Over his 32-year career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves arrested 3,000 felons, killed 14 men, and was never shot himself. His reputation for persistence, his total fearlessness, his skills with a gun, and his ability to outsmart outlaws struck terror into lawbreakers in what we now call Oklahoma. Although other colorful characters made their way into our pop culture, Bass was the real badass of the Old West.
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. His slavemaster, William S. Reeves, moved the household to Texas in 1846. When the Civil War broke out, William Reeves’ son George was made a colonel in the Confederate army and took Bass to war with him. At the most opportune moment, Reeves escaped while George was sleeping and took off out west for Indian Territory. Accounts vary on whether Bass beat up George as he left, and whether his immediate aim was freedom or to escape punishment over a card game dispute. In any case, Reeves went to live among the Creek and Seminole Indians. He learned their customs and languages and became a proficient territorial scout. Reeves eventually procured a homestead in Van Buren, Arkansas, where he was the first black settler. He married Nellie Jennie, built an eight-room house with his bare hands, and raised ten children—five girls and five boys. Life was good, but it was about to change for Bass Reeves.
The state of Oklahoma at the time was two different territories: Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory. Indian Territory was where the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes who were forcibly removed from their homes were resettled following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But they weren’t the only citizens of Indian Territory. There were also former slaves of the tribes, freed and made tribal members after the Civil War, settlers from the East (both black and white) who sharecropped tribal property, and a good measure of outlaws fleeing from civilization. Indian territory was attractive to lawbreakers because of its peculiar judiciary arrangement: The tribal courts had jurisdiction only over tribal members. Non-Indians were under the jurisdiction of federal courts, but there were few marshals to supervise a very large area.
In 1875, “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker was made the federal judge of Indian Territory. One of his first acts was to make James Fagan a U.S. Marshal and order him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan knew of Reeves and his ability to negotiate Indian Territory and speak the languages, so Reeves was named the first black Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. As such, he was authorized to arrest both black and white lawbreakers. Reeves was well aware of the historic precedent, and took his responsibilities seriously.
Reeves was 38 years old at the time, 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 180 pounds, and rode a large horse. He cut an imposing figure as he patrolled the 75,000 square miles of Indian Territory. He quickly gained a reputation as a tough and fearless lawman who managed to bring in outlaws thought to be invincible. Reeves traveled the long circuit with a wagon, cook, and often a posse. He carried chains to secure prisoners to the wagon, as he sometimes had a dozen or more by the time he returned to Ft. Smith, where Judge Parker held court.
In 1882, Reeves arrested Belle Starr for horse theft. Some accounts say that she turned herself in when she heard that the legendary Bass Reeves was looking for her.
In 1889, after Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang for their long-term horse theft operation. He waited along the route Tom Story used, and surprised him with an arrest warrant. Story panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew and shot him dead before Story could fire. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again.
Reeves approached the three murderous Brunter brothers and handed them a warrant for their arrest. The three outlaws laughed and read the warrant, and in the split second they all took their eyes off Reeves, he managed to draw his gun and kill two of them, and immediately disarmed and arrested the third.
Although Reeves was a skilled frontiersman and spoke several languages, he had never learned to read. Once, when two potential assassins forced Reeves off his horse, he asked them for one last request – that someone read him a letter from his wife. When the outlaws were momentarily distracted by the piece of paper they were handed, Reeves drew his gun and turned the situation around. The second outlaw dropped his gun in surprise, and they were both arrested. Reeves used the “piece of paper” ruse several times in his career to distract felons to similar ends.
Reeves was arrested himself in 1887, and charged with murder in the death of his posse cook, William Leach. Brought to trial before Judge Parker, he testified that he shot the cook by accident while cleaning his gun, and was acquitted.
The marshal was famous for fair-mindedness and was impossible to bribe or corrupt. In 1902 he arrested his own son, Benny, for murdering his wife (Reeves’ daughter-in-law). Benny had fled to the badlands after the crime, and no other marshal was willing to pursue him. As distasteful as the task was, Reeves brought him back, and Benny served twenty years at Leavenworth.
Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and Reeves’ commission as marshal ended. He was 68 years old by then, but took on another position with the Muskogee Police Department, which he kept until his health began to fail. Reeves died of Bright’s disease in 1910. In his 32 years as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Reeves had seen bullets fly through his clothing and hat, but was never injured by an outlaw. His record of 3,000 arrests dwarfs the arrest records of better known Old West lawmen such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.
The story of Bass Reeves is sometimes cited as the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. It also may have been an inspiration for the film Django Unchained. The 2010 straight-to-video movie Bass Reeves is a fictionalized account of the lawman’s life. In 2011, the bridge that connects Muskogee and Fort Gibson in Oklanahoma was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge.
Once asked why he spent so much effort enforcing the “white man’s laws,” Bass reportedly replied, “Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin’.”