Bass Reeves: Real-Life Legend

One of the greatest western legends that actually lived was the black lawman Bass Reeves. He served as a US Deputy Marshal under “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in Oklahoma, arresting over three thousand law breakers in his thirty-two year career.

Reeves was born in July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. He was the slave of Col. William Reeves, who would take his entire outfit to Texas in 1846. In Texas, Bass learned to shoot and ride, and eventually became the valet to George Reeves, son of the Colonel. George became a man of some importance in Texas. He started his political career by serving as a tax collector and sheriff of Grayson County, Texas. After the war, he became a legislator and eventually the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

When the War for Southern Independence broke out, George Reeves organized a company within the 11th Texas Calvary. He later became the second Colonel of the 11th Texas after the first one was killed. When George went off to war, he brought Bass Reeves along with him in the capacity of valet. However, many of the African-American servants attached to Confederate officers also participated in battles as well. Bass was tall, strong, and naturally courageous, so it is safe to assume that he saw combat in the Confederate military. After the war, he claimed to have fought in the battles of Pea Ridge, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. His great-grandnephew believes he did fight at Pea Ridge. However, he disputes the fact that Reeves was still with the Confederate army at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge.

In any event, Bass got into a serious disagreement with his master, Col. George Reeves, over a game of cards, and reportedly gave him a good thrashing. To avoid punishment, Bass fled to present-day Oklahoma, which was then called Indian Territory. While in the Territory, he lived with the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole Indians. The Indians taught him Native American languages and tracking skills. According to one rumor, he organized and led a group of Indian soldiers for the Union army.

After the war had ended, Bass went to Arkansas, started farming, and married a Texas girl, Nellie Jennie. For almost a decade, he farmed and raised children, with occasional stints as a scout and guide for U.S. Marshals venturing into Indian Territory.

The exact legal jurisdiction of Indian Territory wasn’t clear in any way. No settlers were supposed to be there, for it was supposed to be a haven for the Indians (this changed in 1889 when it was opened up for settlement). Though called a territory, Congress never passed an Organic Act to organize the area as a true territory. The result was that the Federal Government technically exercised legal control over Oklahoma, but was without the means to enforce much of anything, which was only worsened by corrupt judges. All of the Indian tribes had their own governments and judicial systems, but with the limitation that they could not apprehend and punish non-members of their tribe. Indian Territory became a haven for criminals of all stripes.

Finally, enough was enough, and in 1875 “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker assumed control of the court of the Western District of Arkansas, which included Indian Territory. One of his first acts was to authorize the hiring of 200 deputies, one of whom would be Bass Reeves. Reeves was an excellent choice, as he knew the land and the Indians, was a remarkable shot and tracker, and had seen military service.

Reeves served for 32 years, arresting over 3,000 convicts and killing 14 in the line of duty. (3,000 arrests breaks down to an average of 1 every 3 to 4 days) He never learned to read, but his memory was very strong. Before setting out on a manhunt, he would have someone read each of his warrants to him. Reeves memorized both the contents and the identity of each warrant, and then disappeared into Indian Territory to serve them. He would work in disguise when necessary, often showing up as a broken-down tramp or a criminal on the run. He always let the criminals start the shooting, and yet he never lost a gunfight!

On one occasion, he went after the Brunter brothers. They found him first and ambushed him, making fun of the “Indomitable Marshal”. Reeves ignored their drawn guns, and asked them for the date. “Why?” they queried. Reeves said that that he had to date their arrest warrants. The outlaws melted down in laughter at the thought that the lawman they were about to kill still thought he was going to haul them off to jail! Reeves responding by slapping a pistol barrel down, shooting two of the brothers, and then pistol-whipping the third.

Reeves was a man of sterling character and unflinching devotion to duty. His son had murdered his wife in a domestic dispute, and a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. Reeves took it and served the warrant on his son, bringing him back for a trial and sentencing. Young Reeves was eventually released for being a model prisoner, and reportedly maintained his good character for the rest of his life.

Bass Reeves retired in 1907, and served for two years as a policeman in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He died of complications of Bright’s disease in 1910.

There has been some speculation about Bass Reeves being the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Although a couple hundred websites make this claim, the only known source is the definitive biography of Reeves by Art Burton. In the book, he wonders (and says that he is only theorizing) if Reeves was the inspiration behind the Lone Ranger, and offered a number of parallels between them. Further research, however, has thoroughly disproved the idea, especially since a letter from one of the creators of the Lone Ranger radio show explicitly says that he was based on cowboy actor Tom Mix.

According to the Muskogee Phoenix, which ran a couple articles when Reeves died, “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.

“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.”

Source Material:

Art Burton. “Bass Reeves.” National Park Service, 2015.
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Art Burton. “Bass Reeves, (1838-1910). Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Art Burton. “Legacy of Bass Reeves.”
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Martin Grams. “Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth.”
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Jim Wilson. “Frontier Lawman: Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves.” American Riflemen, Feb. 12, 2015.
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Arnaldo. “Bass Reeves.” Biographics.
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bass Reeves.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 8, 2022.
Accessed 12/12/2022 at

Published by Andrew J. Pankratz

Andrew Pankratz is a story-teller, historian, and carpenter. He writes high adventure Christian westerns.

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