Black History Month: Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves

(July 1838 – January 12th, 1910)

5th - Bass Reeves

  [su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]

  • The 1st Black Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi River
  • One of the greatest frontier heroes in America’s history
  • Fluent in several Indian (Native American) languages
  • Incredible marksman; could shoot a pistol or rifle with either the right or left hand
  • One of the most effective lawmen around, despite his illiteracy
  • Received legendary status for the number of criminals captured
  • Arrested his own son for murder


The Runaway Slave Who Became Fluent In Many Native American Languages

Bass Reeves was born a slave in 1838, in Crawford County, Arkansas. He was originally owned by George Reeves, but later given to George’s son, William Reeves. Bass moved to Grayson County, Texas in 1846 along with his owners, the Reeves family.

In regard to him becoming a fugitive (runaway) slave, there are a couple versions to the story. One version claims that after a card game with his master, William Reeves, William attacked him after losing. Then in self-defense, Bass fought him, and beat him within an inch of his life. Bass then fled, knowing that he would be killed if he stayed. The second version is that Bass heard too much about “freeing the slaves,” got fed up and ran. Either way, there is one thing clear, he was a slave who escaped the confines of his master.

Bass ending up fleeing to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to seek refuge. There he lived with the Seminole and Creek Indians until the end of the Civil War. He also learned to speak quite a few Native American languages fluently while there. After the Civil War ended, and slavery was abolished, he was no longer a fugitive slave and moved back to Arkansas. He purchased land near Van Buren, Arkansas and became a successful farmer. About a year later he married a woman named Nellie Jennie, and they went on to have 10 children; 5 boys and 5 girls. He farmed there until 1875, when he was recruited as a US Marshal.

How the Legend Was Born

5th - Bass Reeves - group pic In 1875, US Marshal James F. Fagan, was instructed to hire 200 deputy US Marshals; he hired Reeves to fill one of the positions. Reeves was unable to read or write, but this didn’t hinder him in any way! To overcome his handicap, he would have someone read him the warrants before heading out to apprehend criminals. He would take his time by remembering which warrant was for who, and when asked to produced a warrant, he did, correctly, every time!

The tales of his captures are legendary – filled with intrigue, imagination, and pure courage! He was an incredible marksman with the ability to shoot both a pistol and a rifle with either the right or left hand. He was such a good shot that there was an informal ban preventing him from entering shooting competitions. He was a noted sharp dresser, always donning his large black hat and freshly shined boots, with a polite and courteous demeanor. However, when the time came to play his mark, he was the master of disguise, and used many aliases. Some of his disguises included a cowboy, farmer, gunslinger, and an outlaw.

Reeves would often leave Fort Smith, Arkansas with a pocket full of memorized warrants, returning months later herding a number of outlaws charged with crimes ranging from bootlegging to murder. He brought fugitives into the Fort Smith federal jail by the dozen! The largest number of outlaws he apprehended at one time was 19 horse thieves. In 1887, he was tried for the murder of his trail cook, but was acquitted. In 1890, he arrested the notorious Seminole outlaw, Greenleaf, who murdered seven people and had been on the run for 18 years without capture. In the same year, he went after famous Cherokee outlaw, Ned Christie, but Ned got away. Hey, he couldn’t catch ’em all, but you can’t blame him for trying. In 1893, he was transferred to East Texas federal court in Paris, Texas. There he broke up the Tom Story gang who operated in the Red River valley.

One of the most infamous cases is when there was an arrest warrant for his son, Bennie, for the murder of his wife (Reeves’ daughter-in-law). None of the other deputies wanted to take it because it was Reeves’ son. Reeves, was like forget all that, right is right! He went after him and brought him in; Bennie was later convicted and sent to federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. By the end of his career, Reeves killed 14 outlaws, and captured more than 3,000 – he never killed an outlaw that he didn’t have to.


Paying Homage to a Great American Hero

There has been much speculation in the recent years about Bass Reeves. It has been brought to the attention of the people, that his life inspired the fictional character, The Lone Ranger. The people that have been looking into this are noting a lot of similarities between Reeves and the Lone Ranger. However, more research needs to be done to provide conclusive evidence, which there may never be. For those who know Bass Reeves’ and the Lone Ranger’s stories well, may find solace in knowing that this man inspired a character which has been depicted for many years. However, one thing is for sure, he was one of the greatest American frontier heroes that all races can respectively look up to.

Reeves ended his career in 1909 when he became sick with Bright’s disease; he later died on January 12, 1910.

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