For a period of nine or ten years in the early 1800s, a small, sheltered lake in northcentral Minnesota held disputed claim to the title of the true Mississippi River headwater source. Later, in 1832, geologist and Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft demonstrated that the beginnings of the Father of Waters lay several miles south, in a lake he named Itasca: true head.

The Explorer

For one Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, Italian gentleman and political exile from Venice, Lake Julia remained forever what he assured the world comprised the actual sources of the big river — no matter what geologists, mapmakers and so-called scientists said. For he had journeyed there. He had seen the lake. He had, in fact, named it.

Beltrami came to America in 1823, determined that the visit would in some way reinstate him in the good offices he once had enjoyed back home. His observing eye missed little as he toured Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, where he menet President Monroe in person. Beltrami continued westward to the Mississippi River and boarded a boat bound for St. Louis. There he transferred to the Virginia, the first steamboat to attempt the upstream journey as far as Fort St. Anthony (later renamed Fort Snelling) near the present-day Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Giacomo Costantino BeltramiCredit: Wikimedia Commons

By now the wayward Italian had become caught up in the excitement and drama of exploration, of discovery, of "seeing places which one can hardly expect to visit twice in one's life." All explorers seeking new countries or new planets, whether they meet with success or failure, seem driven by an inner lust for discovery — as if to discover means to possess. At Fort St. Anthony, Beltrami joined a mapping expedition commanded by Major Stephen H. Long, in part to avoid being ordered back down the Mississippi by Colonel Snelling the fort commandant.

The impetuous Italian's voluble criticism of Long's management of the expedition and the latter's understandable resentment of interference led to Baltrami's decision to strike out on his own. Knowing the expedition was presently located somewhere north and west of the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, Beltrami sold his horse and with the money hired an interpreter and a pair of Chippewa Indians to guide the mission, and bought and provisioned a canoe.

The Search

The four men started eastward up the swiftly running Red Lake River. Almost immediately, Beltrami found himself alone with a canoe he did not know how to navigate. First, his interpreter deserted and, a few days later an ambush by a band of Sioux frightened away his two guides.

Beltrami unhesitatingly resolved to continue alone. At first, he made little or no progress. Completely unable to control his canoe in the river's rapid current, he upset it and wet himself and his supplies. Undaunted, the resourceful Italian fastened a thong from a buffalo hide to the prow of the canoe and, wading sometimes in water up to his waist, proceeded to drag the craft up the stream behind him. When summer thundershowers intermittently threatened to drench his gear, Beltrami unfolded a large gentleman's red silk umbrella and propped it upright in the canoe so as to protect his supplies.

One day a Chippewa Indian paddling downstream from Red Lake, at first frightened by the "great red skin" shining in the sun and by the crazy "white man who  walks up rivers," finally let Beltrami persuade him to paddle the canoe, and the Italian, up the river. Soon foisted onto other, more compliant Indians, Beltrami eventually reached Red Lake which he crossed with a small band of Native Americans. He now felt certain he had reached a point but a short way from the Mississippi River headwaters.

The Sources

Cresting a shallow divide, Beltrami found himself on the banks of a lake that drained into Mississippi headwaters. Here, the Italian felt he had discovered the most northerly feeder lake of the big river.

After all, had he not forced his way single-handedly against the cold and treacherous current of a fast-running North American river? Had he not laboriously towed his belongings up that very river by means of a slender thong wrapped around his waist and tied to a canoe that obstinately hung up on every rock? Had he not encountered a hundred wilderness dangers and survived Indian desertion and attack? Had he not succeeded, through pluck, stamina and the constant employment of his wits, where others had not even come close to the goal?

To perpetuate the memory of a deceased Italian heroine, Beltrami named the body of water Lake Julia. In his journal, he proclaimed: "These are the actual sources of the Mississippi."

That more professional investigations subsequently proved him wrong can hardly detract from the basically charming episode this most picturesque of adventurers chronicled in grandiose terms to put before the world the name of a latter day Marco Polo, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami — Italian esploratore straordinario.