The Wild West of Yester-Year

Belle Starr
By Rachel Kovaciny

The mystique surrounding Belle Starr has often obscured her real history.

Myra Maybelle Shirley was born on her family’s Missouri farm in 1848. Her family later moved to Carthage, where they built an inn, tavern, livery stable, and blacksmith shop. Maybelle received a classical education and graduated from Carthage Female Academy, where she learned not only “the three Rs,” but piano and classical languages. She enjoyed being an accomplished, wealthy girl with plenty of pretty clothes, but was also a tomboy. She loved to ride horses and hunt game with her brothers and spent as much time outdoors as she could.

Her father came from Virginia, so it’s not surprising that the family sided with other Southerners during the Kansas-Missouri Border War. Her older brother Bud joined Quantrill’s Raiders, where he served alongside Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger. They were proud of Bud, and devastated when he got killed. Bud’s death spurred the Shirleys to sell their businesses and move to Texas. After the Civil War ended, the Shirleys had a visit from old friends. The James and Younger brothers— and a few others who had served in Quantrill’s Raiders with Bud—had turned outlaw and were robbing trains and banks. Some of these desperadoes stopped at the Shirley farm, seeking refuge. One of these guests was Jim Reed, a young man Maybelle had a crush on back when they both lived in Carthage.

Maybelle and Jim married in 1866 and moved to Missouri the next year, where their daughter Rosie “Pearl” Reed was born in 1868. Jim Reed soon fell in with a bad crowd. After an altercation in which Jim killed a man, Jim, Maybelle, and little Pearl left for California. Maybelle gave birth to a son, James “Eddie” Reed, in California in 1871. The next month, her husband got accused of counterfeiting and fled California alone, leaving Maybelle and their children to follow by stagecoach. They reunited in Texas, but Jim continued to live on the wrong side of the law, eventually fleeing into Indian Territory. Maybelle returned to her family’s farm, fed up with his trouble-making. Eventually, Jim got shot and killed while resisting arrest.

Storytellers like to imagine Maybelle took part in her husband’s riotous outlawry, but there are no records she did. Instead, the records show her caring for her children and mostly living apart from Jim Reed. That sounds boring, so storytellers try to juice things up a little to keep audiences interested. Legends say Maybelle (now called Belle) married Bruce Younger in 1880, though no records of that union exist. We know she married part-Cherokee Sam Starr that year. They built a cabin in Indian Territory, and outlaws occasionally visited them, seeking refuge. Belle was not the leader of an outlaw band, contrary to legend, but said she wanted “to live out her time in peace.” The Starrs mostly kept to themselves for a couple of years. However, in 1882, the notorious “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker convicted Belle and Sam of horse thievery. They served time at a correction facility in Detroit before returning to their home in Indian Territory. They continued keeping company with desperate characters. Belle faced larceny charges a few years later, while Sam went into hiding after being accused of robbing the mail.

In 1886, Belle got arrested on charges of taking part in a series of robberies while dressed as a man. Since no eyewitnesses could identify her, they found her not guilty. Belle’s troubles for the year were not over —Sam Starr died in a gunfight at a friend’s Christmas party a few months later. The Cherokee authorities in Indian Territory said since part-Cherokee Sam Starr was dead, the widowed Belle had no right to the land and cabin she called home. Belle solved this problem by marrying a part-Creek man named Bill July. Belle’s children hated him and left home soon after. In 1889, Bill got arrested for horse thievery, indicted, and released to await his trial. Belle accompanied him to the court for his trial, but headed home before it began.

While stopping at a friend’s house on the way, she encountered a man named Watson, wanted for murder in Florida. Watson had wanted to rent land from Belle and Bill, but they had refused. As Belle left her friend’s home, someone shot her twice with a shotgun. She died with her daughter Pearl at her side, never able to speak or name her murderer. Although most of the evidence pointed toward Watson, it was all circumstantial, so he got acquitted. He was not the only suspect, but they could find no real evidence against anyone else. Belle’s husband Bill died killed in a gunfight a few months later.

Belle Starr really enjoyed riding horses, practicing marksmanship, and being the center of attention, so she liked to tell stories about herself to make her life seem interesting. During her lifetime, dime novels dubbed her “the bandit queen” and added fictitious adventures to her legend. The records and facts show she spent forty-one hard years on this earth, filled with toil, grief and dissatisfaction, but spent very little time as an outlaw, much less as a bandit queen. As often happens, fiction is more thrilling than reality.