Bass Reeves: First Black U.S. Marshall West of the Mississippi

In a continuing series for Black History Month, I would like to provide some information about someone many called the original Lone Ranger: Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in July of 1828 in Crawford County, Arkansas. Though he was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington, he took on the surname of his owner, William Steele Reeves, a politician farmer.

In 1846, William Reeves moved his family and all of his operations to Grayson County, Texas. It is believed when the American Civil War began, Williams’s son, a Colonel in the Confederate Army named Georges R. Reeves, took Bass with him into battle.

Accounts state that Bass had an altercation with George that resulted in Bass becoming a free man. The accounts state that Bass severely beat George Reeves over a card game and fled to the Indian Territory, where he lived as a fugitive slave among the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes. Bass stayed in the territories and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment (Emancipation Proclamation) in 1863.

With the Emancipation Proclamation in place, Bass Reeves was no longer a fugitive. He left the Indian Territory and purchased land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a successful rancher and farmer. Shortly afterwards, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas and they started a family, raising 10 children: five boys and five girls.

During this time, Bass started working as law enforcement officer in the area.

After the Civil War, many fugitives of justice fled to the Indian Territories due to the lack of formal criminal justice in the vast area. On May 10, 1875, the Federal Western Court was moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Issac C. Parker was appointed Judge. One of Parker’s first acts was to appoint U.S. Marshall James F. Fagan as head of 200 deputies to bring justice to the territory. Fagan had heard of Bass Reeves’ significant knowledge of the area and his ability to speak several tribal languages from his time living among the Native Americans there. Fagan soon hired him as one of the U.S. Marshal deputies.

The area of the territory covered over 75,00 square miles. The deputies usually covered an area of more than 800 miles in a round trip. When they went on ‘patrol’ they were accompanied by a wagon, a cook and a Native American posse man.

Bass Reeves could not read or write, but that did not affect his ability to be an effective deputy and apprehend criminals. Before going out to look for criminals, Reeves would have the information on the warrant read to him and committed it to memory. He would be able to recall the information upon apprehending the fugitives. The deputies were directed to ‘clean up’ the Indian Territory and on Judge Parker’s orders, bring them in alive or dead.

Reeves was an imposing figure, standing 6’2”. He began to earn a reputation as a fearless and successful U.S. Marshall. It is believed that he brought more than 3,000 felons to justice. At least 14 were delivered dead after confrontations with Reeves.

bass reeves

Reeves was known to always ride a large white stallion. He was also known to wear a large hat and was renowned as a spiffy dresser. His boots were always shined to a bright sheen, and he carried two guns. He was known to always be courteous and polite. If the occasion called for it, he could assume various disguises and often utilized aliases to complete his tasks.

There are numerous tales of the adventures and heroics of Bass Reeves. Too many to detail in this submission. It is believed by many that the fictionalized radio and movie character, The Lone Ranger, was based on the exploits of Reeves, who shared many similarities with the character.

In 1887, Reeves was arrested and charged with the murder of a posse cook.  Like many of the outlaws he’d arrested, he was taken before Judge Issac Parker. Represented by U.S. Attorney, W.H.H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend, Reeves was acquitted.

Reeves continued his law enforcement career. In 1902, after delivering two criminals to Judge Leo Barnett in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he arrived to sad news. His son, Bennie Reeves, was wanted for the murder of his wife in fit of jealousy. Reeves reluctantly went after his son. Two weeks later, Reeves delivered his son to Muskogee and turned him over to Judge Barnett. His son was tried and sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, but with a citizen’s petition and exemplary behavior, Bennie was released from prison and went on to live as a model citizen.

In 1907, law enforcement duties were assumed by state agencies and Reeves’ duties as deputy marshal came to an end. He took a job as patrol officer with the Muskogee, Oklahoma Police Department.

For over 35 years, Bass Reeves served as Deputy United States Marshal, earning his place in history as one of the most effective lawmen in the Indian Territory.

Bass Reeves became ill in 1909 and died January 12, 1910. He is buried in the Union Agency Cemetery in Muskogee, but the exact location of his grave is unknown. The lengthy and glowing obituary for this universally respected man described him as “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.”

Bass Reeves stands an extraordinary example of a law enforcement professional. During this month of recognizing significant figures in African American History, Bass Reeves is great example Black excellence.

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