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....
Tagged: Bass Reeves
Born into slavery in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, Bass Reeves rose to become one of the most respected and feared U.S. Deputy Marshals in the history of the American West. His life is an extraordinary tale of resilience, determination, and justice.
Bass Reeves was born to a slave named Maria and was owned by a farmer and state legislator named William S. Reeves. As was common with slaves at the time, Bass took the surname of his master. He grew up serving the Reeves family, working as a water boy and later as a field hand. As he came of age, he was made a personal servant of William’s son, George Reeves, a position that exposed him to a different set of skills than typical fieldwork.
Escape to Freedom
During the Civil War, as per some accounts, following a disagreement with George, possibly over a card game, Bass Reeves struck his master and escaped to the Indian Territory, where he lived among the Creek and Seminole tribes. Here, he learned their languages and customs, becoming a proficient tracker and marksman, skills that would serve him well in his future career.
Post Civil War Era
After the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation had been passed, Bass Reeves left the Indian Territory and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he settled as a free man. He married, started a family, and worked as a farmer.
Becoming a Deputy U.S. Marshal
In 1875, Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory, tasked with bringing law and order to the region. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan knew of Reeves’s intimate knowledge of the territory, his linguistic abilities, and his marksmanship. Thus, Bass Reeves was hired as one of the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River.
Achievements as a Deputy
- Impressive Track Record: During his tenure as a marshal, Reeves arrested over 3,000 felons and brought them to justice. He was known to always get his man, earning a reputation for his tenacity and sense of duty.
- Survival Against Odds: Despite the numerous attempts on his life and the inherent dangers of his job, Reeves was never wounded, a testament to his skills and intelligence.
- Fair and Just: Reeves was known to be incredibly fair, often buying meals for those he arrested and treating them with respect.
- Master of Disguise: He often used disguises and subterfuge to track down fugitives, once disguising himself as a preacher to arrest a suspect.
- Personal Challenges: Reeves faced personal tragedies, including having to arrest his own son for the murder of his wife. Despite the personal anguish, Reeves carried out his duty, showcasing his unwavering commitment to the law.
Later Years and Legacy
Bass Reeves served as a U.S. Deputy Marshal for 32 years until 1907, when Oklahoma became a state. Due to the racial dynamics of the time, he couldn’t continue in his role and joined the Muskogee Police Department, serving for two years before his health began to decline.
Reeves passed away in 1910, but his legacy lived on. While not as well known as some of his contemporaries, recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in his life. Historians now recognize him as possibly the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi and one of the greatest lawmen of the Wild West.
It’s also believed by some historians that Reeves was the inspiration for the iconic fictional character, the Lone Ranger. The popular TV and radio series featured a masked Texas Ranger who fought outlaws in the American Old West. While the direct connection between Reeves and the Lone Ranger remains debated, the similarities between the two, from their sense of justice to their use of disguises, are undeniable.
Bass Reeves’s life is a testament to overcoming adversity. Born into slavery, he rose to become a symbol of justice in the Wild West. Through sheer determination, skill, and integrity, he carved a niche for himself in a world that was often hostile to him because of his race. His legacy serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration, proving that with the right attitude and a commitment to justice, one can break through any barriers.