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.
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.
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
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.