Missouri's Tumultuous Years
Quantrill and Bell Starr

Carthage, MO

March 22, 2000

In the southwest corner of Missouri stands the quiet serene town of Carthage. The epitome of a small town mid-America, this corner of the state holds a historically tragic legacy to the struggles of this country during the trying years of the mid 1800s. A small museum and a few displays on the main floor of the courthouse attest to the struggles of the times. Again, slavery was the cause of considerable turmoil. The issue of slavery had existed for a number of years along the Missouri-Kansas border. As early as 1855 slaveholders in Missouri and northern Arkansas were feuding with Kansas abolitionists on the topic. Although not uncommon, slavery in Missouri was not wide spread. Missouri's agricultural economy did not promote large plantations requiring slave labor, as in the deep south. The majority of farms raised subsistence crops, harvested in the late summer and consumed during the winter by the families who worked the fields. This was particularly true in southwest Missouri. Here it made more sense to invest in a mule which could pull a wagon or plow, be ridden to town and cost little to feed. Human labor for the majority, was much too expensive to purchase and maintain. Attempts to balance the number of "slave" and 'free" states in the rapidly expanding Union resulted in a series of Congressional Compromises being enacted, several centering on the status of Missouri. Under the Missouri Compromise, Missouri was designated a "slave" state with the provisions that slavery would not extend to other regions west of the Mississippi River and north of the southern boundary of Missouri. The later Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court nullified this Act. Control of Missouri became one of the most critical military issues west of the Mississippi River. As the states declared their allegiance, it was apparent that Missouri's geographical location was as important as its political influence and human resources. As a "border state" Missouri separated the western-most Confederate states from the North. Missouri was also the gateway to the West. Thousands of emigrants and trade wagons made their way from Independence, Missouri, north and west to Oregon, and south to the markets of Santa Fe. A major issue was whether Missouri would stay in the Union or join the Confederacy. Pro-southern Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was seeking to take the 60,000 men Missouri State Guard south to join the Confederacy. Sent to stop him were 1100 German-American union volunteers from St. Louis commanded by Col. Franz Sigel. The battle had started early that morning some 9 miles north of Carthage. After a fierce artillery and infantry duel, the outnumbered Union soldiers had been forced to retreat to avoid encirclement by the Confederated cavalry. The battle of Carthage was fought on July 5, 1861. Although preceded by several skirmishes, it was the first full scale land battle of the Civil War. It included infantry, artillery and cavalry and lasted an entire day. This period of history produced many notable characters in Missouri. One that developed during the tumultuous years, before the civil war erupted in eastern Missouri, was the infamous Belle Starr, affectionately known by the dime novelists as the "Bandit Queen". Belle Starr grew up as Myra Maebelle Shirley in the eastern Missouri town of Carthage where her father, the owner of a hotel and tavern, was a strong confederate sympathizer. Schooled in all the finer arts, she would often play piano for guests at the hotel or tavern. Pre-civil war Missouri was a power keg of emotions, giving rise to the infamous band of marauders known as Quantrill's Raiders, who's ranks contained some of the "wild west's" most notorious outlaws, such as Frank and Jessie James, and the Younger brothers who often hung out at the Shirley tavern. This oftenWillaim Clarke Quantrill pretentious teenager reveled in the emotions created by outspoken slave owners and confederate enthusiasts. When the war broke out, Belle acted as spy and courier for the Quantrill camp, ferrying information learned in the tavern. In 1864, John Shirley, Belle's 22 year old brother, who had risen to the rank of Captain in Quantrill's Militia, was shot and killed outside Carthage. This would become a significant emotional event in her life, as evidenced by her reported promise to marry any man who would kill the union soldier who gunned her brother down. By the end of the war, Missouri was in shambles, with Carthage, and the hotel and tavern having been burnt to the ground during the sacking of the city by Union troops. The Shirleys moved to Texas where her father would again open up an hotel and tavern. Once again it became a haven for displaced confederate soldiers and the remnants of the dreaded Quantrill's Raiders. In 1866, one of the most despicable members of the Raiders arrived at the Hotel. Jim Reed, who was destined to become Texas' most notorious bandit and BelleBell Star, now 18 years old, ran off and were married the next day. The Shirley family, infuriated by the news of her marriage, spent the next year attempting to get her to come back home. By the time she finally returned, she had given birth to her daughter, Pearl. Still wild and uncontrollable, Belle began frequenting the saloons in Dallas where she continued entertaining by playing the piano. It was during these days that Belle took to wearing a pair of pearl-handled six-guns around her waist. A stark addition to the lavish velvet dresses she frequently wore. It would become the trademark for a much publicized image which was beginning to form. As Jim Reed's dastardly deeds spread across Texas, Belle's disreputable activites and her marriage to what had become Texas's most wanted criminal, eventually got her run out of Dallas and out of Texas after Reed was killed by an associate. Belle moved to Kansas where she was married to a Younger for three weeks before marrying a Cherokee Indian horse thief by the name of Same Star, creating the name Belle Starr. Her reputation as the "wild west" bandit Queen, portrayed by the dime novelists was not from her criminal activities, as printed in their mostly imaginary stories. Up to this point she had only been arrested three times, all in Texas, with no convictions. The reputation came from the image of this pistol packing lady's presence in Fort Smith while appearing before hanging Judge Parker, who presided over the Indian Territory. Here she often defended indigent Indians charged with federal crimes. Without question she had an association with many of the desperados of the times, and most likely was involved in the sale of horses acquired by questionable means, but the stories of her killing 23 men while riding wild through the countryside, robbing banks and stagecoaches, were all fictional. She was finally convicted by Judge Parker for possession of stolen horses and, along with her husband, was given a year in prison. After release, she returned to the Territory with Sam but he was killed in a gunfight with a law man shortly there after. She remarried and attempted to pick up her life where she had left off. Then on February 3, 1989, while returning home from an errand, she was shot in the back. As she lay on the muddy road, her assailant walked up and placing a shotgun to the left side of her head ended the life of Belle Starr at the age of 40. Although there were many suspects the murder was never solved and today remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Old West.

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