Bass Reeves is having a moment. Over 100 years after his death, he might finally be getting his due.
Who was Bass Reeves, I hear many of you ask?
Succinctly, he was the first black deputy U.S. marshal, mostly in the Indian territories of present-day Oklahoma and Arkansas. But he was so much more than that.
Reeves, 1838-1910, has been barely a footnote in the history of the west, but there are signs he may be getting his 15 minutes of fame.
A new HBO series, Watchmen, made reference to Reeves in its first episode and, a few years back, NBC’s Timeless, a time travel program, used Reeves in one of its episodes.
Watchmen is a series inspired by the award-winning graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The graphic novel depicts an alternative history of the U.S. where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s. In this history, the U.S. won the Vietnam War and President Nixon was re-elected for four terms. The TV series takes off on that, but now Robert Redford is president and, so far, the series is focused on events in Tulsa.
The HBO series begins with a young boy watching a silent movie onscreen where the masked hero is revealed to be Reeves. Immediately after that, there are rumblings in the theater and we see the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, the starting point for the events taking place in the premiere episode.
The TV series is created by Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers fame.
The depiction of Reeves is interesting in that many have speculated that he was the inspiration behind the creation of the Lone Ranger. The TV series seems to be taking off on that idea and it fits into the alternative history of masked superheroes as key to the Watchmen universe.
Reeves as inspiration for the Lone Ranger seems a bit of a stretch, but nevertheless, Reeves’ fascinating, occasionally jaw-dropping life story makes one wonder why he has not been the subject of attention by popular culture until now.
Here’s a bit about his life, much of it taken from a great book by a friend of mine who lives in Saginaw, Del Cain. His book is called Lawmen of the Old West: The Good Guys. I once made Del’s day, if not week, when I was in a bookstore downtown and there was a law enforcement convention taking place. A black deputy sheriff came in looking for a book on Bass Reeves and I pointed him to Del’s book. The deputy said it was the best account of Reeves’ career he’d ever seen. Del may still be smiling about that.
Here’s a brief sketch of Reeves’ life.
He was born into slavery, probably around 1838, in the Arkansas household of William S. Reeves, who relocated to Paris, Texas, in 1846. Bass Reeves served as a servant to Colonel George Reeves, son of William, during the Civil War and was at the battles of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Pea Ridge. According to Cain’s book, Bass Reeves’ family stories indicate there was a fight between Bass and George, and Bass Reeves, being a slave, took out for the Indian Territory across the Red River.
There he learned the landscape and became acquainted with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole in the area, learning their customs, languages and – key to his future work – their tracking skills. He also honed his skills with firearms. According to one account, Reeves claimed to be “only fair” with a rifle. Despite that, he was apparently barred from participation in competitive turkey shoots.
After the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, abolishing slavery, Reeves was now formally a free man. That apparently was what led to his respect for the law. The law, he reasoned, had set him free. “Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin,” he is quoted as saying.
Reeves then settled in Van Buren, Arkansas, where he married and went on to have 11 children.
On occasion he would serve as a guide for deputy U.S. marshals working out of the federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, into the Indian Territory due to his knowledge of those areas. He was able to make substantial money as a scout and tracker for peace officers. In 1875, when Judge Isaac C. Parker took over the Fort Smith federal court, Parker commissioned Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal. He is believed to be one of the earliest African-Americans to receive a commission as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, according to the Oklahoma State Historical Society.
Reeves worked for 32 years as a deputy marshal in the Indian Territory. He was the only deputy to begin with Parker’s court and work until Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907. Reeves was an imposing figure. He was six-feet, two-inches tall and had a moustache that would make a ’70s porn star wither.
And he was fairly famous in his own time. An expert with both a pistol and a rifle, reports state that he arrested over 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws during his career as a peace officer. And he didn’t back down from a challenge no matter how close to home. When his son became a fugitive after being charged with killing his wife, Reeves took the writ and captured his own son.
One of the captures he was most proud of was of Bob Dozier, an outlaw who had evaded the law for many years in the Indian Territories. Reeves tracked Dozier and during a rainstorm shot Dozier’s accomplice, giving away his own location. Dozier fired and Reeves fell. I’ll let my friend’s words tell the rest of the story: “[Dozier] was just a few yards from the body in the mud when the body raised the gun that had remained in one hand and in a booming voice ordered him to drop his pistol. The outlaw froze, then tried to bring up his own gun, but just as it came level Bass Reeves fired. The bullet tore through Dozier’s neck and he was dead.”
Reeves could be Lone Ranger-like at times. Pursuing two outlaws in the Red River Valley, he found them holing up at their mother’s home. Reeves disguised himself as a tramp and was invited in for a bite to eat. As the outlaws fell asleep, he handcuffed the pair without waking them. When the sun came up, Reeves kicked them awake and led them out the door to the waiting posse.
In 1907, law enforcement for the territories was assumed by state agencies and Reeves took a job as a patrolman with the Muskogee, Oklahoma, Police Department, serving for two years, and there was reportedly no crime on his beat. I mean, would you spit on the sidewalk if Bass Reeves was looking over your shoulder?
He died in 1910 and was buried in the Union Agency Cemetery in Muskogee, but the exact location of his grave is apparently unknown.
Bass Reeves certainly shouldn’t be unknown and maybe now he’ll get his due.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.