For a short time after their marriage, Sam and Belle lived in a little box house a mile or two south of the present Porum. Then Sam took an allotment of forest and bottom land in the extreme southwest corner of the Cherokee Nation on the North side of the Canadian River. It was not Sam's land, however. Cherokee lands were held communally. A member of the tribe could choose a site not granted to another member; if the selection was approved, he had possession of it as long as he lived. He owned such improvements as he might make and could transfer title to them should he settle elsewhere. In event of Sam's death, the improvements would go to Belle. As an intermarried white, she was now a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a ward of the U.S. government.
The allotment was a picturesque spot nestled between low-lying inaccessible hills sixteen miles below Eufaula, six miles west of Briartown, and about the same distance from Tom Starr's place on the same side of the river. To the north rose Hi-Early Mountain, where the Jameses and Youngers rendezvoused during the war. Ten miles downstream and three miles south of Briartown across Tilden Cramp Ferry on the river in San Bois County, Choctaw Nation, lay Whitefield (designated "Oklahoma Postoffice"). Between Briartown and Whitefield and partly encircling the Starr lands wound the great elbow of the South Canadian-its yellow waters implacable, writhing among its quicksands-called Youngers' Bend. Along the south bank, caverned precipices provided concealment and lookouts for the six-gun gentry who slept by day and rode by night. The only approach to Sam's and Belle's place was through a narrow canyon leading from the river to the uplands off the old Briartown-Eufaula Trail. Its walls were so steep and boulder-strewn that a wagon could barely pass between them. Most of the year, the trail was passable only on horseback.
The house has been described as a fortlike palace or castle filled with sumptuous wardrobes and fine furniture freighted in from St. Louis, plus a grand piano secured at great expense from Fort Smith. The piano, at least, would come later. Actually, the house was a cedar log cabin with a clapboard shingle roof, built by an Indian named Dempsey Hannell shortly after the war, and was occupied for many years by a Cherokee full blood called Big Head, who supposedly buried ten thousand dollars in gold coin on the premises and died without telling anyone where it was hidden. Old-timers in the area used to claim that Belle and Sam spent most of their married life digging holes all over the place, hunting for Big Head's treasure.
The cabin stood on a rocky knoll, facing south, was within fifty feet of dense timber, and overlooked a wide meadow, where a stranger could be sized up easily coming off the canyon trail in daylight. The original room was about fourteen feet square, with an old-fashioned fireplace on the west side. The rafters were seven feet high, the puncheon floor laid as straight as an axman could lay it. A small window at the right of the door let in enough light to dispel the shadows. To the rear was attached a lean-to kitchen, divided into small rooms, beneath which was a cellar. A veranda, or porch, stretched across the front of the house.
Belle Papered the interior with cloth after the Cherokee custom. Most Indians used cheap, bright-hued muslim, but Belle chose white calico with a little flower design. There were a couple of beds, a table, several chairs, a good lamp, and portraits of herself, her family, and friends. Bearskin rugs covered the floor. The antlers of a prairie deer occupied a prominent place above the mantel. And the intellectual tastes of John Shirley were represented by a crude shelf of some of the best books of the era.
Water for the cabin came from a never failing spring near a stream, called Belle Starr Creek, two hundred yards away. The narrow cut leading up from the river was called Belle Starr Canyon.
To these surroundings Belle brought Rosie Lee, now eleven, giving her the name Pearl Starr. The child readily took to the freedom of the wilderness, as happy as she was isolated and innocent. Belle wanted her to be a lady, and called Pearl her "Canadian Lily."
The first year, Belle helped Sam clear about three acres of land for a corn field and vegetable garden. Bass, catfish, perch, and crappie from the Canadian and deer and wild turkey from the timbered slopes of Hi-Early Mountain supplemented the family larder. They added a frame room to the east side of the cabin and constructed a smokehouse, a corncrib, and corrals for their milch cows and horses. The canyon meadow provided good grazing.
They were almost surrounded by members of the Starr clan, either direct descendants of James Starr or people who married into the family. A few miles northeast lay the settlement of the West clan, of whom John C. West and his youngest brother, Frank, were to play important roles in Sam's and Belle's lives. Much of the country within a radius of fifteen miles was leased by cattlemen or an occasional white sharecropper or renter.
Belle did not associate much with her neighbors, nor did she care to. It was her intention then, she wrote years later in a short biographical sketch to John F. Weafer of the "Fort Smith Elevator," to live a quiet life, a credit to her sex and her family. She wrote:
"On the Canadian River...far from society, I hoped to pass the remainder of my life in peace...So long had i been estranged from the society of women (whom I thoroughly detest) that i thought I would find it irksome to live in their midst.
So I selected a place that few had ever had the gratification of gossiping around. For a short time, I lived very happily in the society of my little girl and husband...but it soon became noised around that I was a woman of some notoriety from Texas, and from that time on my home and actions have been severely criticized.
Notwithstanding some of the best people in the country were friends of mine. I have considerable ignorance to cope with, consequently my troubles originate mostly in that quarter. Surrounded by a lowdown class of shoddy whites who have made the Indian Territory their home to evade paying tax on their dogs, and whO I will not permit to hunt on my premises, I am the constant theme of their slanderous tongues...
My home became famous as an outlaw's ranch long before I was visited by any of the boys who were friends of mine. Indeed, I never corresponded with any of my old associates and was desirous my whereabouts should be unknown to them. Through rumor they learned of it.
Jesse James first came in a remained several weeks. he was unknown to my husband, and he never knew till long afterwards that our home had been honored by James' presence. I introduced Jesse as one Mr. Williams from Texas."
The time of Jesse's visit to Youngers' Bend is conjecture. For three years after their escape at Northfield, Jesse and Frank James hid out in Kentucky, Nebraska, West Texas, and Mexico before returning to their old grounds in Missouri. On October 7, 1879, the Chicago and Alton express was flagged at Glendale Station in central Jackson County and robbed of thirty-five thousand dollars. On July 15, 1881, the Rock Island and Pacific express was held up at Winston, Missouri. On September 7 the same year, another Chicago and Alton train was robbed at Blue Cut, Missouri. Then the gang disbanded. Bob Ford, who was familiar with the James Boys' operations, had met secretly with Governor Thomas F. Crittenden at a Kansas City hotel and agreed to "go after Jesse" if the State of Missouri would dismiss certain charges against his brother, Charley, and if the reward of ten thousand dollars offered for Jesse would be paid for taking him dead or alive. Jesse could have visited Sam's and Belle's ranch after the Blue Cut robbery in September. In October, 1881, he made a brief visit to his home at Kearney, where he met Charley Ford and agreed to shelter him. In November, Jesse moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri. Charley and Bob Ford were his house guests. On the morning of April 3, 1882, while the renowned outlaw was standing on a chair brushing the dust off a wall picture, the "dirty little coward" Bob Ford entered the room and sent a pistol bullet crashing through Jesse's brain.
In any event, Jesse's visit to Younger's Bend provided the springboard for much novelistic nonsense. Afterward, according to Belle's biographers, so many of her old friends found the Starr ranch such a handy retreat that she was forced to fit up a cave on Hi-Early Mountain into a habitable abode and built two additional log cabins for their accomodation. Often as many as a half-dozen hard-ridden mounts stood in her corrals; the gangs she harbored stole horses, committed petty robberies, and sold whiskey to the Indians. The inaccessibility of Youngers' Bend and the prestige of Belle's father-in-law and the powerful Starr clan prevented unheralded visits by the Indian police and federal marshals.
A favorite tale perpetuated by newspaper feature writers is how Belle and her gang preyed on peddlers, or drummers, who traveled the Cherokee Nation. Belle supposedly stationed her desperadoes on a bald hill a mile southeast of present Inola, today an Oklahoma landmark called Belle's Mound. The treeless hump rises several hundred feet above the flat prairie and a maze of brushy gulches. On its summit stood a rock tower the gang used as a lookout. It has been torn down bit by bit until little remains, but tourists still drive out of their way to gaze at the barren formation and enjoy the vicarious thrill of imagining lynx-eyed guards up there keeping vigil for easy victims or federal marshals approaching in time to sound the alarm for the getaway.
Twelve miles west, on the Little Verdigris near the mouth of Spunky Creek, stook the boom town of Catoosa, a crossroads of two important cattle trails and end of track on the Frisco. Tulsey Town (Tulsa), a few miles southwest on the Arkansas, had grown up around a Creek Indian village and was a trading point for cattle outfits in the Cherokee Outlet. Tulsey was a wild town, but Catoosa was a hellhole of vice, drunkenness, and murder. Cattle shipped to St. Louis markets from the Creek Nation, southwest Indian Territory, and parts of Texas were loaded onto trains at Cattosa, and the drovers always went on a spree. Since saloons were prohibited, dance halls and pool halls with back rooms for card games and smuggled liquor were the masculine centers of amianble profanity. And the town was full of fences. Allegedly, Belle disposed of her stolen chattels here more easily than at any other place in the Territory, and she found an excellent outlet for the moonshine whiskey made in the bend of the South Canadian.
We are told that Belle set up horse-stealing stations fifty miles apart, where animals stolen a hundred miles north were exchanged for those stolen the same distance south. A blacksmith at Briartown claimed he once nailed shoes on Belle's mare backward to deceive a posse attempting to pick up her trail!
Ouachita National Forest and the Kiamichi Mountains cover a large part of southern LeFlore County, Oklahoma (old Scullyville and Sugar Loaf counties in the Choctaw Nation). Peaks resembling the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia rise two thousand four hundred feet and higher and extend from east to west for seventy miles. Winding Stair, the best known mountain of the group, takes it name from the old Military Road, constructed in 1832, leading up and across it from Fort Smith to Fort Towson. In these mountains not far from Cedar Lake is Horse Thief Spring, another station where Belle and her cohorts are said to have "rested, exchanged and sent on into Texas" horse stolen from Arkansas.
Her most celebrated station - today a holiday haven for both Oklahomans and out-of-state visitors - is Robbers Cave, a foreboding recess extending inward from a sheer sandstone cliff virtually hidden in the rugged San Bois Mountain wilderness of northern Latimer County above Wilburton. The natural-beauty spot is an 8,400-acre game preserve, replete with some seventy campsites, two youth camps, and twenty-three beautifully furnished housekeeping cabins, including huge wood-burning fireplaces, on a mountainside overlooking Lake Carlton, a 52-acre body of water created by damming Fourche Maline Fork of the Poteau River.
Outlaw legends began to grow around Robbers Cave during the Civil War when it was used by deserters from both Union and Confederate forces. After the war, guerrilla bands and gangs of robbers made it a rendezvous between raids on stores and payrolls. Down the Fourche Maline within pistol shot of the cave runs Robbers Trail, used by the Starrs in the 1850s and 1860s and by the Jameses and Youngers on their trips to and from Texas. Youngers' Bend is thirty-five miles to the north.
"When Belle Starr and Jesse James were trying to get out of the public's view they hid out in the cave; afterwards, the glamorous gunmoll...lost no time picking it as her private territory," the journalists write. During her reign, "a posse led by a deputy U.S. marshal beseiged part of the James band of outlaws in the cave for two days, killing one and capturing others after they were 'smoked out.'" Stories of hidden treasures in the cave "still lead to searching and exploring parties."
Although some Robbers Cave stories have a basis in fact, the exploits attributed to Belle who wholly unsubstantuated. A fix she was not, for she had neither money nor acquaintance for influencing federal administrators of the law of the Western District of Arkansas. After her marriage to Sam Starr, Belle did not appear in contemporary reports or official records until July 31, 1882, when she and Sam were charged in U.S. Commissioner's Court at Fort Smith with the theft of a horse beloning to Andrew Pleasant Crane of the Cherokee Nation.