“Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin’.” – Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, 1838-1910
The history of the Old West is filled with legends. Being the peculiar time it was, both outlaws and lawmen were openly praised for their heroic acts. Dime novels flew off the shelves, especially after the West was tamed, with young boys eager to read about that daring and adventurous time. Names such as Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Butch and Sundance, are familiar to us because of the movies and merchandising of their lives. But, there were heroes in that old time that have only recently begun to surface; Bass Reeves being one of them.
Bass Reeves was both quite the Mo Bro (it is #Movember after all), quite the man, and quite the badass. His story is astonishing, and though he was black, some believe he was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
- Each month we pick a man of history we find particularly interesting and write an article or two about him. See more Man of the Month articles here. -
From Straight-Shooting Slave to Freeman
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas, 1838, and grew to be a tall, broad-shouldered man. His owner, William Reeves, was a state legislator and had a son, George Reeves with whom Bass was paired up as a personal servant. When the Civil War broke out, George was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army, moved to Texas, and, ironically, brought Bass along with him; Bass fighting in several battles. From most accounts it seems that Bass and George were actually cordial, though, when Bass had the opportunity, he fled the army, fled his master, and went to the unsettled area now known as Oklahoma. Like many runaway slaves and outlaws, Reeves lived with and around the Indians, learning their languages — five languages actually — and learning their customs.
Some accounts of Reeves sharpshooting begin when he was a slave. It is said that his master, having apparently witnessed Bass’ skill, would enter him into shooting competitions for which Reeves would come out the victor more often than not. Other accounts say Reeves developed this skill while living among the Indians. Regardless of when his marksmanship was honed, by the time the war ended and Lincoln pronounced him a free man, 22 year old Reeves was a sure shot.
Rather than heading to the North East, Reeves returned to Arkansas, married a Texan woman by the name of Nellie Jennie, built a home from scratch, had 10 children — five boys and five girls — and became a farmer and guide to the Indian territories. By the age of 38, Bass had already lived a legendary life. He had earned his stay in the world many times over. However, as with many heroes, he was not content to simply, as Langston Hughes would later write, “stay black and die.”
Bass Reeves – Deputy U.S. Marshal
After the Civil War, Manifest Destiny was on the minds of the expanding United States. The push westward was occurring at such an alarming rate that civil order could not be established in an area before a town popped up. As gold or silver was found and word spread, boomtowns began to form without the ability to secure themselves from bandits, leaving the door open to bank robberies, murders, shootings, and Indian attacks. There were a lot of outlaws and a lot of places for them to hide, and men like Bass Reeves were in short supply.
In 1875 Reeves was deputized as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. As such, he had the right to serve warrants, arrest, and collect the fees for both white and black criminals. He also had the right to shoot to kill, which he could most certainly accomplish. Reeves was known to be ambidextrous, and as accurate with one hand as the other. He carried a rifle and two Colt .45 revolvers facing but-out. This type of setup required a cross-handed draw and some serious wrist strength to flick the pistols forward and onto their targets. At 6’2″ and a muscular 200lbs, Reeves was an intimidating man.
Reeves would head out on the hunt for months at a time, often returning with a half a dozen to a dozen wanted men, bound in chains. He would drop them off at Fort Smith Arkansas to see “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker, head home for a bit, and then back out again. Reeves never learned to read or write but had an incredible memory. Before going on the hunt, he would have someone read out dozens of warrants. He would then recount the details of each perfectly. More than once he used his illiteracy as a ruse. Once, when caught off-guard by two gunmen, they told him to get down from his horse. He knew what was coming next. He asked them if they would grant him a last request and read a letter his wife had sent him, as he could not. The men were not the best of readers, either, and as they gathered around to look at the letter, which was apparently not from his wife but rather some piece of paper he had picked up, Reeves drew his gun and got the drop on em’.
Master of Disguise
Some of the best tales of Bass Reeves involve him in various disguises. On one occasion, Reeves shot a few holes in his hat, dressed up as a ragged fugitive on the lam, and walked 28 miles to the home of the mother of two outlaws for which he was in pursuit. Seeing that Reeves was in a precarious situation, she let him in and sent him upstairs. Before too long she was telling him how her boys were also on the run from the law. The next day, the sons showed up and were introduced to Reeves. Hearing his false tales of “law breaking”, they decided it would be best for them to team up. Later than night, when the two brothers were sleeping, Reeves retrieved his guns and iron cuffs, snuck into their bedroom and put the irons on them. He walked them back to town, with their mother cursing him for 3 of the 28 miles.
Arresting His Son for Murder
I can’t imagine a more sad and humiliating scene. In 1902, Benny Reeves, Bass’ son, was accused in the killing of his wife. Benny fled to the badlands, and, with no other Marshals willing to purse, Bass was left to retrieve his son himself. How this actually went down is lost to history, but Bass brought in his son, unharmed. Benny was convicted of his crime and sentenced to 20 years in prison, for which he served 10, getting out on good behavior, and leading an honest life afterwards.
3,000 Arrests in His Career
Over the 32 years Bass Reeves served as Deputy U.S. Marshall he brought in over 3,000 criminals, dwarfing the records by more famous lawmen such as Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson. In that time he only killed 14 men, each in self-defense, and was never shot, though he had a few near misses. His name was so well known that often, when outlaws would hear that Bass was on their trail, they would simply turn themselves in. In all of those years, Bass remained fair to the men he went after. In more than one instance he confronted men with a gun drawn on him. Rather than draw and shoot them when the opportunity presented itself, Bass would talk them down and take em’ in.
He retired in 1907 at the age of 68 and died 3 years later of Bright’s disease.
Unfortunately, the lives of black men in the days of the Old West were not well recorded, even if they were men of outstanding character. We have few photos and few artifacts remaining of Bass Reeves but his legend lives on. His story is all the more remarkable considering the racism, the lingering North vs. South tension, the sheer number of men he arrested and the harrowing circumstances in which he did so…Bass Reeves was nothing short of amazing.
Prior to 1900, historian D.C. Gideon interviewed Bass Reeves and afterwards had the following to say:
“Among the numerous deputy marshals who have ridden for the Fort Smith, Arkansas, Paris, Texas and Indian Territory Courts, none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee. Bass is a stalwart Negro, fifty years of age, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet and two inches in his stockings and fears nothing that moves and breathes. His long, muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired only after years of practice. Several ‘Bad’ men have gone to their long home for refusing to halt, when commanded to by Bass.”
More About Bass Reeves
There are a number of resources containing various bits of Reeves’ story. I enjoyed Bill O’Reilly’s book, Legends and Lies, in which there is a chapter on Reeves. The following online sources cover nearly the same details as the book, though in a less story-like fashion.