top of page
  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Belle Starr

Updated: May 11, 2023

From Southern Belle to Belle of the Outlaws

Belle Starr was a blazing star in the dark world of outlaws in the 1800s. And, in the twilight of her life, the law put an astronomical bounty on her head for the time--$10,000—dead or alive. She was famous, first because she was a woman, but also because she was smart, stylish, and brazen. She once said defiantly, “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.” And she made good on her word. She was a friend to many outlaws, including Jesse James, Cole Younger and the Younger brothers, Blue Duck, and others. And she was an outlaw in her own right, as well, who had crossed paths with Wild West iconic lawmen like “Pistol Pete” (Frank Eaton), “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, and W. H. H. Clayton, the famous prosecuting U.S. Attorney.

Belle was born into a well-to-do Southern family but perhaps with a genetic quirk that would presage her criminal tendency. Her father came from a prominent and wealthy Virginia family, but was regarded as the black sheep of the family. Her mother’s heritage, too, brought with it a tinge of notoriety: her maiden name was Hatfield of the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud fame. Her father and mother moved to Missouri and made a prosperous life for their family of six children, five boys and Belle. Her father was a successful business owner of a hotel, livery, and blacksmith.

Belle was born Myra Maybelle Shirley, a name more apropos for a dainty kitten than the cougar she would become. She grew up the center of attention at her father’s hotel and her five brothers. She got a rigorous classical education at Missouri’s prestigious Carthage Female Academy where she studied language, music, deportment and the classics. She was a talented pianist and learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and read voraciously. She especially loved novels with dramatic heroines and wrote stories herself in grandiose prose. One of her passages read:

“She was more amorous than Anthony’s mistress,

More relentless than Pharoah’s daughter,

And braver than Joan of Arc.”

But she had a wild streak that no school of etiquette could control. She learned to drink whiskey with her brothers, she became a sharp-shot with both pistol and rifle, and could ride better than any boy or man in the county. She wore a rawhide necklace with rattlesnake rattles and a Stetson hat with an ostrich plume dashingly cocked, when she went riding. She was reckless and independent and had a fierce joie de vivre that was too big for the strict feminine mores of the day.

She adored her big brother, Bud, who was wild like her and they often made mischief together. Because the Shirley family had come from the South and sympathized with the Confederate cause, Bud became a bushwacker and joined in guerrilla attacks on Union soldiers along the Kansas-Missouri border. Belle volunteered, too, to spy on Union troops and report back to Bud’s guerilla fighters. Bud was killed in 1864 at age 21 when surrounded by Union militia at Sarcoxie, Missouri. Losing her beloved brother no doubt shaped Belle’s rebellious attitude toward government and the law.

The War ravaged Carthage and the Shirley family wealth and the family moved to Texas near the end of the War, Belle driving one of the wagons all the way to Scyene southeast of Dallas. It was a fortuitous move for Belle, for it was in Texas that she met Cole Younger and Jesse and Frank James. They had been Confederate guerillas and knew the Shirley family through Bud.

Belle had a teen crush on the tall, handsome and dangerous Cole Younger, but in 1868 she married gambler and petty criminal Jim Reed. That same year, Belle’s younger 16-year-old brother Edwin was killed by Texas Rangers after stealing a horse, another incident that hardened Belle against the law.

Belle’s husband got into trouble for a vigilante murder and the family fled, Belle now with a little daughter, to the Cherokee clan of Tom Starr. The clan was involved in whiskey smuggling and cattle rustling. Tom Starr was a towering man with long black hair, steel grey eyes, and wore a necklace of dried earlobes of men he had killed.

Belle’s husband racked up more crimes with his involvement with the Starrs in Indian country and the James-Younger gang in Texas. Belle supported her husband and participated in some criminal dealings, including a stagecoach robbery in 1874. That same year Belle’s husband was killed by a lawman.

Belle had started stealing horses and in 1878 was accused but talked her way out of the charge. In 1880, she married Sam Starr, the Cherokee son of Tom Starr in a tribal ceremony. They claimed a thousand acres near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and their ranch became a hideout for outlaws and the James and Younger gangs. In 1883, both Belle and Sam were arrested for horse theft, punishable by hanging. They were tried by notorious Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge” who had sentenced 88 people to the gallows. But Belle’s ladylike and well-spoken ways charmed the judge and both she and her husband were given light jail sentences.

In 1886, Sam got into a gun duel with lawman Frank West and both men simultaneously killed each other. Devastated by Sam’s death and knowing she couldn’t keep her farm on Cherokee land without him, she took up with outlaw Jack Spaniard. But that same year, he shot and killed a U.S. Marshall and fled the law.

Belle had tired of running and losing those she loved to the law, and she made a decision to try to extricate herself from the outlaw life. She settled down on a modest ranch nestled in the woods near Porum, Oklahoma. In 1888, she turned 40 and had achieved a quiet life and was liked by the local people. She was instantly recognized by all the locals riding on her beautiful Thoroughbred, Venus (named for the goddess of love and victory), and wearing a tailored black velvet riding jacket and a large plume in her hat.

Just short of her 41 birthday, she was riding home from visiting a neighbor when she was ambushed by a man hiding in the woods who shot her in the back. When she fell, she was shot again in the chest and killed. The murder was never solved but the most prevailing belief was an outlaw named Edgar Watson had killed her. He had been renting some of her land, and Belle had discovered he had a bounty over his head for murder. She threatened to tell authorities if he didn’t get off her land.

Shortly before her death, Belle Starr had been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News and was quoted as saying, “I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.” The last couple of years of her short but exciting life, Belle had lived a quiet life in a rough-hewn, charming cabin of cedar logs with small windows. It was nestled back in a steep canyon bristling with forests. After her death, the canyon became known as Belle Starr Canyon and the purling brook that ran near the cabin became known as Belle Starr Creek.

About 20 feet from her cabin doorway, Belle Starr was buried. A rural stone-cutter, had cut a beautiful stone for Belle’s grave. It had a picture of Belle’s beloved horse, above its head a star, beneath a bell, and on its flank a BS brand. At the bottom of the stone a carved hand clasped a bouquet of flowers. On the headstone, inscribed in a graceful script were the words:

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.

Indeed, it still sparkles—in the annals of the American West and in our imaginations.

"Belle Starr" originally posted on Facebook on February 29, 2020

282,734 views / 16,157 likes / 8,423 shares

You may also enjoy these related posts:

-Girls with Guns

-Calamity Jane


6,173 views3 comments


Denise Scott Geelhart
Denise Scott Geelhart
Mar 17, 2021

FYI--Belle was not from a Southern Family, although many Missourians thought of themselves as southern, particularly those in Southern Missouri. I host a podcast called Murderous Roots and we are covering Belle Starr (airing tomorrow). I look into the family trees. It turns out her dad was from Indiana. Just thought you should know even though this misinformation will continue to spread. ;)

Notes From The Frontier
Notes From The Frontier
Jun 29, 2022
Replying to

Denise Scott Geelhart: You fail to mention that Belle's mother was Elizabeth (Eliza) Hatfield Shirley, a member of one of the most famous Southern families in history--the Hatfields, of the infamous Hatfield & McCoy feud. Her family became very firmly entrenched in Southern culture first in Missouri, then in Texas and were friends with Cole Younger, of the Jesse James gang. Belle was born in Carthage, MO, on the southern Missouri/Arkansas border. Although MO was a border state and split between Union & Confederate, Carthage was thoroughly Confederate. In fact, the Battle of Carthage was fought there and MO Governor Jackson led a Confederate force of the Missouri State Guard and stopped the Union advance at Carthage. History is nuanced.


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

  • Deborah Hufford on Facebook
  • Deborah Hufford on Instagram
  • Deborah Hufford's Official Website
deborah hufford.webp
bottom of page