“Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the ….Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee. Bass is a stalwart negro, fifty years of age, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet two inches in his stockings, and fears nothing that moves and breathes. His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired after only years of practice. Several ‘bad’ men have gone to their long homes for refusing to halt when commanded by Bass…..”
This is the way which in 1901, the historian D.C. Gideon described Bass Reeves (above), who was sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal on today’s date in 1875. Reeves is one of the toughest, yet least known figures in the “Old West” histories, mainly because he was black; one of the first black deputy marshals ever sworn in west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, But happily some of that long overdue recognition is coming to this remarkable and very brave man, and I will attempt here in these few paragraphs to tell you a little about him. He deserves credit in our history of the West!!
Bass Reeves – Born a Slave
Records of slave births were sketchy at best, so there is a good deal about the early years if this man’s life on which we’re not clear. But he was born as a slave probably in 1838 at a cotton plantation near Paris, in Lamar County, Texas. His mother was named Pearlalee, and an older sister was named Jane. Bass was an energetic youth, always working hard, but a little too restless to suit his mother, who tried to pass along the teachings of Jesus, which she had secretly learned to her son in hope that these would calm his restless spirit. In time, young Bass became very good with the horses and other animals. He became the
blacksmith’s helper and eventually the “companion” to his master. This was a prestigious position for Bass, but it also put him in very close contact with his master, one George Reeves. This contact got a bit too close with Reeves because the two men had an argument one night over a game of cards, and Bass apparently knocked the man out and fled to the Indian Territory (above, now the state of Oklahoma). Bass may have been with Reeves during a portion of the Civil War, but the available information is unclear on this point, What is clear in that Bass spent a good number of years in this Indian Territory, and got to know these Indigenous Americans very well, becoming friends with many of the tribes, even becoming fluent in several of their languages.
Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, and the Indian Territory
This Indian Territory was so called because that is where the U.S. government forced the various Indian tribes to relocate after they were forced off of their native lands. The end of the Civil War made Bass Reeves a free man. But in it’s upheaval and its end it made an evil mess of the legal situation in the Indian Territory. This was because it attracted every sort of desperado imaginable as it was a huge chunk of land with little law and order at all. As historian Glenn Shirley has said: “The Civil War wrecked the peace of the Five Tribes. Its aftermath was a maelstrom of racial hatred, and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and
pillage became common offenses. Killers traveled in gangs.” Into this mess, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed in March, 1875 a very tough, no-nonsense Federal Judge, Issac C. Parker (above) to bring law and order to this territory. Parker soon became known as the “Hanging Judge”, from whose jurisdiction there was no appeal, save to President Grant himself. One of Parker’s first orders of business was to appoint men to be Deputy U.S. Marshals to administer his decrees and serve his warrants. Bass Reeves was one such man who was sworn in on this date. Reeves was an excellent choice for this sort of work, as he was an extremely good shot, and was known to be on good terms with the Indians who lived there, and could deal with the freed blacks in the territory with ease. But his main qualification was that he was known to be incorruptible, as tough as the trails he rode, and very reliable.
Reeve’s Reputation for Getting His Man – Alive
Bass Reeves was a giant of a man, described by one as “… a very big man, told jokes, was boastful and lusty, full of life and wore a large black hat.” Art T. Burton has said based on descriptions by those who knew him, “He had a deep and resonant voice that could be very authoritative when it had to be but assuring just the same.” But he quickly developed a reputation as a man who whenever he served a warrant, followed the letter of the law, bringing his men in alive most of
the time. As he had been born a slave, he could neither read nor write, so he would memorize the names and text of a warrant before serving it so he could always deliver it properly. He would always travel with a cook, a man to serve on his posse, and would ride the huge distances he needed in order to bring his men in, sometimes bringing in six to thirteen men at a time, all chained to his wagon to their judgement in Judge Parker’s Fort Smith (above, circa 1867). He would then collect the reward, spend time with his wife (Jennie) and children (he had ten) before going out to search for criminals again.
Bass Reeves Guns Down Jim Webb
There are just too many stories about this man to tell even a small portion of them in my limited space here. But here is one which sums up the man well as any:
Bass had pursued Jim Webb for murder and had brought him in. But after a year in jail, the man got out on bail, which Webb skipped. Reeves pursued him again, tracing him to Jim Bywater’s store in the Chickasaw nation. Webb saw Bass coming and crashed through the window of Bywater’s store, and turned and fired at Reeves who pursued on his horse. He shot with his first bullet grazing the horn of Reeve’s saddle, the second cutting a button off of his coat, and the third
severing the reins of his horse. Webb hit the ground, and rolled to his feet firing and grazing the brim of Reeve’s hat. But Bass was so quick and accurate in his response that he hit Webb three times. Webb went down and with his dying words said to Reeves: “Give my your hand, Bass,” said Webb, as he extended his own with an effort to grasp it. “You are a brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth.” Bass accepted the revolver, helped bury Webb, and then presented his gun belt and boots as proof that he had gotten his man.
Bass Reeve’s Obituary… Another Story of His Devotion to Duty
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department (below, far left), but only served there for two years before his health began to fail. In 1909 he retired, and he died on January 12, 1910 of the effects of Bright’s Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys. In an obituary for him published in the Muskogee Phoenix the next day came another story which was typical of the man:
“Undoubtedly the act which best typifies the man and which at least shows his devotion to duty, was the arrest of his son. A warrant for the arrest of the younger Reeves, who was charged with murder of his wife, had been issued. Marshal Bennett said that perhaps another deputy had better be sent to arrest him. The old negro was in the room at the time, and with a devotion of duty equaling that of the old Roman, Brutus, whose greatest claim on fame has been that the love for his son could not sway him from justice, he said, “Give me the writ,” and went out and arrested his son, brought him into court and upon trial and conviction he was sentenced to imprisonment and is still serving his sentence.”
Reeve’s son later was released after serving his time, and lived an exemplary life ever after. Bass Reeves deserves to be mentioned in the front ranks of the lawmen of America’s Old West. He was the equal of Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hicock, and Wyatt Earp. And like Wyatt Earp, he was never once, in his long career wounded.
by Paul L. Brady, ALP Publishing, Atlanta, 1990
by Art T. Burton, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006
“Law West of Fort Smith” by Glenn Shirley, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1957
“Indian Territory” by D.C. Gideon, New York, Lewis Pub. Co., 1901, found online at: