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Beltrami

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Not all expeditions which set out to discover the source of the Mississippi River in the early nineteenth century did so. The failures included adventurers, scientists, military men, journalists, and one tourist who would later upgrade his trip to "pilgrimage."

Count J. C. Beltrami was a highly educated Venetian exiled from his native Italy in 1821 for political reasons. He wandered about Europe, then sailed to America. In Philadelphia he learned that much of the continent still lay unexplored.

The source of the Mississippi had not been discovered, and the Count naively decided to take care of the matter. In 1823 he reached St. Louis, where, that May, as fate would have it, a small steamboat, the Virginia, was about to make the first attempt to cross the great rapids at Keokuk and the even more dangerous rapids at Rock Island, loaded with military supplies for Fort Snelling just below St. Anthony's Falls.

In touristy fashion, he hitched a ride. It was a start in the right direction. At Ft. Snelling in July, he obtained permission to tag along with Major Stephen H. Long on a War Department exploring party up the Minnesota River and down the Red River of the North to Pembina at the northwest corner of the future Minnesota. Traveling by horse and canoe proved more strenuous than steamboat and turned the tourist into a traveler.

So far, so good, but the third leg of his voyage tested his mettle. He now struck out on foot for his destination with an Indian interpreter and two guides. On the fifth day, his interpreter left him. The guides did so two days later. Beltrami refused to give up. He did not know how to handle a canoe, so he waded up several rivers pulling his boat.

On August 26th Count Beltrami reached Lake Julia, northwest of present-day Bemidji. Confident he had discovered the source of the Mississippi, he found his way back to civilization, which, three months before, he had left on a tourist's lark. Now it had really become a pilgrimage, not, as he thought, to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, but to the source of that reserve of strength, grit, and determination deep inside some human hearts.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.