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Bass Reeves, dedicated deputy in the 1800s

Who Was Bass Reeves?

Bass Reeves was an anomaly of his time, an honest, upstanding United States Marshal of the old west, in a time when many who were given the title of lawman were as crooked as those they chased. Bass, known to face down vigilantes alone, stop hangings, and take the one to be hanged off to jail, was both feared and respected for his quick draw. No one wanted to test his widely known ability with a six-shooter. Bass was also known for shaming God-fearing men for their actions with appropriate quotes from the Bible. He believed in the law; but he felt that when someone did something wrong, they had the right to a fair trial. But there’s more to his story.

Black Man Wearing A Silver Star

He was born in Crawford County, Arkansas in 1838. He was named for his grandfather Basse Washington, and born into slavery to the family of William Steele Reeves, a state legislator and his family. How did a black man manage to be wearing a silver star of a lawman? In a time when men of color had no rights, what happened to allow him to become a Deputy United States Marshal?  Well, first he had to gain his freedom.

Bass Reeves wore a badge similar to this
in the 1800s


Conflicting Stories About His Freedom

There’s one story that says Reeves moved with the son of the Reeves family, George R. Reeves when he moved to Texas. There, George R. Reeves became a state legislator and eventually Speaker of the House. During this time, Bass Reeves and the younger Reeves had a fight over a card game, and Bass beat up the son pretty bad, after which he was kicked out. Others tell a different story; that he was just a boy when he was turned loose from bondage, after trying to defend his mother from the elder Reeves. It’s said that Bass was hit and then tied to a stake with his arms above his head for many hours. The story goes that someone, maybe the very man who gave him the punishment, or the son of that man, untied him and banished him from the property, leaving him to find his own way in the world. Which story is true? It doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. What matters is what he DID with his life after leaving the Reeves property. He could have become bitter and went the way of many, robbing and killing. He chose not to do so, he chose taking the higher path of law. But first there was the “little” matter of becoming free.

Oklahoma Territory

Bass Reeves fled north, to Indian territory (now the State of Oklahoma,) where the Indians were known to be friendly to slaves on the run. He lived with the Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians, learning their language and ways, until he achieved freedom under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. Afterward he moved to Arkansas, became a farmer, married Nellie Jennie and had 10 children.

In 1875 Isaac Parker (known as “The Hanging Judge”) was appointed as federal judge for the Indian Territory where he appointed James F. Fagan as United States Marshal, directing him to hire 200 Deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, that he knew the Indian Territory well and could speak the dialect of several Indian tribes. He recruited him as a one of his deputies, and Reeves became the first African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. Reeves would work for 32 years as a peace officer in the Indian Territory, where he brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time. He was never wounded, but had his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. He developed great skills as a detective during his long career. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 he became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department at the age of 68.  He served two years before he became ill and had to retire. To his credit, he claimed arrests of over 3,000 felons, and the killing of 14 outlaws while defending his life.

Oklahoma Territory was Indian Territory to a great extent in Bass Reeves’ time.

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The Death of Bass Reeves

Bass’ health began to fail, and in 1910 he died of what was known as Bright’s Disease (nephritis), affecting the kidneys. His legacy lives on in many ways; he was uncle to the first African-American Federal Administrative Law Judge, Paul L. Brady.  And if you travel U.S. Route 62 between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, you will cross a bridge named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge. Sculptor Harold Holden of Enid, Oklahoma sculpted and had cast in bronze in Norman, Oklahoma, a figure of Bass Reeves. That figure stands in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas. If you can’t make it to Fort Smith, you can see it below on this page or at Blackartblog. Finally, he is thought to be the inspiration for an iconic western movie hero, The Lone Ranger. It’s said that Morgan Freeman expressed interest in playing Bass in a movie about his life. So far there’s been no further information about a movie, but there should be.

The indomitable lawman as depicted by Sculptor Harold T. Holder, stands in Ft. Smith, Arkansas

Photo Credit

For more about the life of Bass Reeves and his exploits, I recommend the following books.