Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was a runaway slave, gunfighter, farmer, scout, tracker, railroad Agent and deputy U.S. Marshal. He spoke and understood the Five Civilized Tribal languages including CherokeeChoctawChickasawSeminole and Creek. Bass was one of the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River, mostly working in the deadly Indian Territory. The region was saturated with horse thieves, cattle rustlers, gunslingers, bandits, bootleggers, swindlers, and murderers. Reeves made more than 3,000 to 4,000 arrests in his lifetime, only killing twenty men in the line of duty.

Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas. His family were slaves belonging to Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. During the American Civil War, his owners fought for the Confederacy. At some point, Reeves escaped and fled to Indian Territory, where he learned American Indian languages and customs, as well as tracking and survival skills. He eventually became a farmer and rancher. By 1875, Reeves was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal along with other individuals. He was 37 years old. Reeves was well acquainted with the Indian Territory and served there for over 32 years as a peace officer, covering over 75,000 square miles in what is now Oklahoma. He was a victim of several tragedies during his lifetime. He accidentally shot his cook, William Leach, which led to the court case United States vs. Bass Reeves, for which he was acquitted. His first wife Jennie died in 1896, and in 1902 he had to arrest his son Benjamin “Bennie” Reeves, who was charged with murdering his wife, Castella Brown. Bennie was convicted and found guilty by a jury on January 22, 1903, in Muskogee. The presiding judge was C. W. Raymond. Bennie was sentenced to the U.S. prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for his natural life.  Bennie was released after eleven years in prison, and lived out the rest of his life as a model citizen.

Reeves encountered some of the most ruthless outlaws of his day. His weapons of choice were the Winchester Models 1873 and 1892. They were guns that conveniently fit dual-purpose handgun/rifle cartridges. He also briefly used the 1873 Colt Single Action .45 caliber Peacemaker. He tracked and killed notorious outlaw Jim Webb. Webb murdered over eleven people. Another notorious desperado Reeves encountered was murderer and horse thief Wiley Bear. Reeves rounded him up along with his gang, which included John Simmons and Sam Lasly. Reeves was in a gunfight with the Creek desperado Frank Buck, whom he shot and killed. Reeves was immortalized in popular media, including TV shows, films, novels, poems, and books. He was also inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame. A bronze statue of Reeves was erected in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge in Oklahoma was named after the legendary lawman.

Early life

Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight, in about 1846, William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. It appears plausible that Reeves was retained as a servant by William Steele Reeves’s son, Colonel George R. Reeves, a Texan sheriff, legislator, and one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

When the American Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate States Army, taking Bass with him. According to the Reeves family, at some time between 1861 and 1862 he attacked George Reeves following an argument during a poker card game. He escaped to Indian Territory which is now Kansas and Oklahoma. Once there, he became acquainted with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole, learning their customs, languages, and tracking skills. The Emancipation Proclamation gave Reeves his freedom. As a freedman, Reeves returned to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren.[8][14][15][16][17]


Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Territory and could speak several Native languages.[14] He recruited him as a deputy. Reeves, age 37, was the first Black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River.[11][14] Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Native reservation Territory.  He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas, for a short while. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Native Territory.

Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory and became one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous fugitives of the time. He was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves had on his record thousands of arrests of felons, some accounts claiming over 3,000. According to his obituary, he killed 14 outlaws to defend his life.  Reeves even had to arrest his son for murder. Benjamin “Bennie” Reeves was charged with the murder of his wife. Despite the perpetrator being his son, Reeves insisted on the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Accounts of the incident report that Bennie was captured by his father, or turned himself in. He was ultimately tried and convicted, serving 11 years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before his sentence was commuted. He reportedly lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.

Author: spirit