Major John Belli and the First American Settlement on Turkey Creek

In the summer of 1787, John O'Bannon surveyed a one-thousand acre parcel at the Mouth of Turkey Creek in what would become Scioto County, Ohio. O'Bannon selected these lands for Larkin Smith, a veteran of the Virginia Line of the Continental Army, who claimed these acres as compensation for his three years service in the Revolutionary War.

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."

Here on the banks of the Ohio River this random sampling of tree species returned a white oak, two buckeyes, a sugar maple, three black locusts, an ash, and two beeches. O'Bannon's and other pioneer era surveys captured the great bio-diversity for which the Shawnee State Forest Region is known for today.

Larkin Smith never settled on Turkey Creek and there is no evidence he every intended to move from Virginia to Ohio. Smith was a well-connected and prominent politician, representing King and Queen County in the Virginia House of Delegates, beginning in 1785 and would serve as its Speaker from 1799 until 1802. While in Richmond, in mid-April 1795, Smith would sell his Turkey Creek lands to US Senator John Brown of Kentucky and Major John Belli, who had recently completed his service as Deputy Quarter Master on the General Staff for Wayne's Legion. Belli had played a critical role in supplying US forces in the Northwest Indian War's climatic Battle at Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

In the spring of 1795, when Brown and Belli purchased Larkin Smith Survey, negotiations with the Indian nations were just getting underway at Ft. Greenville, but it was expected the resulting treaty would soon end the threat of Indian attacks and open Ohio and the Northwest-Territory to American settlement.

According to Nelson W. Evans, Major Belli first came to his lands on Turkey Creek soon after purchasing them in the spring of 1795. He "placed a man named Wright upon it, who cleared up a part of it, built a log house and planted a orchard." Evans account differs from that of James Keyes, who published one of the first histories of the region. Keyes credited local oral tradition, which claimed that Major Belli had "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."

Belli, himself, would not permanently settle on Turkey Creek until 1806. Whether it was a Wright or a McBride, who deserves credit as the original tenant may never be known, but the hard work of clearing the land was accomplished by hired help. Belli speculated in lands and town lots from Alexandria at the Mouth of the Scioto to Washington, down river, at the Mouth of Ohio Brush Creek. In 1798, Belli offered 50 acres of land on Turkey Creek to the Adams County Commissioners for a new county seat. When Manchester was selected and Scioto split off from Adams County, Major Belli would champion Alexandria for the new county's seat of government. As the fates would have it, Portsmouth, on the east side of the Scioto, where higher ground guarded against flood waters, would win out in the county-seat fight in 1805.

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. According to Nelson W. Evans, after having initially lived in Alexandria, the Bellis ultimately settled on Turkey Creek, on his original homestead. There, they had constructed a two-story framed house, fronting the Ohio River, and named it "Belvidere."

In Reuben Gold Thwaites' account of the Major, he describes him as "a cosmopolitan, his father being French, his mother Dutch, and he himself born (1760) and educated in England. He inherited estates in Holland, but having become imbued with republican principles, emigrated to America, bearing letters of recommendation from John Jay. Belli landed at Alexandria, Virginia, in 1783 and remained there nine years, forming a personal acquaintance with Washington, Knox, and other public men."

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. 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."

John Belli died young 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.

Today, the Ohio River Campground of Shawnee State Park, is located below the Mouth of Turkey Creek, not far from 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.

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 W. Evans, 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.


Nelson W. Evans and Emmons Buchanon Stivers, A History of Adams County, Ohio: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (1900): 524.

Nelson W. Evans, A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902): 652-656.

James Keyes, 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.

Reuben Gold Thwaites, editor, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Vol. 4. Cuming's Tour to the West (1904): 162-163.