It is thought he was born in Texas or Arkansas in 1838. Bass Reeves was born a slave in July 1838. His owners, the William S. Reeves family, moved to Grayson County, Texas, in 1846. In a fight with his master, Bass whupped him good and fled to Indian Territory. During the civil war, Bass, as a fugitive slave found refuge in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) amongst the Creek and Seminole Indians. Reeves is believed to have served with the irregular or regular Union Indians that fought in Indian Territory during the Civil War. In the 1870 census he is married and working on his farm in Van Buren, Arkansas.
Later, as an adult, he stood six feet two inches tall and weighed 180 pounds - he was an imposing figure, a lawman to be feared and a man who was legendary in the territory. A police chief once noted, "The veteran Negro deputy never quailed in facing any man."
Bass Reeves was often called "one of the bravest men this country has ever known." As a Deputy U.S. Marshal whose devotion to duty was beyond reproach, he was honored posthumously with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame's "Great Westerner" at a Western Heritage Award program.
Reeves was one of 200 Deputy U.S. Marshals hired by Judge Isaac C. Parker in 1875 to track down criminals in western Arkansas and Indian Territory. This lawless area of Oklahoma was a virtual refuge for criminals. Many Indians who lived in the Territory had a distrust of white lawmen, of which some were quite abusive of their power. Indians often trusted blacks more than they did whites. Some were on governing councils and some towns even had black chiefs. Parker considered Bass Reeves a good man for the tough job of a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Reeves had bragged of how well he knew the Indian Territory, helping in the judge’s decision. His experience as a scout and tracker rounded out the qualifications. Reeves was the first African American deputy marshal commissioned west of the Mississippi River and he served 35 years in the office. His reputation was unspotted.
When Reeves began riding for Judge Parker, the jurisdiction covered more than 75,000 square miles. The deputies from Fort Smith rode to Fort Reno, Fort Sill and Anadarko, a round trip of more than eight hundred miles.
Reeves always wore a large black hat with a straight trim that was slightly upturned in the front. He often carried his guns in many different ways. He was particularly noted for wearing two Colt revolvers, calibrated for the .38-.40 cartridge, butt forward for a fast draw. When a rifle was called for, he used his fine Winchester rifle, chambered for the same .38-.40 cartridge. He was an expert with pistols and rifles, both right and left handed.
Reeves figured there were three principal classes of outlaws in the territory: murderers, horse thieves and whiskey bootleggers. Added to the Indians and mixed Africans were the white outlaws who had fled from Texas, Kansas and other states.
As early as 1878, the Reeves starts appearing in Ft. Smith and Indian Territory newspapers. He was working in Parker court at the time of the execution of James Diggs, who had been wanted for years. He assisted in the capture of the outlaw Bob Dozier. In 1883 the Ft. Smith Elevator describe Reeves involvement in the capture of Johnson Jacks. In 1884, the Elevator described his effort in bringing a load of prisoners from Indian Territory. Later in ‘84, Reeves received pres in the Muskogee Indian Journal.
One trip found Reeves in pursuit of two young outlaws in the Red River Valley of the Chickasaw Nation. Reeves studied the many ways in which he might capture them and snare the $5,000 reward. He formed a posse and headed to where the two men hiding from the law. Reeves camped about 30 miles from them to keep from being spotted and reconnoiter. He then disguised himself as a tramp, he removing the heels from a old pair of shoes, carried a cane, concealed his handcuffs, pistol and badge under his clothes and wore a floppy old hat into which he had shot three bullet holes. Thus disguised, Reeves started out on foot in the direction of the outlaws' probable hideout, the home of their mother. Greeted at the door by her, he complained of how his feet hurt from days afoot. He pointed out how the posse “pursuing him” had shot holes in his hat. He asked for some food, and she invited him in. Reeves told her this was the first opportunity he had to stop after being pursued by a posse. She invited Reeves into her home, gladly fed him and even proceeded to telling him of her outlaw sons. When Reeves finished eating, he feigned weariness and asked to stay a while longer. She consented and said, "It would be a good plan that you and my two boys join forces so you can be a protection to one another."
After the sun had gone down, Reeves heard a sharp whistle from the nearby creek. The woman went outside and gave an answer. Two riders rode up and had a lengthy conversation with her. When they finally came into the house, she introduced Reeves to her sons as another outlaw. The boys agreed the trio should join forces for theft and plunder. When they prepared to go to bed, a place in a separate room was made for Reeves. But he immediately suggested they all sleep in one room, saying "something might happen and if we are separated we couldn't be much protection to one another." While in bed, Reeves kept a watchful eye on the boys. As soon as the outlaws were asleep, Reeves left his bed and managed to handcuff the pair without awaking them. He waited until early morning before he kicked the boys from their sleep and said, "Come on, boys, let's get going from here." When the two boys finally got the sleep out of their eyes, they realized they were in the hands of the law. As Reeves started out with his prisoners, the mother followed him for three miles, cursing him and calling him all sorts of vile names. The boys were forced to walk the full twenty-eight miles to Reeves' camp, where his posse was waiting for him to deliver the outlaws and claim his reward.
No manhunt was harder for him than the one involving his own son who was charged with murder. After he returned with son he was sent to Leavenworth Prison at the end of a trial. With a citizen's petition and an exemplary prison record, his son was pardoned and lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.
When Bass Reeves died, January 12, 1910, the Muskogee Phoenix wrote of the legendary lawman:
"Bass Reeves is dead. He passed away yesterday afternoon about three o'clock and in a short time news of his death had reached the federal courthouse where it recalled to the officers and clerks many incidents in the early days of the United States in which the old Negro deputy figured heroically. Bass Reeves had completed thirty-five years' service as a deputy marshal when, with the coming of statehood at the age of sixty-nine, he gave up his position. For about two years he then served on the Muskogee Police Force, a post he gave up about a year ago on account of sickness, from which he never fully recovered... In the history of the early days of Eastern Oklahoma the name of Bass Reeves has a place in the front rank among those who cleansed out the old Indian Territory of outlaws and desperadoes. No story of the conflict of government's officers with those outlaws, which ended only a few years ago with the rapid filling up of the territory with people, can be complete without mention of the Negro who died yesterday."
"For thirty-five years, beginning way back in the seventies and ending in 1907, Bass Reeves was a Deputy United States Marshal. During that time he was sent to arrest some of the most desperate characters that ever infested Indian Territory and endangered life and peace in its borders. And he got his man as often as any of the deputies. At times he was unable to get them alive and so in the course of his long service he killed 14 men. But Bass Reeves always said that he never shot a man when it was not necessary for him to do so in the discharge of his duty to save his own life."
"Reeves served under seven United States marshals and all of them were more than satisfied with his services. Everybody who came in contact with the Negro deputy in an official capacity had a great deal of respect for him, and at the court house in Muskogee one can hear stories of his devotion to duty, his unflinching courage and his many thrilling experiences. And although he could not write or read, he always took receipts and had his accounts in good shape..."
"Reeves had many narrow escapes. At different times his belt was shot in two. a button shot off his coat, his hat brim shot off and the bridle rein which he held in his hand cut by a bullet. However, in spite of all these narrow escapes and the many conflicts in which he was engaged, Reeves was never wounded. This, in spite of the fact that he never fired a shot until the desperado he was trying to arrest had started the shooting."
Nine decades after his death, Bass Reeves is still considered one of the truly great American frontier heroes. The legend of Bass Reeves will live as long as people recall stories of bravery and courage in the American West.
Reeves worked until Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, at which time he became a city policeman for Muskogee. He died of Bright’s disease on January 12, 1910.
For additional information:
Burton, Art. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
———. Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1875–1907. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1991.
Ironically, he lies today in an unknown spot in or near Muskogee Oklahoma. It is believed that he may lie in Agency Cemetery, that is an abandoned cemetery in Muskogee now without access from public roads. Hopefully a movement may someday surface to restore this black resting ground, where persons such as Bass Reeves and those of his caliber can receive honor from their descendants.
In 2008, the bridge crossing the Arkansas river connecting Muskogee with Fort Gibson, was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge in Reeves' honor.