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Belle Starr
The Legends

My great-great-great-grandfather, Frank Shirley, was a distant cousin to Myra Maybelle Shirley, who later became known, to old west history buffs, as Belle Starr. She had an outrageous reputation and although I was raised to believe that most of the books on her were "hooey", I don't debate her escapades.  I come from a long line of gutsy, outspoken women (and men) who married often, lived controversial lives and often chose not to 'play by the rules.'

Richard D. Arnott, in the Aug. 1997 issue of Wild West magazine wrote:  "Belle Starr, according to legend, was the 'Bandit Queen' - a lovely lady who ruled outlaw gangs with her guns, her will and her personal favors.  She has been credited with stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, cleaning out crooked poker games with her six-shooters, and galloping down city streets with pistols blazing.

"After her first husband was shot, Belle married Sam Starr and, legend has it, became the mistress of the outlaw Bluford "Blue" Duck. Her home was the headquarters for several bands of rustlers that she captained over time.  This amoral, amorous adventuress associated with the James boys and the Youngers.  She was one of the most famous female outlaws of the Old West..."

There are so many myths about this feisty woman that fact eluded me. Historic records from the Civil War era were sketchy at best. Only rumor seemed to tell "the Legend of Belle Starr."  Finally, I looked instead into my family's account of Myra Maybelle Shirley.  I don't believe it is totally accurate by any means, but who can say?  I will try to tell Belle Shirley's story as my grandmother, Beatrice Shirley Jones, once told me.

Belle's father, John Shirley, was born into an affluent Virginia family. As a young man, John moved to Indiana, where he married Eliza Pennington, from the Hatfields of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families.  The Shirleys moved to southwest Missouri in 1839 where John Shirley worked and prospered, raising wheat, corn and purebred horses.

Three children were born to John and Eliza in Jasper County, MO:  John Allison "Bud" in 1842, Myra Maybelle in February 1848, and Edwin in 1850.  The next decade brought financial success to the Shirley family. They sold their farm in 1856 and moved to Carthage, MO. John bought up city lots and built several businesses.  The family became well-respected in the community.

Belle attended the Carthage Female Academy, where she was instructed in "the three R's," as well as music & languages, which she picked up quickly.  She played piano, Her great love, however, was the outdoors and she spent countless hours on horseback with her older brother Bud, who helped hone her natural aptitude with guns.    

But the Civil War soon brought troubled times to Carthage.  The area was ravaged by fighting. Landowners were forced to take sides; longtime friends & neighbors became bitter enemies. Chaos, distrust & alienation ruled the land and poisoned minds and hearts.  Bands of jayhawkers and "Red Legs" destroyed Missouri communities in support of the Union.  As the area collapsed around them, John Shirley packed up his house and family, took his savings and left.  They settled in Scyene, Texas, where they built a small clapboard house and started a farm.  

Several bands of raiders took refuge at the Shirley home. One included a young man that the family knew in Indiana; his name was (James C.) Jim Reed.  It must have seemed dangerously thrilling to young Belle, who said later that Jim was her first love.  Their romance was passionate and whirlwind.  Reed and young Belle were married in 1866.

Jim moved into the Shirley homestead at first and helped with the farm work.  By late 1867, however, Reed was dissatisfied with milking cows and he convinced his wife to move into his own family's homestead in Missouri.  Belle got along well with her mother-in-law and was happy for a time.  Soon, Belle became pregnant and in September 1868, happily gave birth to her first child, a girl she named Rosie Lee - nicknamed 'Pearl'.

With Belle's focus on Pearl, Reed was conveniently away from home for long periods.  He began riding with Tom Starr, a notorious Cherokee outlaw, who 'made his living' robbing stage coaches and stealing livestock.  Starr's family had known a great deal of bloodshed.  James Starr, Tom's father, was heavily involved in tribal politics during the 1840's, when the Cherokee nation split into two hostile factions.  His loudly voiced beliefs were enough to soon get him assassinated.  Tom avenged his father's death with several murders.

Jim Reed, Starr and their cohorts usually managed to elude the law, escaping to Indian Territory.  However, in August 1874, Reed ran into an old friend, John T. Morris, who had been deputized solely for the bounty on Reed's head. Unaware, Reed greeted his friend warmly and they began to ride together.  When they stopped at a tavern and Morris tried to arrest him, a gunfight ensued.  Reed was shot and killed.      

Belle was young, widowed, and disillusioned. She and her child had no income and no way to survive.  But Belle knew the Starr family and there, she sought solace & companionship.  She came to know Sam Starr, the handsome young Cherokee son of Tom Starr.  Records show that on June 5, 1880, six years after her first husband's death, Belle married Sam Starr.  The marriage license listed Sam's age as 23 and Belle's as 27, though she was actually 32.  The couple settled into a cabin at Younger's Bend, some 70 miles southwest of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

In December 1886, Belle and Sam were attending a Christmas party, when Sam encountered an old enemy, Frank West.  Sam shot and killed West, but was fatally wounded himself.  Again a widow, Belle returned home and mourned the death of her second husband.

Cherokee authorities immediately claimed that Belle's right to the land at Younger's Bend had ended with Sam Starr's death.  Rather than battle the tribal leaders or lose her land, Belle chose to solve the dispute simply.  She promptly married the adopted son of old Tom Starr, 24-year-old Bill July (alias Jim Starr), a Creek Indian. He was her last husband.

On the morning of Feb. 2nd, 1889, Belle and her husband left home to visit friends in San Bois (about 15 miles east of Younger's).  The next day, July continued on to Fort Smith for a horse theft hearing, and Belle left for home.  She was alone on horseback.  

As Belle rode down the country lane, a shotgun blast blew her out of the saddle. When she tried to lift her body, a second blast struck her in the head.  Her horse bolted, as Belle lay bleeding into the dirt. When the horse showed up riderless at Younger's, Pearl rode out in a panic, to find her mother dying in the dirt road.  Belle Starr was killed by ambush on February 3rd, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday.

Being interviewed by a reporter about a year before her death, Belle said, "I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life."  Quite an understatement.  She took control of her fate at a time when most women (and men) were frozen with fear.  The brutal Civil War took its toll on everyone who survived it, including Belle.  She also knew what was said and written about her:  that she was an outlaw, a harlot, even a murderer ...  but gossip meant nothing to Belle.  She knew who she was.

With quick-wit and reflexes, a sharpshooter's aim and self-confidence unseen in women of that day, Belle was strong and often misunderstood.   She rode the crest of a perilous era in U.S. History - in rebellion and legend.

Belle Starr's grave site is located just outside Porum, Oklahoma.  Her tombstone is engraved with a wild stallion and these words, chosen by her daughter:

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

Research sources:  
My grandmother - Beatrice Shirley Jones  (1891 - 1970)
Women in History, Biography of Belle Starr, Aug. 2002.
Belle Starr and her Times, Glenn Shirley, Aug. 1990.
Wild West magazine, Richard D. Arnott, Aug. 1997.  

Photos from:
Wild West magazine, Richard D. Arnott, Aug. 1997.  

Updated March 2003.