Giacomo Beltrami

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Giacomo Costantino Beltrami (detail from an 1861 painting, six years after Beltrami's death, by Enrico Scuri)

Giacomo Costantino Beltrami (1779 in Bergamo – January 6, 1855 in Filottrano) was an Italian jurist, author, and explorer, best known for claiming to have discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1823 while on a trip through much of the United States (later expeditions determined a different source, however). Beltrami County in Minnesota is named for him.[1] He had an extensive network of notable figures for friends and acquaintances, such as members of the powerful Medici family.

Early life[edit]

Beltrami was the 16th of 17 children, born in the city of Bergamo in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. His exact birth date is unknown because a fire in the area destroyed baptismal records in 1793. He apparently had a fair amount of schooling in literature, law, and other subjects before leaving to become a soldier for the Cisalpine Republic in 1797. The republic was an extension of France at the time, and Beltrami worked his way into the Napoleonic government after becoming a Mason. Years later, when the Marche region again came under purview of the papal government, he was questioned for his activities.

Beltrami was married to the sister of Count Pietro Bastogi, a notable Italian railway financier.

In 1809, Beltrami became the friend of Giulia Spada dei Medici. When she died at the age of 39 in 1820, he put together a collection of different writings in her honor. He was distraught by her death, and this, combined with pressures about his background during French occupation, led him to begin traveling. He visited a number of different cities in Europe, reaching Liverpool, England in 1822. From there, he set out to the United States on a voyage that proved to be very treacherous. He finally arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after more than two months on the ocean in December 1822 or January 1823.

Exploring North America[edit]

In the U.S. he also began visiting a number of different cities. He eventually began a voyage down the Ohio River with the intention of following it to the Mississippi and then south to New Orleans, Louisiana. However, while onboard he met with the prominent United States Indian agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, who was planning to travel upriver on the Mississippi. Beltrami soon became obsessed with the idea of finding the river's source. In 1823, the two later joined with Stephen H. Long as they traveled upriver to Fort St. Anthony.

Beltrami followed Long and Taliaferro as they went about exploring and mapping, and interacting with the local Native American tribes. However, in July, after about three months of this, tension began to grow between Beltrami and the others. He eventually split from their expedition in August, when the group had reached Pembina, and instead set off with some Ojibwe Indian guides on his personal quest to find the source of the river. After only a week and a half, his guides abandoned him and he had to carry on alone, seeking help from other natives that he came across.

At some point during this trip, Beltrami collected two indigenous flutes, which he later sent back to Italy along with his collection of Native American artifacts. One of these flutes provides us with the oldest extant Native American flute, and is now in the collection of the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali in Bergamo, Italy.[2]

On August 28, he found what he believed was the source of the Mississippi, as well as the Red River of the North. He named the place Giulia after his departed friend, and named eight other nearby lakes after her children. He began the return trip downriver to Fort St. Anthony. Beltrami then continued south to his original destination of New Orleans, finally arriving in December.

In the city, he began writing an account of his travels thus far. By late January, it was completed, and it was published a few months later.

Beltrami himself was away from the discussion for about a year, however, as he had gone on another voyage through Mexico. He collected Aztec objects, classified plants and animals, and observed the area's political system. Particularly because of his work with flora, he would eventually be included in several scientific societies of France.

He returned to New Orleans in 1825, but soon left to return to Philadelphia where many copies of his book were being stored. The Catholic church was also displeased[citation needed], and condemned him and his work[citation needed]. By November, he was hob-nobbing with elites[citation needed][further explanation needed] at festivities surrounding the opening of New York's Erie Canal.

Return to Europe[edit]

After some trips to Haiti, Santo Domingo, and elsewhere, Beltrami made a return trip across the Atlantic in 1826, arriving in London in the late part of the year. He moved to Paris two years later, and joined several scientific societies through the early 1830s.

In 1834, Beltrami moved to Heidelberg, Germany and befriended Josef Anton Mittermaier, a notable jurist of the time. A few years later he finally returned to his estate in Filottrano. He attempted to have his books published in Italy, but the church-led government denied his requests. In his final years, he patterned his life on that of Franciscan friars, and called himself "Fra Giacomo." Most of his time was spent working in his house and garden. He died there in 1855.

Offices and titles[edit]

  • Ispettore dei Magazzini della Commissione (Turin, 1801)
  • Sotto-Ispettore degli Equipaggi (Parma, 1805)
  • Cancelliere di Giustizia nel Dipartamento del Taro (Parma, 1805)
  • Vice-Ispettore delle Armate (1806)
  • Giudice della Corte del Dipartamento del Musone (Macerata, 1809)
  • Medaglia d'Onore di Napoli (1815)

Societal memberships[edit]

  • Accademia dei Catenati di Macerata (1821, under the name Alcandro Grineo)
  • Societas Medico-Botanica Londinensis (1828)
  • Société Géographie di Paris (1829)
  • Ateneo di Bergamo (1832)
  • Société Géologique de France (1832)
  • Société Universelle de Civilization (1833)
  • Société dell'Institut Historique de France (1834)


  • Deux Mots sur les promenades de Paris a Liverpool etc. (1823)
  • Le découverte des sources du Mississippi (1824)
  • A Pilgrimage in Europe and America (1828) – English translation of the first two books, plus some extra material
  • Le Mexique (1830)
  • L'Italie et L'Europe and L'Italia ossia scoperte (1834) – French and Italian, respectively


  1. ^ Upham, Warren (1920). Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historic Significance. Minnesota Historical Society. p. 34.
  2. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "The Beltrami Flute". Retrieved December 13, 2010.

External links[edit]