Thirty years intervened between the establishment of Beltrami County, February 28, 1866, and its organization, when its county seat and earliest settlement, Bemidji, received incorporation as a village, May 20, 1896.
The county name was adopted in honor of Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, the Italian explorer in 1823 of the most northern sources of the Mississippi River, near the center of the part of this county lying south of Red Lake. Anglicized, his name was James Constantine, and on the title page of his published works, relating his travels, it is given by initials as J. C. Beltrami. Except David Thompson in 1798, he was the first explorer to supply descriptions of Red and Turtle Lakes, though undoubtedly they had been previously visited by roving traders and their canoe voyagers.
Beltrami was born at Bergamo, Italy, in 1779. His father advised him to enter the law profession, and he held numerous official positions as a chancellor and a judge, but in 1821, being accused of implication in plots to establish an Italian republic, he was exiled.
After traveling in France, Germany, and England, Beltrami sailed from Liverpool to Philadelphia and arrived there February 21, 1823. About a month later he reached Pittsburgh, there made the acquaintance of Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian agent at the newFort St. Anthony (two years afterward renamed Fort Snelling), and traveled with him by steamboat down the Ohio and up the Mississippi, coming on May 10 to the fort.
From July 9 to August 7, Beltrami traveled to Pembina with the exploring expedition of Maj. Stephen H. Long, to whom he had been commended by William Joseph Snelling and Taliaferro. He left that expedition at Pembina and went southeastward along an Indian trail, with two Ojibwe and a mixed-blood interpreter, to the junction of the Thief and Red Lake Rivers, whence his journey was by canoe up the latter river to Red Lake. From an Ojibwe village near the mouth of the lake, Beltrami traveled with a canoe along its southwestern shore to the Little Rock or Gravel River, where he stopped at the hut of a mixed-blood man, who became his guide. August 26 and 27 were spent in making long portages with the guide and an another Ojibwe, leaving the south shore of Red Lake a short distance east from the site of the agency and going south, passing small lakes and coming at last by a few miles of canoeing to Lake Puposky, now also called Mud Lake. Proceeding still southward the next morning, Beltrami soon came to a lake named by him for a deceased friend, Lake Julia, which he thought to have no visible outlet but to send its waters by filtration through the swampy ground both northward and southward, being thus a source both of the Red Lake River, called by him Bloody River, and of the Turtle River, the most northern affluent of the Mississippi. The narrative of Beltrami shows that he arrived at Lake Julia by a short portage, but on the map of the U.S. land surveys it is shown as having an outlet into Mud Lake, thus belonging to the Red River basin.
On September 4 Beltrami reached Red Cedar Lake, since known as Cass Lake, and during the next three days he voyaged down the Mississippi to the mouth of Leech Lake River. Thence he went up that stream to Leech Lake, where he made the acquaintance of Cloudy Weather, a leader in the band of the Pillager Ojibwe, by whom he was accompanied in the long canoe voyage of return to the Mississippi and down this river toFort St. Anthony.
The next winter was spent by Beltrami in New Orleans, where he published his narration in 1824, written in French, bearing a title that in English would be "The Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and of the Bloody River." In 1828 he published in London his most celebrated work, entitled A Pilgrimage in Europe and America, leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River; with a Description of the Whole Course of the former and of the Ohio. This work of two volumes is cast in the form of a series of letters addressed to an Italian countess. Eight letters, in pages 126 to 491 of Vol. 2, contain the account of his travels in Minnesota.
During his later years, until 1850, Beltrami resided in various cities of France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, and his last five years were spent on his estate at Filotrano, near Macerata, Italy, where he died in February 1855.
The city of Bergamo, his birthplace, in 1865 published a volume of 134 pages commemorating his life and work, dedicated to the Minnesota Historical Society. In translation from this book, Alfred J. Hill presented in the second volume of this society's Historical Collections a biographic sketch of Beltrami, together with a communication from Maj. Taliaferro giving reminiscences of him.