Major John Belli & the Friendship Buckeye Tree

Today, the largest Yellow Buckeye in the State of Ohio stands near the Mouth of Turkey Creek, next to the United Methodist Church in Friendship, Ohio. How old the tree is is hard to determine, but it could date to pioneer times.

Captain Larkin Smith, who served three years in the Virginia Line of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, originally claimed a thousand acres at the Mouth of Turkey Creek. It was for Larkin that John O'Bannon completed the original survey in the summer of 1787. Typical of Virginia Military District surveys, which were conducted with the old metes and bounds method (sometimes called the Virginia Method), O'Bannon's survey reads like a description of the forest's many tree species,

"Beginning at two walnuts and a Buckeye on the Bank of the [Ohio] River (upper corner to James Culverson Survey No. 453) running up the [Ohio] River, North seventy degrees, East one hundred and seventeen poles, North fifty degrees, East eighty three poles, crossing Turkey Creek at eighty two poles, North sixty seven degrees, East three hundred and two poles, North forty degrees, East one hundred and six poles to a White Oak, Buckeye and Sugartree, then North twenty eight degrees, West two hundred and fifty poles to three Black Locusts, then South sixty two degrees, West six hundred poles to an Ash and two Beeches on the Bank of the Creek, then South twenty eight degrees, East two hundred and fifty poles to the Beginning."

Larkin Smith, a well-connected and prominent Virginian politician, never settled on Turkey Creek. Instead, in the spring of 1795, he sold out to Major John Belli, who had just returned to Virginia after his service as Deputy Quarter Master on the General Staff for Wayne's Legion. According to James Keyes, who published one of the first histories of the region, local oral tradition was that Major Belli "employed a man by the name of MacBride to go on the land and build a house, clear the land and plant orchards, and make all the improvements necessary on a new farm." Other accounts, such as that by Nelson W. Evans, gives the man's last name as Wright, not MacBride. Who the tenant was may never be known, but the hard work of clearing the land was accomplished by hired help, while Belli speculated in lands in what is now Adams, Brown, and Scioto counties. Major Belli eventually settled at the mouth of Turkey Creek and built a two-story framed house for his Ohio River front residence, which he named "Belvidere."

Today, the Friendship Buckeye, which stands next to the Friendship Methodist Church, marks the general location of Belli's Belvidere and what some believe to be the first permanent American settlement in what became Scioto County. Whether that honor belongs to others at the Mouth of the Scioto or further up at the Mouth of the Little Scioto, Belli was most definitely the first owner of the land to take up residence on Turkey Creek and what would become the Village of Friendship.

Belli was known for his aristocratic demeanor and dress. Until his death, he could be seen in public sporting a tri-corner hat, long after such headwear had passed from pioneer fashion. Nelson W. Evans noted that Belli "adapted himself well to Pioneer Society but he would not during his life in the west wear the homespun pioneer dress. He always dressed in continental style and never wore a hunting shirt or the hunter's leggins." Prior to the creation of Scioto County in 1803, Major Belli served as the first Recorder for Adams County and his fine penmanship can still be found in the bound volumes of property deeds in the county courthouse in West Union.

In 1800, Major Belli married Cynthia Harrison, a cousin of future President William Henry Harrison. She was one of Robert Harrison's two daughters (Cynthia and Anna) for whom Cynthiana, Kentucky, was named. John Belli died in 1809, at the age of forty-nine, leaving behind a young family and a very capable widow, Cynthia Belli. She served as executor of her late husband's estate and raised five children, remarrying in 1812 to Philip Moore. In 1826, Major Belli's daughter, Eliza, married Moses Gregory, who served as Scioto County Sheriff in the late 1820s and then as Portsmouth City Auditor in 1831 and Mayor in 1834.

No traces of Belvidere remain today (it was destroyed by fire in 1838) and the Major's bones, which were originally interred beneath a transplanted Weeping Willow, on the banks of the Ohio, have been moved twice. First, in March of 1865, after a major flood had eroded the river bank and exposed his remains, Belli was exhumed and re-interred in the Friendship Methodist Church cemetery. Then, again in 1909, thanks to the efforts of Nelson Evans, the noted historian of Adams and Scioto counties, Belli's bones were again dug up and moved, this time to what may be his final resting place in Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Sources:

Nelson W. Evans and Emmons Buchanon Stivers, A History of Adams County, Ohio: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (1900).

Keyes, James. Pioneers of Scioto County: Being a Short Biographical Sketch of Some of the First Settlers of Scioto County, Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1880).

"Re-Interment of Major John Belli." Old Northwest Genealogical Quarterly 12 (October 1909): 176-84.

Images

Portrait of Maj. John Belli, Recorder's Office, Adams County Court House, West Union, Ohio

Portrait of Maj. John Belli, Recorder's Office, Adams County Court House, West Union, Ohio

Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. View File Details Page

John Belli's Federal Patent for Land at the Mouth of Turkey Creek (1802).

John Belli's Federal Patent for Land at the Mouth of Turkey Creek (1802).

Image courtesy of the Scioto Historical Collection, Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio. View File Details Page

The headstone of Major John Belli (1760-1809), Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, where he was reinterred in 1911.

The headstone of Major John Belli (1760-1809), Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, where he was reinterred in 1911.

Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. View File Details Page

Friendship Buckeye on Turkey Creek, Scioto County, Ohio (2013)

Friendship Buckeye on Turkey Creek, Scioto County, Ohio (2013)

Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. View File Details Page

Friendship Methodist Church and Buckeye Tree, Scioto County, Ohio (2013).

Friendship Methodist Church and Buckeye Tree, Scioto County, Ohio (2013).

Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., “Major John Belli & the Friendship Buckeye Tree,” Scioto Historical, accessed March 24, 2017, http://sciotohistorical.org/items/show/37.
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