Bass Reeves: Forgotten Hero of the Old West
I grew up on a steady diet of weekly television westerns: The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Big Valley, The Wild Wild West, and The High Chaparral were some of my favorites. Things were either right or wrong; there was no middle ground. All could be made right with the world within an hour. But after watching hundreds of episodes, I can honestly count on one hand the number of black gun-totting heroes that appeared on the small screen. At the time, it didn't bother me because I didn't know that men like Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves existed. Reeves was a real life western hero whose adventures as a lawman were legendary. The following lens is just a snippet of this man's amazing life.
The story is a hard one to swallow. Bass Reeves, former slave and fugitive, becomes one of the most feared and respected lawmen in the history of the Old West. While much has been written about the life and times of Deputy Marshal Reeves, he is virtually an unknown to the average American. By the time you're through reading, I think you'll agree that Reeves deserves a place of honor alongside legends like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterton, Bill Tilghman, and Wild Bill Hickok.
Bass Reeves: A Difficult Beginning
Bass was born in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. Like most slaves in American history, he adopted his surname from his owner, George Reeves. At the time of his birth, Crawford County had only been in existence about twenty years. Much of the county encompassed what was known as Indian Territory. When Reeves was about eight years old, his owner relocated to Grayson County, Texas. It would be in Texas where Bass would gain the skills and experience that would make him a legendary lawman.
Historians describe him as a likable boy who had a way with animals. Because it was against the law to teach slaves how to read and write, Bass was illiterate. Despite this drawback, he had a sharp mind and good memory; two traits that would serve him well in his future dealings with outlaws. As a slave, Bass worked in the fields but once he was old enough his owner, Colonel George Reeves, made him a body servant. In many ways he became a companion to his master. Under the Colonel's guidance, Bass learned how to handle a gun. Bass was a natural with guns and soon became quite skilled with them.
When the Civil War broke out, Texas came down on the side of the south. Colonel Reeves joined the fight and took Bass along with him. Besides serving as a officer on the side of the confederacy, The Colonel was also a farmer, state representative, and sheriff. There is even a county in West Texas named in his honor. Bass was exposed to a great deal of violence and destruction during the war. It also stands to reason that Bass may have had to do some killing himself to stay alive. Bass' relationship with his owner would come to a dramatic end. The facts are unclear but historians agree that Bass and the Colonel had some kind of disagreement one night while playing cards. During the argument, Bass struck the Colonel and then fled. Bass was now a fugitive. The only chance he had at escaping punishment was to seek refuge in Indian Territory. This decision would set the foundation for Bass' future as a lawman.
Bass Reeves: Runaway Slave
Indian Territory was an area set aside by the American government for the native tribes that had been forcibly removed from the Cotton Belt. The territory encompassed much of what is present day Arkansas and Oklahoma. It was home to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee. They were known as the "Five Civilized Tribes." What is not commonly known is that when the the tribes came to this new territory, many of them brought their with them. The slaves that accompanied the tribes numbered in the thousands. There were a number of free blacks already living in the territory but the tribes' migration increased the population drastically. Another little known fact is that many tribal members actually fought on the side of the south during the war.
Oral history tells us that Bass found refuge with the Seminole and Creek people. It was during this time that he would learn how to speak the languages of the different Indian Nations. He would also learn the territory like the back of his hand. It's believed that Bass joined ranks with a group of abolitionist Native Americans fighting on the side of the Union army. His desire to fight against slavery was so strong that he was willing to risk possible re-enslavement or even death.
Bass Reeves: A Legendary Journey Begins
At the end of the war the Emancipation Proclamation made Bass a free man; he was now free to go anywhere he wanted. Bass married a woman named Jennie he met in Texas and together they relocated to Arkansas. Bass purchased a patch of land and started adjusting to the life of a farmer. He and wife had eleven kids and for the most part lived a simple life. At the time, Arkansas was a dangerous place for anyone to live. Because it was so close to Indian Territory, outlaws and bandits used the area as a safe haven when the law was on their trail. As a result, settlers in the area were often plagued with crime. Something had to be done if the area was ever going to be properly "civilized" and brought into the Union.
The solution came in 1875. Judge Isaac C. Parker, or the Hanging Judge as he was known, was sent by President Grant to be the Federal Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker had been a member of Congress and served on the Committee for Indian Affairs. The district was located in Fort Smith. The judge was allocated funds to hire two hundred deputy marshals to patrol an area more than 74,000 square miles. This is larger than the state of New York. Judge Parker needed fearless men who knew the territory and could speak the language of the Civilized Nations. It wasn't long before the name, Bass Reeves, was brought to Parker's attention. Parker immediately recognized what Reeves would bring to the job and quickly hired him. A legend was born.
Bass Reeves: Deputy U.S. Marshal Reeves Gets His Man
The job of Deputy Reeves and his counterparts was pretty straight forward. They would pick up warrants for known criminals from Fort Smith and then head out on their trail. Since Reeves couldn't read the warrants, he would have them read to him and then memorize the letters attached to the picture of the outlaw. He had an excellent memory. the deputy did not travel alone. He was given a team of men to watch his back. This team usually included a cook, a guard, a couple of posse men, and a wagon (more like a portable prison) to transport any outlaws unlucky enough to have Bass on their trail.
Even though Deputy Reeves was considered a master gunman and fast on the draw, he preferred to take his man in with as little gun-play as possible. He was smart enough to know that coming in with guns blazing was a bad move in any situation. He was fearless but he wasn't stupid. Reeves would sometimes use disguises to get the jump on outlaws. On at least one occasion he pretended to be an outlaw himself to gain the trust of a gang he was tracking. That night, while they all slept, Reeves handcuffed the gang without waking them. Imagine their surprise when they awoke to Deputy Reeves with gun and warrant in hand.
But Reeves didn't shy away from danger. If a gunfight was what it took to get his man, then a gunfight it was. After tracking outlaw Bob Dozier, Reeves was drawn into a gunfight that ended with Dozier on the loosing end. But Reeves had his share of close calls. A gunfight with outlaw Jim Webb almost cost him his life. Deputy Reeves would continue to have many close calls. His determination, intelligence, and courage under fire earned him the respect of all who crossed his path.
Bass Reeves: Lawman to the End
During his thirty plus years as a lawman, he tangled with the likes of the Dalton boys, the Tom Story Gang, Ned Christie, and Belle Starr. He became well known in the Indian Territory and even earned the trust and respect of individuals on the wrong side of the law. Records indicate that Deputy Reeves arrested thousands of men and women during his time as a lawman. He had an amazing career and is considered one of the greatest lawmen of his time.
But through it all, he was still a father, so when a warrant was issued for the arrest of his son Benjamin on the charge of murder, it was Deputy Reeves who brought him in. While his son's safety was his paramount concern, it was his sense of responsibility and duty that compelled him to arrest his own son. Reeves stood by his son through the trial and even saw him off when he was convicted and sentenced to life in Leavenworth Prison. Deputy Marshal Reeves was a true lawman to the end.
Bass Reeves: End of an Era
Throughout his time as lawman, Deputy Reeves had to endure harsh conditions and constant threats to his life. He was hated as much as he was loved; it was a reality of the job. But the one thing that he had to deal with that many of counterparts did not was racism. Despite all he had accomplished, Bass Reeves was still a black man. Not everyone liked the idea of a "Negro" lawman. But Reeves stood his ground and beat the odds.
In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Reeves' job as a federal lawman came to an end. He was 68 at the time. But Reeves didn't miss a step; he became an officer of the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department in the final years of his life. He served with distinction until his death in 1910 from Bright's disease. It was the end of an era. The accomplishments of this amazing man would have remained lost to time if not for the work of historians like Art Burton. There are plans for a monument in his honor and even a movie. So the next time you hear folks talk about men like Marshal Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill, tell them, "Don't forget about Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves."
In 1910, the Muskogee Phoenix wrote the following about Bass Reeves:
"In the history of the early days of Eastern Oklahoma the name of Bass Reeves has a place in the front rank among those who cleansed out the old Indian Territory of outlaws and desperadoes. No story of the conflict of government's officers with those outlaws, which ended only a few years ago with the rapid filling up of the territory with people, can be complete without mention of the Negro who died yesterday. . . . During that time he was sent to arrest some of the most desperate characters that ever infested Indian Territory and endangered life and peace in its borders. And he got his man as often as any of the deputies. . . ."