Bass Reeves is famously known as the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. A majority of his work was performed in Arkansas and the then Oklahoma Territory. It’s noted that in his long career, he had more than 3,000 arrests of criminals, killing 14 in self-defense. Arrests included his own son for murder and his minister for selling illegal whiskey.
Bass was born in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas to slave parents. He’s considered to be the greatest frontier heroes of our nation’s history.
When Bass was younger, he was owned by William Reeves who was both a farmer and politician. Bass took the surname of his owner, which wasn’t uncommon for slaves at that time. His first name was from his grandfather, Basse Washington. Young Bass Reeves worked as a water boy and as he got older, he was a field hand working with his parents. Around 1846, William Reeves relocated with his family and slaves to Grayson County, Texas.
During the Civil War, Bass escaped. After being “freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Bass relocated from the Indian Territory to Van Buren, Arkansas where he bought some land becoming successful as a rancher and farmer. Bass married a woman from Texas named Nellie Jennie and together they raised 5 girls and 5 boys.
When the Federal Western District Court relocated to Fort Smith, Arkansas, Isaac C. Parker was appointed as a judge on May 10, 1875. With the Indian Territory not being under any federal or state jurisdiction, criminal activity was heavy because criminals were hiding out there.
Bass eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal working for Judge Parker due to his knowledge of the territory and because he could also speak tribal languages. Bass would cover a lot of mileage on his large white stallion in both Indian and Oklahoma territories looking for outlaws who would be returned to Judge Parker’s court. Bass was known to be well-dressed and polite. He would sometimes disguise himself as a farmer, outlaw, or tramp and carried two Colt pistols. He would serve his warrants, bring in the criminals, get paid his money, and then spend time with his family before hitting the trails again.
In 1887, Bass was accused and charged with murdering a posse cook. He was tried in Judge Parker’s court and eventually acquitted.
One highlight in Bass’ career was finding outlaw, Bob Dozier, who committed all types of crimes including bank and stagecoach robbing to murder. Dozier was hard to catch and for months remained out of Bass’ sight until he was finally located hiding out in Cherokee Nation. On December 20, 1878, Dozier was killed by Bass in a gunfight after refusing to surrender.
In 1890, Reeves arrested a Seminole outlaw named Greenleaf, who had murdered seven people and been on the run for 18 years. The same year, Reeves went after the famous Cherokee outlaw Ned Christie. Reeves and his posse burned Christie’s cabin, but he eluded capture. Source.
In 1896, Bass’ wife passed away in Fort Smith. In 1897, Bass was transferred to Muskogee federal court in Indian Territory and three years later, he remarried to Winnie Sumter.
Probably the most emotionally challenging hunt Bass performed was in 1902 when he was searching for his son, Bennie, who was charged for killing his wife resulting from jealousy. His son was tried and convicted. He spent his time at a Kansas penitentiary in Leavenworth. Having an exemplary prison record, he was eventually pardoned living out the “rest of his life as a model citizen.”
In 1907, Bass was relieved of his duty as deputy marshal when the state agencies assumed law enforcement. From then, he became a patrolman for the Muskogee, Oklahoma Police Department.
'Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the deadline,” and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track, he took his own life in his hands, and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the deadline, they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards, which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days, such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails.'– Oklahoma City newspaper article, 1907. Source.
Bass spent 32 years as a deputy marshal without being able to read or write. According to author and historian, Art Burton, who is considered an international expert on Bass Reeves was reported as saying "Bass was so tough. If he spit on a brick it would break."
'Bass Reeves was pretty much a phenomenon,' Burton said. 'He was six feet two and 190 pounds, and they said he could whip any two men with his bare hands. If you got into a gunfight with Bass Reeves, it was tantamount to committing suicide.' Source.
According to News 9 out of Oklahoma, Burton has optioned the rights to his book about Bass Reeves to Morgan Freeman and that Freeman has been wanting to work on a project about Bass for a long time.
Although some historians disagree, Burton believes Bass Reeves was the inspiration of the Lone Ranger. It's all in his book 'Black Gun, Silver Star.' Source.
Aside from being a subject in books, Bass has been portrayed in television, film, and theatre. In 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it, we got nuthin.— Bass Reeves.
When Bass was diagnosed with Bright’s disease (now known as Nephritis, a disease of the kidneys), he left a career to where he was sick and bedridden until he died on January 12, 1910. Bass was buried in the Agency Cemetery at Muskogee, Oklahoma. Interestingly, according to the Find a Grave site, his gravesite is “not labeled and is actually on someone's private residential property.”