby neighborhood is called Beltrami, a name shared with the Northern Minnesota county that is, alas, the state’s poorest if you count income, not gusto.. The 19th Century author and explorer, best known in these parts for his claim to have discovered the source of the Mississippi in 1823, is a man with whom to be reckoned. He made no small plans for himself, as the Beltrami neighborhood makes no small plans of its own.
Born in 1779 in Bergamo in the Northern region of Italy called Lombardy, Beltrami was the 16th of seventeen children. He must have had a good education in literature, law and other subjects before signing up as a soldier for the Disalpine Republic in 1797. Since the republic was an extension of France Beltrami was able to work his way into the Napoleonic government and the Masons, both of which were to play an important role in his life. He spent his early professional life in the Napoleonic judicial system where he established both a sizeable fortune and a liberal world view.
With the downfall of Napoleon Beltrami retreated to his farm where his liberal thoughts soon put him at odds with the papal government. In 1809 Beltrami befriended Giulia Spada dei Medici; a member of the Medici family. When she died in 1820 he was distraught. His distress, coupled with the pressure of the scrutiny and accusations based on his liberal views, spurred Beltrami to embrace a life of adventure. As an exile, he explored the Continent, ultimately reaching Liverpool, England in 1822. As the story goes, Beltrami turned his travels to the West, setting sail from Liverpool to the US. He landed in Philadelphia on December 20, 1822, after what must have been a treacherous Atlantic crossing.
After visiting a number of U.S. cities including Louisville and St. Louis Beltrami began a voyage down the Ohio River with the intention of following it to the Mississippi and then South to New Orleans. On board he had a life-changing experience when he met the prominent US Indian agent, Lawrence Taliaferro. Taliaferro’s next plan was to travel up the Mississippi, a plan that intrigued Beltrami who ultimately joined Taliaferro’s expedition. Eventually Beltrami split from that expedition and set off on his own explorations. In April 1823 and a small group of Ojibwe Indian guides boarded the steamboat Virginia to begin the seven-hundred-mile voyage for Fort St. Anthony; this was the first steam navigation of the upper Mississippi.
Spurred by a vivid imagination Beltrami pondered the reality that the source of the Mississippi was as yet unknown. He no doubt entertained a vision of making history by discovering the source of the mighty Mississippi. In 1823, lured by the possibility of fame and fortune Beltrami left Fort St. Anthon to ventur solo up river, slowed but not discouraged by the fact that he was unable to balance himself in a birch bark canoe which he eventually decided to tow. His quest led him to a small lake which he called Lake Julia after his friend Giulia who had died; he named eight other nearby lakes after her children.
Beltrami was convinced he had discovered the source of both the Mississippi and the Red rivers. Though time and modern science indicate he wasn’t quite accurate in claiming the discovery, he deserves credit for a mighty effort.
Beltrami’s claims were largely ignored and sometimes ridiculed. That didn’t stop his dreams or his studies, however. After more travels in the Western Hemisphere, Beltrami made a return trip across the Atlantic in 1826. In 1834 he moved to Heidelberg, Germany, ultimately returning to his estate in Filottrano. Though he tried to publish his extensive writings, the church-led government denied his requests. In his final years, he took on the life of Franciscan monks and called himself “Fra Giacomo”. Beltrami lived and worked on his estate where he died in 1855, just five years short of the creation of the Italian nation.
The fact is, the long term impact of Beltrami’s life’s work remain in the records of his learning along the route. As intellectually curious as he was fearless, Beltrami took time throughout his travels to study the locales he explored and to chronicle his findings for posterity. His voluminous writings, once banned in Italy, are readily accessible in libraries and archives today. Among other chronicles Beltrami collected botanical and geological samples and is responsible for the discovery of the only existing texts to provide Latinate translations from the Aztec language. Throughout all of his travels Beltrami recorded what he learned – whether literary, mineralogical or botanical. Though his writings were not well received at the time, the record remains intact. When Beltrami died, his nephew left the majority of his written materials to a collection commonly known as Angelo Mai where they remain today. The centerpiece of the library’s holdings of Beltrami materials is the 24 volumes of manuscripts, correspondence and other written work in the Fondo Beltrami. Of particular interest to today’s scholars are Beltrami’s writings about American Indians he encountered in his travels.
Count Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, like his name, is bigger than life, an untapped reservoir of imagination, scholarship and energy. Some have suggested that his relative absence from the American story reflect attitudes about Americans of Italian ancestry. Never mind, the Italians of Northeast Minneapolis knew a mighty force when they saw one. In 1947 the park originally called Maple Hill (another story) was re-named Beltrami Park, largely at the request of the predominantly Italian-American residents of the neighborhood. These Italian-American residents contributed funds for a bronze plaque honoring Beltrami. Placed in1948, the plaque stands today in Beltrami Park on Polk Avenue and Broadway Northeast. Today, the Beltrami neighborhood bears the name and remembers a man of courage, scholarship and vision and a proud Italian-American community that continues to keep his name and memory alive.