With the symbolic settling of scores continuing across the land, debate has erupted over whose history is worth honoring, and who gets to decide.
Recently, on the Capitol Mall in St. Paul, activists defiantly pulled down the statue of Christopher Columbus, which had held watch over the nearly always empty plaza since his installation in 1931. Being the ripe old age of 89 when he fell, he’d endured a typical life span for an Italian patriarch — or, more accurately, matriarch, as the women always outlast the men.
Likenesses of the famed assassin and enslaver also came down in other cities across this nation — Baltimore, Boston and Richmond to name a few. Some Italian Americans are incensed. Others, me included, are nonplused. We have more deserving Italians to honor if we wanted to celebrate our heritage.
And actually, this question was put out there recently by a friend of mine. What other Italians or Italian Americans could we, should we honor? Robert DeNiro? Frank Sinatra? Enrico Caruso? Beyond these brilliant and groundbreaking performing artists, there are many Italian pioneers in science and the arts who would be deserving of being enshrined in concrete and plaster.
But, for Minnesota, there is only one clear choice: Count Constantino Giacomo Beltrami.
In 1823, Beltrami, for whom a northern Minnesota county is named, arrived at what would become Fort Snelling on a steamship from St. Louis. He was, perhaps, the first Italian refugee in our state.
He had fled his home in Lombardy, pursued by the papal police (the cops again), who were skeptical of his support for the authority of the pope. Traveling across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, Beltrami grew ill and came close to death, but revived himself well enough to travel west and north and end up at the fort on the shores of the Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
His goal? To find the source of the Mississippi and thus make a name for himself among his country’s legendary explorers — Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci and even that guy who was just toppled.
Beltrami traveled into the north country with his fine suede Italian bags, charming everyone with whom he came in contact, learning a bit of Ojibwe and Dakota along the way. If ever there was a peculiar aberration on the landscape of our state, he was it. But after pestering his Ojibwe and Bois-Brule hosts with his endless questions and demands, Beltrami ultimately settled upon a body of water, which he named Lake Giulia, that was not, in fact, the source of the mighty river. He was off by about 40 miles. But in his reverie and vaingloriousness, he was triumphant.
Wet, cold and more than a little hungry, he hitched a ride with Pokeskononepe (Cloudy Weather), chief of the Pillager Band of Ojibwe, who had agreed to take him back downriver, as the chief himself had some business at the fort. As they neared the turn in the river where the Crow Wing River flows into the Mississippi, Cloudy Weather remarked that this was a spot where, in the midst of hostilities, Dakota warriors would likely be present to put a few arrows into their chests from the tops of the cliffs above the river.
Beltrami raised his broad Italian red umbrella from the canoe, so that any potential hostile parties could see that the weird Italian guy, who had wandered around the woods for the previous few months, was in the boat, and grant them safe passage, which they did.
Beltrami, although wrong in his geographic calculations, deserves a spot in our heart, and our legacy, for being the first Italian to wander recklessly through Minnesota’s forests in search of glory. He certainly didn’t hurt anybody, and probably provided a bit of a comic diversion during that hot summer of 1823.
I say, have a good sculptor give it a go and put him up there in front of the Capitol, with his red umbrella skyward.
And if the count is not your cup of tea, and you’d prefer to see an Italian woman up there instead, one who made a profound impact upon our entire nation and the education of our children, then I have just the choice: Maria Montessori.
John P. Gwinn lives in Minneapolis.