BASS REEVES: Legendary Lawman
(The first African-American US Marshall West of the Mississippi)
By Dr. Loren Swinehart
He rode a white horse, packed a pair of Colt .45 six shooters and handed out pieces of silver as his calling cards. He was accompanied by a faithful Indian companion. “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!”
Bass Reeves rides again!
Possibly a model for the Lone Ranger, Reeves was born a slave in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He later moved to Texas as the property of George Reeves, a member of the Texas state legislature. Bass was such a crack shot that his owner would take him to turkey shoots.
During a dispute over a card game, Bass struck his owner, a capital offense for a slave. Reeves escaped into the Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma, and lived among the Cherokee, Seminole and Creek, learning several Native American languages. Back in Arkansas after the Civil War, Reeves purchased a farm, married, and fathered eleven children.
In 1875, “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker, aware of Reeves’ language skills, marksmanship and knowledge of the Indian Territory, appointed him Deputy U.S. Marshal. Reeves was the first American of African descent to serve as a U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.
The Indian Territory was set aside for five cruelly displaced tribes, survivors of the several Trails of Tears. The region was a haven for gangsters, bootleggers, horse thieves, rustlers, con artists, gunslingers and malcontents, as well as white squatters on Indian lands. Until Parker was appointed, the territory teetered on the edge of anarchy. Parker, who ironically did not believe in capital punishment, brought law and order to the area. He handed down the death sentence with great frequency.
During his thirty years as a marshal, Reeves arrested over 3,000 suspects and killed 14 in shootouts. He confronted the desperado James Webb after pursuing him for two years. Webb fired on Reeves four times, first grazing his saddle horn, then cutting a button off his coat, next knocking his horse’s reins from his hand, and finally nicking his hat brim. Reeves returned fire with his Winchester, hitting Webb twice. The dying Webb gasped, “You are a brave, brave man,” and gave Reeves his revolver out of respect.
From then on, Reeves was known as “The Invincible Marshal.”
Reeves is said to have never exhibited any fear or excitement while confronting an outlaw. He always got his man. Reeves sometimes brought in a wagonload of up to seventeen prisoners at a time. When the notorious Belle Starr learned that Reeves had a warrant for her arrest, she turned herself in. He once even arrested his son Benjamin, who had been charged with the murder of his unfaithful wife.
Reeves was both admired and hated. Citizens knew that he was impeccably honest, strong and firm, devoted to the law. Racists objected to a black man wearing a badge and arresting white men. Reeves simply did his job.
Reeves was a huge, strong man, standing 6”2”, weighing 180 pounds, and sporting a bushy mustache. He once single handedly pulled a steer from a mud hole. Being ambidextrous was an asset to his gun fighting skill. Like most former slaves, he could not read or write, but his memory verged upon the photographic. When Parker described a suspect, Reeves would not rest until he caught him.
Like an earlier version of Frank Serpico, Reeves often resorted to disguises, masquerading as a hobo, a farmer, an out of work cow hand, even an outlaw. He once handcuffed a pair of brothers in their sleep.
When the Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma, Reeves hired on as a policeman in Muskogee. Showing his age, wandering the streets with a cane, he continued to enforce the law.
In recognition of this western hero, Reeves’ badge, guns and other memorabilia will soon be on display at the new US Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas.