Bass Reeves was born around 1838, in Texas or Arkansas, to parents who were slaves of a Master named Reeves. It was customary for slaves to take the surname of their master, so the family were known as Reeves also. Bass’s mother worked in the kitchen, and his father was a house servant. Bass was an active little boy, constantly underfoot in the big house, and he was a favorite. When Bass came of age he became the personal servant of Master Reeves. With the advent of the Civil War Master Reeves assumed the duties of a Confederate Officer, taking Bass with him as his man.
Bass evidently had no fear of his white superiors and evidently was treated almost as an equal. One evening during the course of a card game an augment arose which came to blows. Bass threw a punch which left his master out cold on the ground. As it was a hanging offense for a slave to strike his master, Bass felt it in his best interest to flee the scene.
Bass fled to the Indian Territories, where he joined the tribes in the Cherokee-Siminole Nations. There he honed the skills in tracking and scouting that would serve him so well later in life. He became a proficient shot with the pistols and rifles, in fact later he would be barred from shooting in Turkey Shoots. One author stated that Bass participated in the Civil War with the Cherokee Battalions.
When the war ended and blacks were freed he moved to western Kentucky where he married and had a son and daughter. Bass did a little farming, but supplemented his income substantially by preforming duties for various peace officers as a scout and tracker. His service also included enforcement things as small as petty misdemeanors to murder.
In 1875 Judge Isaac C. Parker, assumed jurisdiction of the Fort Smith, Arkansas Federal Court. This was 75,00 square miles of pure hell. It was known as “The Indian Territory”, comprising what is now Oklahoma and Western Arkansas. This was the home of all the Indians who had been transplanted from their eastern homes, and a refuge for criminals of every description. Towns and villages were few and far between with little in the way of communication. The Indians had no jurisdiction other than their own. And the lawless elements were free to roam as they pleased, with no one to monitor them.
Judge Parker began by appointing some 200 Deputy U. S. Marshalls, some we have already met in previous chapters — Heck Thomas (Ned Cristie), Bill Tighman (little Britches and Cattle Annie, The Doolin Gang). Judge Parker was eager to enlist good black marshals when he could. The Indians had a natural distrust of the white deputies, some had abused their powers, and the Indians often trusted Black Deputies more than their white counterparts. There had been black freemen in the Five Civilized Tribes for years. In some instances blacks had served as Indian Police, and had served on tribal councils for years. Even in several towns blacks had been chiefs.
When Bass Reeves was called to Judge Parker’s attention he was delighted. He felt that as a black marshal this man who boasted that “he knew the Indian territory like a woman knows her kitchen” would be a wise investment.
Bass was a natty dresser, his boots were always polished to a glossy shine, he favored a wide straight brimmed black hat with just slight upturn in the front. One old timer stated that Bass wore his pistols in different fashions but favored them with the butts facing forward. He carried a pair of 38-40 Colts, and liked a Winchester Carbine in the same caliber.
(This was common as you only need to carry one size of shells. I at one time in my younger years owned a 38-40 Winchester model 92, saddle ring carbine. A real little piece of history in my hands. For the information of those who do not know a 38-40 cartridge has a .38 cal. bullet set into a necked down .40 cal. case. I didn’t care for it because the bullet dropped 30″ in 300 yards. At the time I was young and thought every thing I saw in the movies was the way it was — 300 yards is a long way for a pistol calibre bullet to go.) nuff rambling from the story…
Bass had one drawback if you can fault him – He could not read. He would have someone read the warrants to him, then he would tuck them into this coat pocket. He never failed to produce the correct warrant when the time came. A Deputy U. S. Marshal from Fort Smith rode a circuit to Fort Reno, Fort Sill, and Aradarko – a round trip of some eight hundred miles. When a trip of this length was started a marshal took a wagon, a cook and usually a posse-man or two. When an outlaw was captured he was added to the train, thus the posse-men were responsible for their keep.
Now Bass was such a imposing figure, six feet tall and hefty, with his soon climbing repution, he resorted to disguises. Dressing as drover, outlaw, cowboy, farmer or gunman as the situation called for. His huge black stallion he favored was a dead give away, so he always took a string of several less impressive horses with him. Nothing screamed lawman like a really nice horse.
The Missouri, Kansas and Texas (MK&T) Railroad marked the western fringe of civilization. Some eighty miles west of Fort Smith was “the dead line”. When a deputy from Fort Smith of Parris, Texas crossed “the dead line” they were most likely be killed. To Reeves “the dead line” was a stimulating challenge.
Reeves classes outlaws into three classifications – horse thieves, murderers and whiskey bootleggers. These were comprised of Indians, mixed Africans and white outlaws who where in hiding from Texas, Kansas, Missouri and other states in all quite a mix.
Reeves was often praised in the news papers, on November 19,1909, the Muskogee (Oklahoma) Times Democrate wrote: ” In the early days when the Indian country was overridden with outlaws, Reeves would herd into Fort Smith, often singlehanded, bands of men charged with crimes from bootlegging to murder. He was paid fees in those days that sometimes amounted to thousands of dollars for a single trip. . . trips that sometimes lasted for months.”
Reeves was in pursuit of two young outlaws in the Red River valley of the Chickasaw Nation. He studied the many ways he might snare them and collect the $5,000 reward. He heard they were hiding near the Texas border.
He gathered together his posse and wagon, and proceeded to near where he suspected them to be. Making camp some twenty-eight miles from the site he carefully reconnoitered the area. Then, posing as a tramp, he walked the whole twenty-eight miles toward the probable hide out. Wearing an old pair of shoes with the heel removed, carrying a cane and beat-up old hat – hand-cuffs, pistol and badge concealed.
He showed up at the door of the outlaws mother’s house hungry and wore out. When she greeted him at the door, he asked for a bite to eat and complained how much his feet hurt after walking so far. He said this was the first time he had had a chance to stop after shaking the posse that had pursued him .
She invited him in and fed him, and began telling him about her sons who were outlaws. When Bass finished eating he feigned weariness and asked to rest awhile longer. The mother told him it would be a good plan for him to join forces with her boys so they could protect each other.
When the sun was low in the west, Bass heard a sharp whistle from the nearby creek. The mother went outside and answered in the same fashion. Soon two riders came up and had a lengthily conversation with the mother. When they came into the house she introduced them as her outlaw sons and Bass as an outlaw to them.
Over the dinner she prepared for them the trio swapped tales of their adventures. It was decided they would join forces and rob and plunder together. The mother began to prepare a separate room for Bass, but he suggested they all sleep in the same room, that way if anything were to happen they would all be together and avoid any confusion.
While pretending to fall into a exhausted sleep, Bass kept a close watch on the boys. As soon as he was sure they were sound asleep he arose and carefully handcuffed both without awaking then. He waited until early morning before kicking them awake saying, “Come on boys let’s get out of here.” It was not until they got the sleep out of their eyes that they realized they were in he hands of the law.
As Reeves started off with his prisoners the mother followed for three miles, cursing him and calling him all sorts of vile names for abusing her trust. The young outlaws were forced to walk the twenty_eight miles to where Reeve’s posse camp was located.
By 1901, Reeves had arrested more than three-hundred men and women in his service as a Deputy U. S. Marshall. But the hardest was yet to come.
Reeves delivered two prisoners to the federal jail in Muskogee. The two were part of a trio who ambushed him deep in the Creek Nation. He killed one and persuaded the other to surrender. He felt he needed a good rest, But it was not to be.
Marshal Leo Bennett, Reeves supervisor, had another warrant to be served. Bennett had to break the news to Bass. His own son had murdered his own wife and was hiding in the Indian Territory. Bennett wanted to bring in the younger Reeves alive, if possible. The warrant had lay on his desk for two days, All the deputies were afraid they would be handed the task.
Bass was visibly shaken by this tragedy, When Bennett suggested that he should give the warrent to someone else, Reeves demanded he be handed the job. He felt it was his own responsibly to bring in his own son. Knowing it would be the hardest deed he ever tackled.
Almost two week passed before Bass returned to Muskogee with his son. After his trial, the younger Reeves was sent to Leavenworth Prison. With a citizens petition and an exemplary prison record , Reeves’ son was pardoned and lived the test of his life as a model citizen.
Upon his retirement from Federal service after thirty-five years of legendary service, Reeves senior had a whole host of stories to tell his eight children and numerous grandchildren.
Bass Reeves served under seven U. S. Marshals and all of them were more than pleased with his outstanding service. He could not bring them all in alive, in the course he killed fourteen men. Bass Reeves always said he never shot a man that was not necessary.
He had many narrow escapes – he had his belt shot off, several buttons blown away, his hat brim shot to peices and his bridle cut in two near his hand, But never was he wounded.
Nine decades after his death, Bass Reeves is still considered one of the truly great American frontier hero’s. The legend of Bass Reeves will live as long as people recall stories of bravery and courage in the American West.
Bass Reeves has been posthumously honored with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s “Great Westerner” at a Western Heritage Award program.
Bass Reeves died at his home after a long illness that left him bed ridden under the care of his wife. A couple of his close associates in the Deputy Marshal service were often visitors at his bed side. Bass passed on January 12, 1910. He is buried in what is a now an unattended cementery. His grave marked with a simple wooden cross. Some talk has been heard about locating his grave and marking it properly.
There were many newspaper articles I could have included about Marshall Reeve’s life and death, but there were so many I will let you chase them down on the internet. Thanks for coming by, see you later. Have several more black cowboys and adventures in mind.