Native History: Oklahoma Territory’s ‘Bandit Queen’ Killed

Roeder Bros./Wikimedia Commons / Belle Starr, sitting side saddle on her horse staring intently at one of the Roeder brothers, photographers in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She is wearing a single loop holster that has a pearl handled revolver in it, a riding crop in her left hand and is wearing leather gloves. She is posing in front of a building with an unidentified man mounted on horse beside her. The image was taken in 1886.

The outlaw Belle Star was shot from behind.

This Date in Native History: On February 3, 1889, the outlaw Belle Star was killed by two shots from behind, ending the reign of the famous “Bandit Queen” in the Oklahoma Territory.

The Bandit Queen, known for her lifelong partiality for men of questionable character—including her marriage to Cherokee outlaw Sam Starr—was born Myra Belle Shirley near Carthage, Missouri, in February 1846. She was the only daughter of Judge John and Eliza Shirley, and she had a twin brother who joined a group of Confederate guerillas during the Civil War and was killed during an engagement with federal cavalry.

Starr, who was only 15 when the war started, also joined the guerillas and served as a spy for Confederate forces. When the war ruined her father’s business as an innkeeper, the whole family moved to Texas to make a fresh start.

In a 1901 biography provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society, Starr’s childhood is described as “sweet and innocent as the newborn flower,” but her mature years were “a strange mixture of the sentimental, the terrible and the grotesque.”

Fueled with hate over her brother’s death, the Bandit Queen joined the Younger-James gang, a group of Confederate outlaws known for robbing banks and trains. She married her first husband, James Reed, shortly after her 20th birthday and gave birth to two children. Reed was a fugitive from justice and spent a lot of time in Oklahoma Indian Territory. He was killed by one of his own men in 1874.

During the decades following the Civil War, robbery was commonplace and the Cherokee Nation and other tribal lands became a refuge for outlaws, said Bill Welge, director of American Indian Culture and Preservation for the Oklahoma Historical Society. The sovereign Cherokee Nation had its own justice system, and it continually appealed to the federal government to take care of the fugitives on Indian land. Those pleas were ignored, Welge said.

“Indian Territory was ripe for hiding fugitives because there was no extradition laws,” he said “Basically whites, blacks and Indians could commit a crime in Arkansas, Missouri or Texas and flee into Indian Territory to escape the long arm of the law.”

Starr remarried in 1880 to the Cherokee outlaw Sam Starr and made her home on the Cherokee Nation near a spot called Younger’s Bend. The two were arrested for horse theft in 1883 and served time in a Detroit federal prison.

In 1886, Sam Starr was killed in a shoot-out with his cousin, a tribal policeman for the Cherokee Nation.

According to a 1969 article that ran in the magazine True West, Starr married a third time, to a man named Jim July Starr (no relation to Sam), who was reportedly 15 years her junior.

On February 3, 1889, Belle Starr was riding her horse when someone shot her from 20 feet behind, Glenn Shirley wrote in his 1982 book Bell Starr and Her Times.

“A charge of buckshot struck her in the back and neck and knocked her from the saddle,” Shirley wrote. “As she tried to lift herself from the mud, the assassin leaped the fence and fired the other barrel of the shotgun. This time a heavy charge of turkey shot struck her in the shoulder and left side of the face.”

The Bandit Queen lived for about an hour before dying in her home at Younger’s Bend. No one was ever convicted of her murder.

Although she earned the title of Bandit Queen and was called “the most notorious woman outlaw during the post-Civil War period,” Starr’s only documented crime was theft of a horse in 1882. She died on her 43rd birthday.

Much of what remains of Starr’s legacy—and that of other famous outlaws—is found in legends, said Keli Clark, marketing coordinator for Oklahoma State Parks and a member of the Creek Nation.

“There is lots of legend about the area, lots of folklore stories,” she said. “There are places in the forests and caves where outlaws are said to have hid.”

This story was originally published February 3, 2014.