“I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.”
– Belle Starr stated to the The Fort Smith Elevator about one year prior to her death.
Belle Starr was born Myra Belle Shirley in a log cabin near Carthage, Missouri on February 5, 1848 to “Judge” John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth Pennington. Her father was the black sheep of a well-to-do Virginia family who had moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice. His third wife, Eliza, was on the Hatfield side of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families.
After they married, the Shirleys moved to Missouri in 1839, where John prospered raising wheat, corn, hogs and horses in Jasper County. Myra’s older brother, John Allison “Bud” was born to the Shirleys in 1842, and a younger son, Edwin, in 1850. The next ten years were a financial success for the Shirleys who had two more sons.
In 1856, they sold their land and moved to Carthage, Missouri where they built an inn, a tavern, livery stable and blacksmith shop—their businesses taking up almost an entire city block. John Shirley had become a respected member of the burgeoning county seat of Carthage.
At first, Myra Belle lived the life of a spoiled, rich girl, attending the Carthage Female Academy, where in addition to the basics, she was taught music and classical languages. She was a bright student, with polite manners, and a talent for playing the piano. However, she also liked to flaunt her status a “rich girl” and liked having an audience. She also loved the outdoors, where she spent many a day roaming the countryside with her older brother Bud, who taught her how to ride a horse and handle a gun.
However, her life changed dramatically when the Kansas-Missouri Border War broke out. Jasper County watched both armies pass through time and again, forcing residents to take sides, and making neighbors into bitter enemies. Irregular bands of “Jayhawkers” and “Red Legs” laid waste to Missouri communities in support of the Union.
When son Bud joined Quantrill’s Raiders, John Shirley was a proud father. Bud, who knew the area and the people well, served admirably as a scout, quickly attaining a captain’s rank.
But in June 1864 Bud was killed in Sarcoxie, Missouri. The raids had taken their toll on Shirley’s businesses and after Bud’s death, the “Judge” gave up, sold his Missouri property and moved his family to a farm near Scyene, Texas, a small settlement southeast of Dallas.
In 1866 the James-Younger Gang robbed their first bank in Liberty, Missouri, and fled with $6,000 in cash and bonds. Splitting up, Jesse and Frank James, along with the Youngers, fled to Texas, where they met up with Myra Shirley. Soon, Myra became smitten by Cole, quickly becoming a member of their “gang.”
One of these outlaw bands, seeking refuge, stayed at the Shirley house one night. Belle later stated that it was there that she became reacquainted with the first man she ever loved. His name was Jim Reed, and she had first met him back in Missouri, where the Reed and Shirley families had been friends. The romance blossomed in Texas, and Belle and Jim married on November 1, 1866.
The Shirleys had no objection to the marriage, as Jim Reed was not yet a wanted man. Jim moved into the Shirley household near Scyene and shared the farm chores. Later, he became a salesman for a Dallas saddle and bridle maker. By late 1867, though, he and Belle were living on the Reed homestead in Missouri. Early in September 1868, Belle gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee. Belle adored the baby and referred to her as her “Pearl.” The nickname stuck.
The presence of Cole Younger at the Shirley residence has led to the fiction that he seduced Belle and she bore his illegitimate daughter. Younger admitted that he did visit the Shirleys in Texas, but in 1864, not 1866. He stated that the next time he saw Belle was at the Reed residence in Missouri in 1868. She was six months pregnant with her first child. Some authors insist this denial was the response of a “Southern gentleman,” but a manuscript compiled by Richard Reed, younger brother of Belle’s husband, supports Younger’s story.
When Jim and Belle moved to Missouri, Reed was a wanted man, allegedly for murdering a man named Shannon. The two fled to California with their young daughter Pearl and before long a second child came along who they named Edward.
In 1869 Belle, Reed and two other outlaws rode to the North Canadian river country, where they tortured an old Creek Indian until he told them where he had hidden $30,000 in gold. With their share of the loot, Jim and Belle returned to Texas, where she played the role of “Bandit Queen” to the hilt.
But, it wasn’t long before the outlaw life caught up with Reed and on August 1874, Reed was killed in a gunfight by a member of his own gang. Belle left her children with her mother while she rode the outlaw trail. In Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma,) Starr got involved with a flat-faced Indian outlaw who went by the name of “Blue Duck.”