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The Beltrami Flutes -
The Earliest Known Wooden Native American Flute

Portrait of Giacomo Costantino Beltrami by Enrico Scuri

Portrait of Giacomo Costantino Beltrami
by Enrico Scuri More information

The earliest surviving Native American flute of wood comes to us from an Italian adventurer who traipsed across present-day Minnesota in search of the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami (1779-1855, also known as J. C. Beltrami, middle name often mis-spelled “Constantino”, and called “Fra Giacomo” late in life).

After suffering the loss of his beloved Giulia Spada dei Medici and politicial difficulties with the Italian Papal government surrounding his role in the French Revolution (he had been in Napolean's government), Beltrami set out on a series of expeditions in Mexico, the Great Plains, New Orleans, and the Carribean. In 1823 he joined U. S. Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro and experienced explorer Stephen H. Long to travel up the Mississippi to Fort St. Anthony in April. After three months exploring and mapping the region, he set out on August 7th with three guides in search of the source of the Mississippi ([Christianson 1923]).

Things did not go well. Abandoned by his guides, he was reduced to wading up the river, hauling his supplies in a birch bark canoe behind him (complete with a red umbrella that he carried as a sign of peace - See Scuri's portrait on the right). He persevered and eventually found what he (erroneously) believed to be the Mississippi headwaters in present-day Beltrami County. He named the lake "Giulia" ([Hill 1867] - see in particular Taliaferro's recollections about Beltrami in the Post-Notes below).

Beltrami returned downriver, arriving in New Orleans in December where he wrote a French-language account of his travels, published a few months later ([Beltrami 1824]). The Catholic Church condemned his work, but he was not deterred and went on to fascinating explorations in Mexico and Haiti. He later published an English-language compendium of all his adventures ([Beltrami 1828]).

And, somewhere in the Great Plains portion of Beltrami's sojourn, he acquired two flutes. These were shipped along with his other artifacts back to his homeland, and they are now on display at the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali (Civic Museum of Natural Science) in Bergamo, in Northern Italy.

Recent Reports

Portrait of Giacomo Costantino Beltrami from 1828

Portrait of Giacomo Costantino Beltrami
from 1828 More information

A photo of Beltrami Native American flute is in Plains Indian Sculpture by John C. Ewers ([Ewers 1986]). [Marino 1986] may also have information, but I have not been able to track down this reference.

Robert Gatliff reported on these flutes in Voice of the Wind ([Gatliff 2007]), but primarily focused on the deep background of these artifacts since he did not have access to the instruments.

Geoff Norman of Uguna Native American Style Flutes (pronounced [oo-goo-nuh]) is the primary resource for the remainder of this web page. After reading Robert's account in Voice of the Wind, Geoff visited the Bergamo museum on July 18, 2007. He photographed, measured, and played one of the flutes, probably for the first time in 184 years.

Geoff provided the bulk of the information (personal communications, except where noted below) that makes up the remainder of this page. He graciously allowed me to publish this information as well as his photographs. All the remaining photographs on this page are his — you can click on any of the photos for a larger image. Geoff has also undertaken making flutes in the style of these historic artifacts.

The Flutes

There are two Beltrami flutes, and I've given them names for this discussion:

  • the “Beltrami Native American flute” - a complete, six-hole or seven-hole true Native American flute, and
  • the “Beltrami Whistle” - a very long whistle with no finger holes, whose sound mechanism appears to have been in the style of a Native American flute, but is now missing the block.

The Beltrami Native American flute

This flute is constructed from a single piece of Western Red Cedar. It has been bored rather than split and glued and is in good playing order. The SAC exit hole and the sound hole are circular. The shallow flue is cut into the top of the flute body and the block is a tiny piece of Western Red Cedar tied with a thin tie (possibly deerskin).

The Beltrami Native American flute

The Beltrami Native American Flute Larger image

Quoting from Geoff Norman's personal communication:

There is a further, wider wrap that also looks and feels like deerskin, just below the true sound hole, which doesn't appear to have any essential function - unless it did hold an “amplifying” vibrator - but I wonder if it was used to attach down or feathers that would move when the instrument was played. Below the seventh tuning hole - numbering one nearest the TSH - there's a cotton thread binding that was obviously put there to bind up a crack that extends along the grain from part-way along fish's left upper jaw to about half way along the body of the flute. This flaw is not very obvious to the eye and looks like a very old mend, and I wonder if it developed when the flute was first made. It can be seen in several of the photographs.

The effigy at the foot end of the flute appears to be the head of a fish. [Gatliff 2007] notes that it may be a gar, which is mentioned in the Sioux origin legend and has also appeared on some later flutes.

In addition to the direction holes at the top and bottom of the effigy at the foot end, there are eight holes. The lowest hole coincides with the junction between the flute body and the effigy, making it impractical to close with the player's fingers. The seventh hole from the top is "a long finger-spread away" - and can be covered with some difficulty, "helped by the flattened top of the flute body. This requires a very flat-fingered stopping technique and is still very awkward. The holes are very uniform and round and have the appearance of being burned, so I assume that they were made by a bow-drill." (quoted from Geoff Norman, personal communication).

Some other attributes of the Beltrami Native American flute:

  • The flute body increases slightly in diameter from the mouthpiece, and it is a slightly flattened oval.
  • The mouthpiece is very large and open (see images below) - 1″ (2.54cm) on the outside and ¾″ (1.9cm) internal diameter, and it is also burned. Geoff Norman said that “the open mouthpiece suggesting very strongly that this flute is a cedar copy of a cane flute”.
  • The internal horizontal axis is about 1 1/8″ (2.86cm) at the angle of the fish's jaws, and the vertical axis is about 1″ (2.54cm). The overall length is 26″ (66cm). The angle of the fish's jaws align with the top and bottom direction holes, giving an effective length from the back edge of the sound hole to the centre of the direction holes of 18″ (45.7cm).


During his visit, Geoff measured the tuning on an electronic tuner at the museum. He also provided me with a sound sample and I took additional measurements from that on a Korg OT-120 Orchestral Tuner calibrated to A=440, shown as Note±Cents:

The Beltrami Native American flute - Tuning
Fingering Geoff Norman Clint Goss
Note Pitch (A=440) Korg OT-120
<ooo|oooo D#5 on pitch D#5 +20
<xoo|oooo C#5 on pitch C#5 +10
<xxo|oooo B4 on pitch B4 +25
<xxx|oooo A#4 slightly flat A#4 -40
<xxx|xooo G#4 on pitch G#4 +10
<xxx|xxoo F#4 50 cents sharp
(half way to a G)
F#4 +60
(G4 -40)
<xxx|xxxo F4 slightly sharp F4 +20
<xxx|xxxx E4 slightly sharp E4 +30

On a personal note, Geoff wrote:

It's difficult to describe what an amazing feeling it was to play this ancient flute, possibly for the first time in over 180 years. As I make my own flutes with a very strong voice, the Beltrami flute struck me as extremely quiet and I had to be careful not to overblow it. I ran up the holes taking off a finger at a time from the sixth and then from the seventh tuning hole and also play the intermediate notes - i.e. how you'd play the semitones on a modern flute by leaving a hole unstopped and stopping the next-but-one hole. Then I indulged in a little doodling to get some idea of how it plays. A skilled player, or even someone like me with a bit of practice, could perform on this instrument with no problems - other than its quietness, I suppose.

The Beltrami Whistle

This flute is made of a denser hardwood than the Beltrami Native American flute, of a type described by the museum staff as “frassino” (ash). It is called a “zufolo” at the Bergamo museum - meaning “small flute”.

The Beltrami Whistle

The Beltrami Whistle Larger image

Here are the observations and measurements as taken by Geoff Norman:

  • The whistle is almost 40″ (101.6cm) long.
  • About 5/8″-3/4″ (1.6-1.9cm) external diameter and about 3/8″ (0.95cm) internal diameter.
  • It has a very small whistle mechanism and no finger holes or direction holes.
  • The SAC exit hole and sound hole are square-edged and about 1/8″ (0.3cm) wide, running together into one hole across a fipple with a relatively deep flue.
  • The nest is flattened and about 3/8″ (0.95cm) wide.
  • There were clear marks showing that there had been a wrap around the fipple/flue/nest area, but this was missing and I was unable to play it.
  • Distance from sound hole to the effective end of the sound chamber (set by bird's mouth opening) is about 27 3/4″ (70.5cm).
  • The flute body is round (circular) for its entire length outside the nest area, unlike the Beltrami Native American flute.

Because of the bird head, the end of the Beltrami Whistle cannot be closed by the player, as with some other overtone flutes. The bird head appears to be the same wood as the flute body, but Geoff believes that it was actually carved from a separate piece of wood.

Detail of the Foot / Bird Head of the Beltrami Whistle

Detail of the Foot / Bird Head of the Beltrami Whistle Larger image

And some more notes from Geoff Norman:

The workmanship on this flute is of a higher order than the other flute. The flute body diameter increases slightly but uniformly from the open mouthpiece, the finish is very smooth and the circularity of the section seems very accurate. It is not obvious how the body was hollowed out but, again, the body was not split and rebonded.
The documents that I've read to date do not include details of how Beltrami came by these flutes, or describe his contact with the Santee Sioux. As he actually produced the first Sioux dictionary, he clearly spent some time with them and learned a significant amount about their customs. The count - whose name was Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, which appears to be mis-spelled as "Constantino" on his memorial in Beltrami County, Minnesota - was a prolific diarist and collector. The artifacts sent back from his Mississsippi expedition amounted to thirty chests, and the collection at Bergamo contains numerous varied objects, including many articles of clothing, drums, rattles, bows, arrows, food containers, and so on. All are maintained in lowish light levels in a very large air-conditioned room. His documents are divided between this museum and another at Filottrano, in the Marche region, where Beltrami had a large estate. I have only seen summaries of his account of his journey, he was in close contact with several people, including the Sioux and the Chippewa; his contact with the Santee occurred at several stages and the next part of the project is to try to obtain more detail on how the flutes were obtained and any other information on their provenance and use.

Detailed Photos

The photos above were taken from Geoff Norman's original images, with image processing to best display these amazing instruments. The processing included removing distractions (the measuring tapes and scratches on the background table), rotating the image by a few degrees, flipping it left-to-right, color correction, and cropping. In one case, a small portion of the image needed to be digitally stitched together to show the complete flute.

The remaining photos below on this page are closer to Geoff's original images. They have been cropped and color-corrected, but no other alterations have been made.

Beltrami Native American flute - Full View

Full view of the Beltrmi Native American flute
Full view of the Beltrmi Native American flute
Full view of the Beltrami Native American flute

Full view of the Beltrami Native American flute Larger image Larger image Larger image

Beltrami Native American flute - Breath Hole

Breathhole of the Beltrami Native American flute

Large, open Breathhole of the Beltrami Native American flute Larger image

Beltrami Native American flute - Nest Area

Nest area of the Beltrmi Native American flute
Nest area of the Beltrmi Native American flute
Nest area of the Beltrmi Native American flute

Three views of the nest area of the Beltrmi Native American flute Larger image Larger image Larger image

Beltrami Native American flute - Fish Head Effigy

Foot of the Beltrami Native American flute
Foot of the Beltrami Native American flute

Foot of the Beltrami Native American flute Larger image Larger image

Beltrami Whistle

Full view of the Beltrami Whistle
Full view of the Beltrami Whistle

Full view of the Beltrami Whistle Larger image Larger image

Beltrami Whistle - Nest Area

Nest area of the Beltrami Whistle
Nest area of the Beltrami Whistle

Nest area of the Beltrami Whistle Larger image Larger image

Beltrami Whistle - Bird Head at Foot End

Foot / Bird head of the Beltrami Whistle
Foot / Bird head of the Beltrami Whistle

Foot / Bird head of the Beltrami Whistle Larger image Larger image


For an overview of the history of the explloration of the Mississippi River, see [Anfinson 2003] River of History — A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

This intersting excerpt from [Hill 1867], page 18 gives some insight into Beltrami's challenges and personality:

Taliaferro's recollections about Beltrami

Taliaferro's recollections about Beltrami Larger image

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