It was a strange-looking craft kicking up steam at the Saint-Louis seawall one morning in April 1823.
The wooden ship was 118 feet long. It had a beam of 19 feet and drew five feet and two inches.
Her only superstructure was a small cabin well forward with the rest of her area devoted to a flat deck stacked with cargo crates.
It was only a vague precursor to the floating “wedding cake” steamers that in a few years would cruise the length of the Mississippi.
A crowd had gathered at the seawall that morning, curious to see the ship cast off for the first battle upriver to reach Fort St. Anthony at the site of present-day St. Paul, Minnesota.
The odd-looking boat that drew crowds to St. Louis was the Virginia, launched in 1819 and originally brought west to connect the Middle River with New Orleans downstream.
The boat owners soon realized there was also an opportunity for profit upstream and when the US Army offered a contract to supply the soldiers at the fort in Minnesota, they accepted the challenge.
The Virginia would also carry an odd mix of passengers who that morning rushed aboard to seek refuge among the stacked crates of muskets and beans.
There was a motley collection of hard-core miners heading for the lead mines opening up in the Dubuque area, an Indian agent heading for his post in Minnesota, and a Kentucky family of six and their cattle heading to a new life somewhere to the north.
There was a female missionary following God’s will, a few enlisted men, and an Indian chief named Great Eagle, who would be escorted by a band of warriors who would keep pace with Virginia as they raced along the shore.
But the most unusual passenger was Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, a comic opera-like character who was on a “pilgrimage” after being exiled from his native Italy for being on the wrong side as his nation struggled for independence.
Beltrami kept a detailed and colorful account of his adventures which later became a popular book throughout Europe, and his trip to Virginia played an important role in subsequent publication.
The Italian wanderer endured a disastrous crossing of the Atlantic, and his discomfort only grew worse when he finally reached the Mississippi and began his journey to the northern reaches of civilization.
As St. Louis slowly disappeared behind them, it became apparent to the passengers that the Virginia was on a difficult journey.
As she slowly made her way through the Des Moines Rapids, she struck a rock but did not breach her hull.
There were delays as the crew struggled to extract the boat from numerous sandbars and the boat narrowly escaped a forest fire.
But among the passengers, Beltrami was the only one not complaining.
He turned every stop into an opportunity to go “explore,” but that was bound to lead to even more trouble.
While on an excursion, he lost his bearings and was forced to use his compass to return to the landing site, only to find the boat was gone.
Imagining himself abandoned in the desert forever, Beltrami rushed frantically along the shore, firing his weapon for attention.
To his immense relief, the Virginia was just around the next bend, solidly grounded on another sandbar.
Further adventures awaited the Italian as he traveled north. He took the time to explore the ruins of Fort Madison, the government post disbanded the previous year when troops were fleeing an Indian attack.
Nothing of what would become the site of Burlington was noted, but Beltrami was quite taken by the “Yellow Banks” that would one day become Oquawka.
The miners, the missionary, the farm family, and finally the Indian chief left the boat at its few scheduled stops along the river, but Beltrami remained on board until Fort St. Anthony.
Arriving at the fort was not to be the end of the Italian’s adventures, as he soon bought a canoe and set off into the northern woods in a vain attempt to reach the source of the Mississippi.
In this he failed, but he found a wealth of material for his book which established his reputation on his return to Italy.
Virginia’s voyage was to establish the practicality of navigation in the upper Mississippi, and soon a fleet of boats was to follow and open the river to the colonies which were to include Burlington