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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Who Was That Masked Man?

by Clay Coppedge

Bass Reeves, one of the first black U.S. Deputy Marshalls west of the Mississippi and among the most relentless lawman of his or any other day, came to Texas from Arkansas as a slave with the William Reeves family in 1846, when he was eight years old.

When William's son, George, went to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War, William sent Bass along with him. At some point - under hazy circumstances - Bass lit out for Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) and never bothered the Reeves family again. George Reeves went on to become speaker of the house in the Texas legislature.

Bass found refuge in Indian Territory with the Seminole, Creek and other tribes and later bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas. He married a Texas girl, Nellie Jennings, in 1864 and grew crops, raised livestock and reared 10 children - five boys and five girls.

In 1875, Ulysses S. Grant ordered Judge Isaac C. Parker to clean up Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), a 75,000 square mile hideout for thieves, murderers and degenerates of all stripes. Parker authorized the hiring of 200 Deputy Marshals, including Bass Reeves. And why not? Reeves was big (6-foot-2 at a time when the average was closer to 5-foot-7), an already legendary marksman and he knew the country through the eyes of the Seminoles and Creeks.

Bass Reeves also turned out to be absolutely dedicated and fearless, a fine quality to have in a land where the outlaws tacked up wanted posters for the lawmen, as was the case in Indian Territory. He worked for 37 years as a U.S. Deputy Marshal and reportedly brought 3,000 felons to justice, all but 14 of them alive.
Art T. Burton, author of the 2006 biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves isn't sure about that 3,000 number, coming as it did from Reeves himself in a 1902 interview. But Burton found many newspaper accounts of Reeves bringing in a dozen or more desperados at a time.
From the June 17, 1891 Fort Worth Gazette: "Boss [Bass] Reeves is the most successful marshal that rides in the Indian country. He is a big ginger-cake colored negro, but is a holy terror to the lawless characters in the west. About every other month he makes a trip west, and after a few days passes back through with from one to two wagons of prisoners to Fort Smith. It is probable that in the past few years he has taken more prisoners, from the Indian Territory, than any other officer."

Once, when Reeves was working out of Paris, he and another deputy marshal double-handedly stifled a "race war" in Braggs, Texas, arresting 25 men, both black and white, who had instigated and participated in the trouble.

Burton's lifelong fascination with Bass Reeves began when he was 11 years old and saw a movie about Wyatt Earp. He asked his grandfather if there were any black marshals like Wyatt Earp in the Old West. "There was one," his grandfather told him. "His name was Bass Reeves." Burton sought out family members and others who were around during the marshal's' heyday and listened to often fantastic but nearly always unverifiable stories about Reeves. But Burton, a retired history professor, got to wondering if some of the stories might be true, which eventually led him to write the biography.

"He was the baddest of the bad," Burton says. "One woman who knew him told her granddaughter that if Bass stood on a brick it would break. He was an expert with a rifle and a pistol. And if you were hiding he would find you."

Reeves operated without fear or favor, arresting the minister who baptized him for selling illegal liquor and even his own son, Bennie, for killing his wife. It's hard to compare him to anybody, except maybe the Lone Ranger. And Burton does, despite the fact that the Lone Ranger was white and a Texas Ranger and Reeves was neither of those things.

But Burton notes that U.S. Marshals of that time and place, including Reeves, routinely hired Native Americans to work with them, much as Tonto helped the Lone Ranger, and he found instances of Reeves repaying strangers for their kindness and hospitality with silver dollars, much as the Lone Ranger handed out silver bullets to verify his identity.

The original Lone Ranger wore a black mask that covered his entire face, and Burton found several accounts of Reeves using disguises to capture various bad guys. Most of the desperados Reeves arrested were sentenced to prison in Detroit, where the Lone Ranger radio show originated. While Burton readily admits there is no conclusive evidence to support the notion that Bass Reeves was the prototype for the Lone Ranger he believes that Bass Reeves "is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger that we have."

Of course, there's also the possibility that the creators of the original radio show just made up the character one night over a couple of drinks. But Bass Reeves was the real deal. He died in 1910 but, oddly, no one knows where he's buried.

Burton believes he's still in disguise.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 15, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Tasty Texas Ingenuity 12-2-18
  • An Annoyance of Grackles 11-16-18
  • The Original Texas Songster 11-2-18
  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18

    See more »
  • Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Tasty Texas Ingenuity 12-2-18
  • An Annoyance of Grackles 11-16-18
  • The Original Texas Songster 11-2-18
  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18

    See more »


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