Bass Reeves was born on the 16th of July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, and named after his grandfather Bass Washington. His family was enslaved by the state legislator William Steele Reeves. Bass began work as a water boy and stable-boy and as he grew older he worked several different jobs for his masters after they moved to Texas when he was 8 years old.
Bass eventually became the valet, bodyguard and companion of William’s son George R Reeves after William’s death. When the American civil war broke out George joined the confederate army as a colonel and took Bass with him to war. Bass later claimed to have fought alongside his master at the battles of Pea Ridge (1862), Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge in 1863. Bass later fled George and the confederates after an incident around a poker game where Bass and George got into a fight and George is said to have been struck by Bass and knocked out.
Bass fled to the Indian territories in modern day Oklahoma. During this period he lived with the Cherokee, Seminoles and creek Indians and became fluent in several tribal languages including Muskogee. He also learnt to hunt and track. It is also believed by historian Art Burton that Bass joined a unit of soldiers as a sergeant in the union army, this unit would have been composed of black and native troops who would have fought against tribes who sided with the confederates.
When the war ended Bass returned to Arkansas as a free man and set up a farm near Van Buren. He met and married his first wife Nellie Jennie from Texas with whom he had 10 children (5 boys and 5 girls). Life was tough for African-American families in the former confederate states after the occupying federal troops left the states and former confederates came to power again, repealing years of progress and introducing the infamous “Jim Crow” laws brought about by “vigilante” organisations such as the Klu Klux Klan.
Bass Reeves had one key talent he had learnt during the civil war – he could track and hunt with the best. The indian territories had now become a haven of lawlessness, with bandits, desperadoes and fugitives taking refuge there and roaming the area. It was truly the wild west, where your life could be ended over your shoes, your hat, your woman or quite simply over anything someone else wanted to take from you. Bass found himself at home in this hell on earth.
In 1875 Bass was approached by U.S Marshall James F. Fagan who needed a guide in Indian territory. Fagan had heard about Reeves and as he needed 200 deputies to help in the area he had Reeves deputised as a U.S Marshall.
Bass Reeves is sometimes known as the first black U.S marshal. This may be true, he may simply have been one of the first in the area but either way the reason that Bass Reeves went down in history and the others didn’t was quite simple; he was the best. His arrest record stands at 3000 arrests. Despite being illiterate his whole life, he learnt the warrants off by heart and was a keen horseman, an incredible marksman with a rifle and was ambidextrous (which means he could effectively use a revolver in each hand with deadly precision). Not only that, he also looked the part at 6 foot 2 inches tall, towering over most men of the period and sporting an incredible handlebar moustache and wearing a black Stetson hat and dark polished boots.
During his career Bass killed 14 outlaws in self defence and was never seriously wounded despite having his hat shot off his head twice. However, he didn’t only use his skill with weapons to bring in outlaws, he was also very cunning and over time became quite an adept detective.
Although we can’t look into all 3000 arrests he made here is his most famous one:
In September 1884 Reeves was in the Indian territories to carry out the arrests of two rustlers by the names of Frank Buck and John Bruner. Two men had volunteered to guide Reeves but unbeknown to him these two guides were the very men he was looking for and while they made camp and prepared dinner Reeves spotted Bruner secretly reaching for his gun. Bass grabbed Bruner’s gun and reached for his own six shooter. Spotting Buck getting ready to shoot him, Reeves turned around as quick as a flash and shot him dead before arresting Bruner.
In another incident Reeves had been in pursuit of a trio of outlaw brothers. The brothers had ambushed Reeves and were readying to kill the “Indomitable Marshal”and in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster Reeves calmly asked them what the date was. When the outlaws asked him why, he answered that their arrest warrants needed to be dated because either dead or alive they were coming with him. The outlaws burst out laughing and Reeves seized his moment, pushed the gun pointed at him aside and shot down two of the brothers. Some sources say that he arrested the remaining brother, other sources claim that while attempting to disarm the remaining outlaw Reeves struck the man with the handle of his revolver and cracked his skull killing him.
Reeves didn’t always use brute force however, in some instances he used trickery. While in pursuit of two outlaws in the red river valley, Reeve’s and his colleagues knew that the outlaws would hide in their mother’s cabin and that the open terrain around it would prove deadly in an assault. Reeves dirtied his clothes, shot two holes in his hat and put on an old pair of shoes before walking the 28 miles to the cabin. When he arrived at the cabin he told the outlaw’s mother that he was on the run and the mother sympathised with him and gave him shelter. During the night she signalled to her sons that the coast was clear and they arrived, ate and went to bed. Bass waited till they were asleep before putting handcuffs on them. When the other marshals arrived they found Reeves sat in a chair with his revolver in his hand watching the two outlaws…who were still sleeping and handcuffed to their beds!
Despite his excellent reputation, some white law men didn’t quite like the idea of Reeves being a law man and in one instance one threatened to shoot him for ordering white federal prisoners about. Fortunately their superior sided with Reeves and a shootout was narrowly avoided.
There were other incidents where the colour of Reeves’ skin caused outrage, such as one occasion when a drunk outlaw claimed he “didn’t give a damn about no black star” and attempted to shoot Reeves but Reeves was on the draw quicker and shot him down (please note that this may be pure fiction from the era). In April 1884 Reeves was attempting to dislodge a bullet that had jammed in his rifle and the gun went off unexpectedly, killing the camp cook. At first this was seen as a complete accident but two years later a new judge, who happened to be a former confedrate, brought charges of murder against Reeves. Reeves would spend 3 months in jail awaiting trial, although eventually found innocent at his trial by jury the legal fees had bankrupted Reeves and he was forced to sell his home in 1886.
As time went by Reeves’ reputation grew and outlaws started just surrendering as soon as they heard it was him who was after them. In 1903 one man by the name of Macintosh, who had set his wife on fire during a drunken rage leaving her in a critical condition, was on the run from the law when he had a dream that Reeves came out of the bush and shot him as he attempted to flee. When he woke up he was so shaken that he decided to hand himself in.
Tragedy struck Reeves when a warrant came in for the arrest of his own son for the murder of his wife. When a fellow marshal suggested that perhaps another deputy should go bring him in, Reeves simply said; “Give me the writ.”. Bennie Reeves was arrested, brought to court and sentenced to life imprisonment before being released after 11 years on good behaviour and lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.
An attempt was made on Reeves’ life in November 1906 as he rode his buggy through town, although his would-be assassin got away and Reeves was unharmed. Reeves published a note in the local paper stating that he while he wasn’t sure who had attempted to kill him, he had a pretty good idea and would get his man.
In 1907 Oklahoma officially became a US state and Reeves left the Marshal service and joined the Muskogee police department at the age 68. He was able to use his decades of experience and expertise to help the new police force for two years before retiring due to ill health. Reeves died the next year, on the 12th of January 1910.