Belle Starr – The Bandit Queen

 
“I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.”

 Born Myra Belle Shirley, February 5, 1848, on a farm outside of Carthage, MO, the legendary Belle Starr came into the world a farm girl and left it as a famous–or infamous–outlaw. Her father was a slaveholder who sympathized with the south, her mother was of the Hatfield clan, and Belle grew up with Cole Younger and several of Quantrill’s Raiders.

By 1864, after Carthage was burned by Union troops, the family moved to Scyene, Texas, a small town near Dallas. There, in July of 1866, the Younger brothers and Jesse James, all Missouri outlaws who rode with Quantrill, used her family’s home to hideout from the law.

That same year her older brother John “Bud” Shirley, who fought for the Confederacy with William C. Quantrill’s guerillas, was killed by Union troops in Sarcoxie, Mo. Some say this is the reason Belle took to crime – she went hunting for the Union officer who shot her brother and, though she never found him, she seems to have liked carrying a gun and stirring up trouble.

In 1866, Belle married James C. “Jim” Reed, a former guerilla whom she had known since her childhood in Carthage and had two children: Rosie Lee “Pearl” (who was later rumored to be Cole Younger’s child) in 1868; and James Edwin “Ed” in 1871. While Jim initially tried his hand at farming, he soon grew restless and fell in with the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery, as well as his wife’s old friends the James and Younger gangs.

When her husband and cohorts robbed Watt Grayson, a wealthy Creek Indian farmer of $30,000 in gold, Belle was accused as an accomplice. Though there was no proof, she fled back to her family in Scyene. Stories are told that she would ride into Dallas wearing buckskins and moccasins or tight black jackets, black velvet skirts, high-topped boots, a man’s Stetson hat with an ostrich plume, and twin holstered pistols, and spend her time in saloons, drinking and gambling at dice, cards, and roulette. At times she would ride her horse through the streets shooting off her pistols

On Aug. 6, 1874, the law caught up with Jim Reed near Paris, Texas. He was shot to death trying to escape from custody.

The young widow of an outlaw, Belle left her children with relatives and returned to Oklahoma Indian Territory and the Starr clan. Belle proved herself good at organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers. Belle’s enterprises provided her with more than enough money to use bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught. And, if she couldn’t buy off the lawmen, she was known to seduce them into looking the other way.

“Next to a fine horse, I admire a fine pistol.”

 Judge Isaac C. Parker, a.k.a., “The Hanging Judge,” of Fort Smith, Arkansas, became obsessed with bringing Belle Starr to justice, but she eluded him at every turn. Charges never seemed to stick, and if he managed to get her into his courtroom, she would appeal to friends in high places and receive a full pardon.

In 1880, at the age of 32, Belle fell in love with Sam Starr, the handsome 20-year-old son of the clan leader, and asked him to marry her. Old Tom disapproved, but Belle out-talked him and ended up with young Sam as her husband.

“After a more adventurous life than generally falls to the lot of woman, I settled permanently in the Indian Territory, selecting a place of picturesque beauty on the Canadian River. There, far from society, I hoped to pass the remainder of my life in peace and quietude. So long had I been estranged from the society of women, whom I thoroughly detest, that I thought I would find it irksome to live in their midst. So, I selected a place that but few have ever had the gratification of gossiping around…” Belle Starr  
(June 7, 1886, Dallas Morning News, p. 4, col. 5-6)

Belle Starr’s ride came to a violent end on February 3, 1889, two days short of her forty-first birthday, when she was shot in the back while riding from the general store to her ranch near Eufaula, Oklahoma. Suspects included Edgar Watson, a fugitive with whom Belle had been feuding over the land he was renting from her, Jim July, her Cherokee lover, with whom she had recently had a quarrel, and her son Ed, with whom she had a rather strained relationship. The murderer of Belle Starr was never caught. 

Belle was buried on her ranch. A marble headstone was erected over her grave on which was engraved a bell, her horse, a star and this epitaph written by her daughter Pearl:

“Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret;
‘Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.”

 

 

http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/star-bel.htm
http://www.frontiertimes.com/outlaws/belle_starr.html

Leon C. Metz, “STARR, MYRA MAYBELLE SHIRLEY,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fstbl), accessed May 30, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-bellestarr2.html
Wild West Magazine
 
http://www.stateoftheozarks.net/Cultural/History/BorderWars/BelleStarr_Chick.html

  

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History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

21 thoughts on “Belle Starr – The Bandit Queen”

  1. Hi Tracy, that Belle was something, wasn’t she? I didn’t know that Sam was so much younger. She was ahead of her time in that regard.

    Love the handsome dude on you cover. Yum, yum.

    Hugs,

  2. Hello Tracy! Belle’s story sure livened up my quiet morning. I didn’t know very much about her, just the Hollywood version. Wouldn’t you love to have a conversation with her? I’d love to know more about her motivations and deep-down hopes.

  3. Tracy this is so fasinating.. I have seen a couple of movies where she is mentioned.. Funny you should quote that what was written on her epitath..We are laying to rest my mother’s ashes tomorrow and I having been looking for differnt quotes to reciet and this is just perfect…

  4. Oh, I knew nothing about her at all. What a life! And what a beautiful poem from her daughter which surprises me because it seems like she just abandoned her children. Sounds like she did a lot of living in her 41 years but how sad to get shot in the back.

  5. Love this, Tracy. I’ve always loved the 70’s all-brothers’ flick The Long Riders and Belle Starr plays a big role. Not very accurately it appears LOL but fun to watch. What a character she was and I guess, got her just desserts. Thanks for a great post. oxoxox

  6. She was a “pistol,” wasn’t she? (That’s another
    Texanism!) She really packed a lot of living into
    her life! She and Sam seem to have been the Bonnie
    & Clyde of their day!

    Pat Cochran

  7. Hi Tracy, I really enjoyed your post about Belle. When I was younger I was fascinated by her life. Now about the only thing I can find to admire is her ability to ride side saddle!
    It seems like the War here in Missouri can be blamed for turning a lot of otherwise respectable people into scoundrels. Such a horrible time – another reason I’m glad I wasn’t born 100 years earlier.

  8. Hi all. Sorry I’m late to the party! 🙂

    As I was researching this blog, I decided Belle just might be one of the most interesting women I’ve read about. An outlaw and proud of it. Not exactly what Hollywood portrayed.

  9. “We are laying to rest my mother’s ashes tomorrow and I having been looking for differnt quotes to reciet and this is just perfect…”

    Kathleen, I’m sending a hug.

  10. Pat, that’s a perfect analogy!

    JudyH, though I don’t admire her decision to turn outlaw, I still admire her commitment to family and her own ideals. She didn’t compromise to please anyone. Of course, I wouldn’t inviter her home for dinner, either.

  11. Tracy, this is so interesting. I’ve always kinda of admired Belle. She’s such a strong woman who doesn’t mind bucking convention. In fact, I think she reveled in it. I’m sure she loved her children and her men. She couldn’t help it that she loved outlaws. I think we all secretly do and would like to be kinda like Belle. When I think of her I think of Mae West for some reason.

    Excellent blog!

  12. Wow what a fantastic blog today Tracy!!! I’ve always found of the life of Belle Starr *so* interesting!!!

  13. I had vaguely heard of Belle Starr, but knew nothing about her. I have a book about her in my Western room, but have not had a chance to read it. Interesting story. She certainly lead a varied and less than normal life. Of course the times being what they were, what could have been considered normal.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

  14. Thanks Melissa.

    Patricia, I’ve read about Belle for years, usually in connection with Judge Roy Bean–which I now know isn’t right. I had a lot of fun getting to the truth behind the legend.

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading this about Belle. Some of this I already new, but my mother-in-law didn’t tell me about all of this. I guess I should of asked her more questions about Belle. I do know somewhere in my mother-in-law’s family history Belle Starr is a relative of hers.

  16. Hello,

    Much of what has been written about Belle Star is fiction. Ron Wall has a good article on her at http://www.whitsett-wall.com as well as some interesting photos. I have never seen any proof of Belles mother supposed Hatfield heritage. Belles mother was Eliza Pennington, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1816.Eliza was married to John SHirley in Greene county, Indiana in 1837. They later moved to Carthage, Missouri. The famous Hatfield-McCoy feud started in 1863.

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