Born to slave parents in 1838 in Paris, Texas, Bass Reeves would become the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River and one of the greatest frontier heroes in our nation’s history.
Owned by a man named George Reeves, a farmer and politician, Bass took the surname of his owner, like other slaves of the time. Working alongside his parents, Reeves started out as a water boy until he was old enough to become a field hand.
A tall young man, at 6’2”, with good manners and a sense of humor, George Reeves later made him his personal companion and body servant when Bass was older. When the Civil War broke out, Texas sided with the Confederacy and George Reeves went into battle, taking Bass with him.
It was during these years of the Civil War that Bass parted company from his “master,” some say because Bass beat up George after a dispute in a card game. Others believe that Bass heard too much about the “freeing of slaves” and simply ran away. In any event, Bass fled to Indian Territory where he took refuge with the Seminole and Creek Indians. While in Indian Territory, Reeves honed his firearm skills, becoming very quick and accurate with a pistol. Though Reeves claimed to be “only fair” with a rifle, he was barred on a regular basis from competitive turkey shoots.
“Freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and no longer a fugitive, Reeves left Indian Territory and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, becoming a successful farmer and rancher. A year later, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas, and immediately began to have a family. Raising ten children on their homestead — five girls and five boys, the family lived happily on the farm.
However, Reeve’s life as a contented farmer was about to change when Isaac C. Parker was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 10, 1875. At the time Parker was appointed, Indian Territory had become extremely lawless as thieves, murderers, and anyone else wishing to hide from the law, took refuge in the territory that previously had no federal or state jurisdiction.
One of Parker’s first official acts was to appoint U.S. Marshal James F. Fagan as head of the some 200 deputies he was then told to hire. Fagan heard of Bass Reeves’ significant knowledge of the area, as well as his ability to speak several tribal languages, and soon recruited him as a U.S. Deputy.
The deputies were tasked with “cleaning up” Indian Territory and on Judge Parker’s orders, “Bring them in alive — or dead!”
Working among other lawmen that would also become legendary, such as Heck Thomas, Bud Ledbetter, and Bill Tilghman, Reeves began to ride the Oklahoma range in search of outlaws. Covering some 75,000 square miles, the United States Court at Fort Smith, was the largest in the nation.
Depending on the outlaws for whom he was searching, a deputy would generally take with him from Fort Smith, a wagon, a cook and a posse man. Often they rode to Fort Reno, Fort Sill and Anadarko, a round trip of more than 800 miles.
Though Reeves could not read or write it did not curb his effectiveness in bringing back the criminals. Before he headed out, he would have someone read him the warrants and memorize which was which. When asked to produce the warrant, he never failed to pick out the correct one.
An imposing figure, always riding on a large stallion, Reeves began to earn a reputation for his courage and success at bringing in or killing many desperadoes of the territory. Always wearing a large black hat, Reeves was usually a spiffy dresser, with his boots polished to a gleaming shine. He was known for his politeness and courteous manner. However, when the purpose served him, he was a master of disguises and often utilized aliases. Sometimes appearing as a cowboy, farmer, gunslinger, or outlaw, himself, he always wore two Colt pistols, butt forward for a fast draw. Ambidextrous, he rarely missed his mark.
Leaving Fort Smith, often with a pocketful of warrants, Reeves would often return months later herding a number of outlaws charged with crimes ranging from bootlegging to murder. Paid in fees and rewards, he would make a handsome profit, before spending a little time with his family and returning to the range once again.
The tales of his captures are legendary – filled with intrigue, imagination and courage. On one such occasion, Reeves was pursuing two outlaws in the Red River Valley near the Texas border. Gathering a posse, Reeves and the other men set up camp some 28 miles from where the two were thought to be hiding at their mother’s home. After studying the terrain and making a plan, he soon disguised himself as a tramp, hiding the tools of his trade – handcuffs, pistol and badge, under his clothes. Setting out on foot, he arrived at the house wearing an old pair of shoes, dirty clothes, carrying a cane, and wearing a floppy hat complete with three bullet holes.
Upon arriving at the home, he told a tale to woman who answered the door that his feet were aching after having been pursued by a posse who had put the three bullet holes in his hat. After asking for a bite to eat, she invited him in and while he was eating she began to tell him of her two young outlaw sons, suggesting that the three of them should join forces.
Feigning weariness, she consented to let him stay a while longer. As the sun was setting, Reeves heard a sharp whistle coming from beyond the house. Shortly after the woman went outside and responded with an answering whistle, two riders rode up to the house, talking at length with her outside. The three of them came inside and she introduced her sons to Reeves. After discussing their various crimes, the trio agreed that it would be a good idea to join up.
Bunking down in the same room, Reeves watched the pair carefully as the drifted off to sleep and when they were snoring deeply, handcuffed the pair without waking them. When early morning approached, he kicked the boys awake and marched them out the door. Followed for the first three miles by their mother, who cursed Reeves the entire time, he marched the pair the full 28 miles to the camp where the posse men waited. Within days, the outlaws were delivered to the authorities and a $5,000 reward collected.
One of the high points of Reeves’ career was apprehending a notorious outlaw named Bob Dozier. Dozier was known as a jack-of-all-trades when it came to committing crimes, as they covered a wide range from cattle and horse rustling, to holding up banks, stores, and stagecoaches; to murder, and land swindles. Because Dozier was unpredictable, he was also hard to catch and though many lawmen had tried to apprehend the outlaw, none were successful until it came to Reeves. Dozier eluded Reeves for several years until the lawman tracked him down in the Cherokee Hills. After refusing to surrender, Reeves killed Dozier in an accompanying gunfight on December 20, 1878.
Though the tales of Reeves’ heroics are many and varied, the toughest manhunt for the lawman was that of hunting down his own son. After having delivered two prisoners to U.S. Marshal Leo Bennett in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he arrived to bad news. His own son had been charged with the murder of his wife. Though the warrant had been lying on Bennett’s desk for two days, the other deputies were reluctant to take it and though Reeves was shaken, he demanded to accept the responsibility for finding his son. Two weeks later, Reeves returned to Muskogee with his son in tow and turned him over to Marshal Bennett. His son was tried and sent to Kansas’ Leavenworth Prison. However, sometime later, with a citizen’s petition and an exemplary prison record, his son was pardoned and lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.
In 1907, law enforcement was assumed by state agencies and Reeves’ duties as a deputy marshal came to an end. Next, Bass took a job as a patrolman with the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department. During the two years that he served in this capacity, there were reportedly no crimes on his beat. Reeves’ diagnosis with Bright’s disease finally ended his career when he took to his sickbed in 1909. He died January 12, 1910 and though he was buried in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the exact location of his grave is unknown.
Over the 35 years that Bass Reeves served as a Deputy United States Marshal, he earned his place in history by being one of the most effective lawmen in Indian Territory, bringing in more than 3,000 outlaws and helping to tame the lawless territory. Killing some 14 men during his service, Reeves always said that he “never shot a man when it was not necessary for him to do so in the discharge of his duty to save his own life.”