Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910): The first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River

It’s said that in the late 19th century when the United States’ government needed someone to curb lawlessness in the Indian Territory, Bass Reeves was the man they turned to. A former slave, Reeves made history in 1875 when he was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas. This made him the first African American to hold that office.

His bravery and detective skills made him a nightmare for many criminals who operated around the western part of Mississippi River. For over three decades, Reeves worked as a law enforcement officer in Arkansas and its surroundings and was regarded as one of the most efficient and capable officers in that region. Throughout his career, the Crawford County-born marshal arrested not less than 3,000 criminals, leaving an indelible legacy for later generations.

Continue reading to find out how Bass Reeves went from being a slave to become one of our nation’s most celebrated law enforcement officers.

Bass Reeves - history, achievements and legacy

Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910): The first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River

The early years of Bass Reeves

Born in 1838, a time when slavery was at its peak, Bass Reeves spent his early years serving in the house of William Steele Reeves, a legislator in Arkansas. Christened after his granddad, Bass Washington, the young Reeves, like many slaves during that period, had no formal education. It is believed that he worked for Colonel George R. Reeves, a former Texas House of Representatives’ Speaker and the son of William Steele Reeves.

When the brutal four-year American Civil War broke out in 1861, Bass Reeves followed his master into the Confederate Army. This might be when he gathered the spirit of bravery and courage which he would use in his later years.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Americans from the Civil War

How he escaped from slavery

Reeves became a freedman years before slavery was abolished in the United States. He gained his freedom at a stage during the war. Though there have been different stories as to how he managed to escape, it is widely believed that he severely beat his master following a misunderstanding.

Fearing for his life, Reeves fled and sought refuge in the Indian Territory. Within a short time, the former slave had created a great relationship with the locals. He went further to learn the languages of the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek people. He lived in the Indian Territory until 1863, when then-U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves within the rebellious states (i.e. the Confederate States).

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Life as a freedman

An illiterate and former slave, Reeves was short of opportunities after slavery was abolished. In order to cater for himself, he migrated to Arkansas where he secured a parcel of land and started farming. It is also said that he occasionally worked as a tour guide for United States marshals who visited the Indian Territory.

Sooner than later, Reeves started raising his own family. He married a Texan woman named Nellie Jennie in 1864. Together they raised ten kids – five girls and five boys. After the death of Nellie in 1896, Reeves married Winnie Sumter in 1900.

After getting into a violent skirmish with his slave master in Grayson County, Texas, Reeves fled and sought refuge in Indian Territory (in what is now the states Oklahoma). He quickly developed a strong bond with the Seminole and Creek Indians. His proficiency in many of those Indian languages served him well in his career as a law enforcement officer in the region.

What made Reeves a special U.S. marshal?

U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, in 1875, named Isaac C. Parker (1838-1896) to the Federal Western District Court located in Fort Smith in Arkansas. Parker’s jurisdiction covered the Indian Territory.

In order to maintain law and order in the region, Parker, who was also known as “Hanging Judge”, appointed former Confederate Army officer James Fleming Fagan as U.S. marshal. The latter was charged to appoint 200 deputies to help him carry out his work successfully. Among the deputies he hired was Bass Reeves who was then in his late 30s.

At a time when lawlessness had taken over the Indian Territory, Reeves’ bravery and commitment were exactly what was needed to bring order to the region. The Indian Territory was perhaps the most dangerous and outright scariest place in 1800s United States.

Many bond breakers, especially cold-blooded killers and bandits that had fled the law, took refuge in the region. Bass Reeves himself fled to area after getting into a heated confrontation with his slave master.

It is widely believed that Reeves’ knowledge of the area was the reason why he was appointed to the position. It is also likely that his association with the Confederate Army some years back played a role in his selection since both him and Fagan served in the same unit.

Read More: General Ulysses S. Grant’s Military Accomplishments

Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves became a deputy U.S. marshal in 1875. He thus became the first black man to hold this position west of the Mississippi River. Image: Bass Reeves (left) with a group of U.S. Marshals in 1907

In 1893, he was moved to Paris in Texas where he served at the Eastern District court. Four years later, he was again transferred to the Native Territory where he worked at the Muskogee Federal Court. Records show that Reeves was one of the most feared law enforcers in the Indian Territory. Measuring over six feet tall, he intimidated and tracked down and captured many criminals.

During his active days in the service, he made over 3,000 arrests, most of which were dangerous fugitives. In the course of discharging his duties, Reeves killed over a dozen criminals in self-defense. Among those killed was horse thief and murderer Bob Dozier.

He also brought the infamous outlaw Greenleaf, a Seminole Indian, to book. Greenleaf, who allegedly killed more than a half dozen people, had evaded lawmen for close to two decades.

Bass Reeves

Mere sight of the 180-pound, 6’2’’ lawman sent shivers down the spines of fugitives and criminals. Take the case of the infamous female outlaw Belle Starr (1848-1889) (also known as “The Bandit Queen”) who surrendered herself to Reeves upon hearing that the lawman had a warrant for her arrest.

It is also said that he arrested Bennie, one of his sons, who was on the run for allegedly killing his wife in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The law officer’s honesty and fairness made him a favorite of Judge Parker.

At the age of 68, he joined the Muskogee Police Department as an officer. He continued his fight against crime for a couple of years before retiring due to ill-health.

Battle with sickness

Reeves’ later years were marred by poor health. Before his death in 1910, he battled many illnesses, including Bright’s disease, which weakened his kidney. On January 12, 1910, Bass Reeves, the legendary lawman of the Wild West, died. He was 71.

Honors and recognition

His service to the nation earned him many recognitions. He was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Westerners in 1992. Two decades later, Harold Holden, a sculptor, produced a statue of Reeves which would be erected at Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park in Arkansas.

In addition to that, the former law enforcer became a member of the Texas Trail of Fame in 2013. Two years before that, the US-62 Bridge on the Arkansas River was named after him.

Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910): The first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. Regardless of the odds stacked against him, he always persevered and apprehended criminals and other dangerous outlaws.

Did you know?

At a stage in his life, he was arrested for shooting and murdering a cook. Though he pleaded guilty, he argued that the shooting was an accident. After the trial, he was acquitted by Judge Parker.

Other interesting facts

Bass Reeves

An expert marksman and detective, Reeves had a Native American companion and rode a silver horse. Image: Harold T. Holden’s statue of Bass Reeves at Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park, Arkansas

An enduring icon shaped law enforcement in America for many years, Bass Reeves was seen as a symbol of truth and justice in the untamed land of the “Wild West”.

Below are a few more interesting facts about the cunning and intelligent lawman:

  • He was praised for his marksmanship, having the ability to shoot with both hands as well.
  • This law enforcement officer was famed for efficiently dealing with bad guys in the Wild West, killing over a dozen outlaws in his career.
  • The Texas Trail of Fame inductee has been the subject of many films, literature, and television series over the years. In 2021, Paramount+ premiered their television series titled “Bass Reeves”. The show, which was created by American filmmaker Taylor Sheridan, was based on the life of this famous law enforcer. His character was played by multiple award-winning actor David Oyelowo.
  • Reeves’s life story also inspired the 2019 film titled “Hell on the Border” which was directed and written by renowned filmmaker Wes Miller. The film stars Britist actor David Gyasi, Ron Perlman, Zahn McClarnon, and Frank Grillo.
  • Bass Reeves’s character appeared in Un Cow-Boy Dans Le Coton” (English: “A Cowboy in High Cotton”), a 2020 issue of the comic book series “Lucky Luke”.
  • He was the subject of Gary Paulsen’s 2008 book “The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West”.
Bass Reeves

Born into slavery, and overcoming barriers set up by either law or prejudice, Bass Reeves was praised as a fearless and incorruptible lawman in the Western frontier.

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