Bass Reeves, a former slave, fiercely defended the Old West during his 32-year tenure as deputy U.S. marshal. As the first Black deputy west of the Mississippi River, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 outlaws. An unprecedented feat made possible by Reeves' unconventional methods... the fearless, and fearsome, officer was a master of disguise.
The Early Life of Bass Reeves
Reeves was born into slavery in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. His first name came from his grandfather; his surname came from the man who enslaved their family: William Reeves, an Arkansas state legislator. William moved the household to Grayson County, Texas when Bass was a child. From there, Williams' son George Reeves took ownership of Bass. Until the Civil War began. George went on to fight for the Confederacy and took Bass along with him. But at some point during that time, Bass gained his freedom. The exact order of events is unclear, but there's one gritty story that dominates the lore.
Legend has it that Bass and George got into a heated dispute over a card game and Bass BEAT his enslaver UP! Perhaps emboldened by impending emancipation, Bass then escaped to Indian territory where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminole tribes. There, Bass picked up their languages as well as techniques for tracking and survival which would define his future endeavors as a lawman. Bass returned to settled land, as a freedman, after the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished slavery in 1865. He moved near Van Buren, Arkansas to farm.
Reeves was one of many African Americans who moved to the Wild West during the 19th century. Following the Civil War, freedmen and freedwomen flocked toward the liberation promised in the Wild West. With a high demand for skilled labor, before long, one-quarter of the nation's cowboys were Black. However, Reeves' career would extend far beyond the work of a rancher. He went on to become history's most famous Black deputy U.S. marshal.
Bass Reeves, Peace Officer
Reeves and his family farmed in Arkansas until 1875. That's when James F. Fagan was appointed U.S. marshal of the Indian Territory by federal judge Isaac C. Parker. Fagen, having heard of Reeves' special connection to the local tribes, hired Reeves on as a rare Black deputy for the Western District of Arkansas. Serving within the Indian Territory, Reeves quickly gained a reputation for It did not take long for Reeves to gain a reputation as a highly ambitious -- and highly unique -- officer.
Reeves and his fellow members of law enforcement covered 75,000 square miles for the United States Court at Fort Smith: the nation's largest jurisdiction. Typically, Reeves rode around with Oklahoma range with a small posse, which usually included a Native American companion. Since slaves were not allowed to read or write, Reeves never learned. He would memorize the contents of each warrant, once they were read aloud, then head out with a pocketful having memorized all their contents. From there, Reeves sought out felons using an inventive approach.
He liked to outsmart tough outlaws using various disguises. Once he posed as a beggar, seeking charity from the mother of two known assailants. After having dinner with the family and spending the night, Reeves handcuffed the duped woman's sons while they were sleeping. Another time, Reeves caught a notorious horse thief after blending into the bushes for four days! That altercation led to a fatal shoot-out; the horse thief died. In all, Reeves killed 14 alleged criminals in self-defense throughout his reign as deputy. Seemingly nothing could stop Reeves from acquiring a target.
Once, Reeves even arrested his own son for murder. The young Bennie had been charged with killing his wife. And though it disturbed him, painfully, it was Reeves who resolutely brought Bennie to justice. After the son was captured, he was tried and convicted and sentenced to 11 years at Fort Leavenworth. Reportedly, his sentence was commuted and Bennie lived out his days as a "model citizen."
Reeves was forced into retirement in 1907 after Oklahoma gained statehood. Being Black, he was barred from continuing on as a deputy marshal. Even Reeves' unmatched dedication to the job was no match for the racist policies of the United States government. At that time, Reeves joined the Muskogee Police Department but died just two years later of Bright's disease.
Inspiration for the Lone Ranger?
Perhaps these stories of Reeves' exploits bring a more familiar character to mind: the fictional Lone Ranger. Premiering on the radio in 1933, and later in comic books and on TV, The Lone Ranger -- while admittedly dated -- is deeply embedded in our cultural memory. The distinctive masked folk hero stands for a rigid moral code.
The real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger character has been hotly debated by historians. Some contend that John R. Hughes, the vigilante bounty hunter-turned-Texas ranger was the model. But in 2006, Art T. Burton's biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves posited the theory that it is indeed the legendary frontier marshal who most closely resembles the Lone Ranger. The similarities are literal: both were spiffy dressers, skillful marksmen, and masters of disguise who traveled with Native American companions on white (or grey) horses. Although aspects of Burton's argument have been disputed, his book bolstered the lawman's present-day reputation and contributed to Bass Reeves' enduring badass legacy.
But soon, Reeves' will have his own on-screen moment. One that's not white-washed! The character will appear in the upcoming Netflix Western The Harder They Fall, as portrayed by Delroy Lindo. Directed by Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall will feature other real-life historical figures such as Nat Love (Jonathon Majors), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler). Flexing a star-studded Black cast, the film is billed as a "new school Western" and due out November 2021. We can't wait!
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