The Life of Bass Reeves: Legendary Lawman

One of the first black US deputy marshals, Bass Reeves photographed before his death in 1910.
Portrait of legendary lawman Bass Reeves.
Credit: NPGallery // Public Domain

In Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838, a legend of the American West, Bass Reeves, was born. Rumored to be the inspiration for “The Lone Ranger,” he was one of the first black deputy marshals in the United States. Defining the image of an old West lawman, he is reported to have apprehended more than three thousand men and women for violating federal laws – including his son. 

At 6ft 2in tall, 180 pounds, with a handlebar mustache, polished boots, and an ever-present large hat, Reeves dressed well and always carried two pistols. Ambidextrous with his firearms, he rarely missed a shot. He also had a reputation as a courteous truth-teller who was gentle with animals and revered the law. He said, “Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it, we got nuthin.”

The Early Years of Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves’ first name came from his grandfather, but his last name came from the family of enslaver and Speaker of the Texas House legislature, Colonel George R. Reeves. Growing up on the Reeves plantation, Bass went from water boy to field hand, working alongside his parents. When the Civil War broke out, Texas sided with the Confederacy, and Colonel Reeves’ went into battle. Bass accompanied him as a valet and bodyguard. In this role, he was taught to ride and handle firearms, where he demonstrated near-supernatural talent. It’s unclear if Reeves fought alongside the Confederacy. Still, he eventually deserted and escaped into the area now known as Oklahoma. 

At the time, indigenous groups held the land, the final stop on the infamous Trail of Tears. He became acquainted with the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes and learned their languages, customs, and tracking skills. Once “freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Reeves bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, and became a farmer and rancher. He married and started a family. On the side, he guided federal deputies into this territory he’d learned so well. Though governed by tribal courts, they only held jurisdiction over tribe members. Any other outlaws could only be pursued by federal officers, and Reeves boasted that he knew this area “like a cook knows her kitchen.”

A Deputy of Legend

Photograph of US deputy marshal Bass Reeves taken in circa 1902.
Bass Reeves, circa 1902.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker (a.k.a. “Hanging Judge” Parker) took over the Fort Smith federal court, which held jurisdiction over a 75,000 square mile area. Parker appointed James Fagan head of 200 deputies, and Fagan commissioned Bass Reeves. Each deputy would ride between forts in an 800-mile circuit. Unable to read or write, Reeves would have someone read the warrants. He’d memorize the contents and months later, return with a collection of outlaws charged with everything from bootlegging to murder. Paid in rewards, Reeves would bring money home, spend time with his family, and then return to the range. No one could equal Reeves. For example, Bob Dozier (cattle rustler, bank robber, and murderer) long evaded the law, but Reeves tracked him to the Cherokee Nation and killed him in a gunfight that almost took his own life. According to Reeves, his biggest haul was 19 horse thieves near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He became so legendary that noted female bootlegger Belle Starr turned herself in when she learned Reeves held her warrant. 

Once, while pursuing two outlaws, Reeves and his posse set up camp 28 miles from the suspects’ mother’s home. Bass disguised himself as a tramp with a cane, old shoes, and a hat with three bullet holes. He walked the many miles to the house with handcuffs and his badge hidden under his clothes. When the mother answered the door, Reeves claimed to be on the run from a posse who put bullet holes in his hat. She invited him in, served him food, and suggested he join forces with her sons. At dusk, her sons appeared, and all were introduced. Reeves watched them drift off to sleep and handcuffed them in their sleep. The following day, he kicked them awake. He marched them the 28 miles to his waiting posse – the mother following and cursing Reeves along the way.

In 1887, he found himself on the other side of the law when charged with murdering a posse cook. Like the many outlaws he’d arrested, he was tried before Judge Parker. Acquitted, Reeves said of his service 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.” 

In 1896, Reeves’ wife died, and by 1900, he remarried. He fathered a total of 12 children, with 1 out of wedlock. In 1902 came the toughest manhunt for the lawman: hunting down his son Bennie. Charged with killing his wife in a jealous fit, when Reeves learned of the warrant, he demanded the responsibility. Two weeks later, he returned with his son. Bennie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Later, after maintaining an exemplary prison record, and a citizen’s petition, Bennie Reeves was pardoned and lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.

The Bass Reeves Legacy

Photograph of Bass Reeves with the "Federal Official Family" taken in November 1907. Bass Reeves is standing furthest on the left of the photograph.
Bass Reeves (furthest on the left), 1907.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Reeves was the only deputy, to begin with Parker’s court and work until Oklahoma statehood in 1907. As a black man, Bass was not allowed to continue as deputy marshal under the new state laws. In 1907, at the age of 69, he became a police officer and served for two years. Reeves passed away due to natural causes on January 12, 1910. His obituary described him as “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.” 

Yet the grave of Bass Reeves is unknown, believed to be on private property and unmarked. For a long time, his legacy faded with the quietly reported but unsubstantiated rumor that he inspired “The Lone Ranger.” Yet recently his legend has begun to re-emerge. In 2012, a bronze statue depicting Reeves was dedicated in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and he’s the subject of a TV series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, set to premiere in late 2023.

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