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Famous Outlaws in Poteau: The Wanderings of Belle Starr
Bell Starr and Sugarloaf Mountain
The Wanderings of Belle Starr
The most famous frequent visitor to early day Poteau was Belle Starr. Sugarloaf Mountain, less than ten miles east of Poteau, is reputed to have been a popular hideout of Belle Starr and other Wild West outlaws. A local rumor says that a group of friends was exploring in the area one day and found a cave that contained saddles and guns. The legend says that there was a good amount of gold hidden at the rear of the cave, but since the cave has collapsed, this legend remains unproven.
Nearby, there was an old, run down shack where many of the early day outlaws would meet. Another rumor says that Belle Starr would occasionally go there and stay for extended periods. While this “hotel” has long since crumbled into dust, its foundation remains.
Old Town Poteau
During the time of Belle Starr and the other outlaws, the town of Poteau consisted of just a few houses and a scattering of stores. Most prominent was Bud Tate's General store. This store was located on the Frisco right of way, near today's intersection of College and Broadway. This one room shack sold everything from guns to feed.
It has been proven that Belle Starr once purchased a hat from that store, providing direct evidence of her wanderings throughout Poteau and the immediate area.
Belle Starr and Poteau
There are many old stories of early settlers in the area catching a glimpse of Belle Starr passing through Poteau Switch. While none of these accounts provide many details, it is certain that the frequently visited the town. Belle Starr was murdered on February 3, 1889.
One such story of Belle Starr in Poteau came from Mr. R. Lessel, an early day pioneer in the area. According to an interview done on him in the 1920’s, he recalls seeing Belle Starr in the company of two men. He and his sister were fishing in James Fork near Rock Island when he saw Belle Starr. Belle was dressed in men’s clothing, and everyone in her group was all armed with Winchesters and six-shooters. They paused to let their horses drink as they forded the creek. They were traveling south on the Old Fort Towson road, probably headed for Horse Thief Springs.
Another story originated in the area around 1875 when Belle Starr, along with Sam Starr and Choctaw Charlie held up some travelers from Missouri on their way to Texas. During the holdup, they took their horses, food, and clothing. It is claimed that this happened near where Poteau is today and a woman dressed in men's clothing was the leader.
Although Belle Starr wasn’t directly involved in this story, it offers good proof that she frequented the area. John Middleton, long associated with Belle Starr, reached Shady Point and a short distance to the swollen Poteau River at Hay Ford on Lewis Bend. Here unexpectedly he was confronted with Sam Starr with a drawn shotgun aimed at his head. The men argued. Starr was desperate. He accused Middleton of stealing his wife after he gave him one chance to leave her alone. Middleton made a quick draw for his gun and Starr emptied his gun in Middleton's face, blowing away a great portion of it. Middleton's horse, saddled and bridled, was found the next day, and his body a few hundred yards below the ford by local citizens. It was buried in a rough pine box in the Hemp Tally grave yard. An early Poteau newspaper stated that, "The citizens took charge of the race mare which he had stolen in Texas, two ivory handled pistols and a sum of money. This was all turned over to Dr. Jones, the P. M. at Shady Point and a Texas Sheriff, who had been pursuing Middleton and had the body exhumed. Not long after the sheriff left, Belle Starr came and demanded all of the property the dead man had that had been turned over to Dr. Jones."