Bass Reeves went from being a slave to being a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arkansas Territory for Judge Isaac Parker out of Fort Smith. He was the first black Deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.
Bass Reeves was born in 1838 to parents who were slaves to a man named William Steel Reeves, an Arkansas State Legislator. Bass took the last name of his owner, as most slaves did at that time. He was very likeable and personable and when the Civil War broke out, Bass Reeves went to work for William Reeves’ son, George. George and Bass soon had a falling out and Bass left his owner and escaped into the Indian Territories where he lived with the Seminole and Creek Indians. Reeves lived there until the end of the Civil War when he was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. During this time, Bass became proficient with firearms.
Bass Reeves then moved to Arkansas and bought some farm land near Van Buren. He married and had eleven children. He and his family farmed there until 1875 when Judge Isaac Parker became the judge for the Indian Territory, out of Fort Smith. Parker vowed to clean up the lawless territory and hired a man named James F. Fagan as US Marshal and directed him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan had heard of Bass Reeves and his skill with a pistol and rifle and hired him as a deputy marshal.
It wasn’t long before Bass Reeves earned a reputation for getting the criminals he went out after. He always left Fort Smith with a bunch of warrants and would return months later with a mass of criminals that ranged from murderers to bootleggers. One of the criminals that Bass had captured in his career, was one of his own sons who was wanted for the murder of his wife.
Reeves remained a deputy marshal for the next 35 years and had a storied career. He brought in over 3000 criminals and killed only 14. Those he killed was in self-defense. He had prided himself on bringing in criminals alive. In 1907, his career as a deputy marshal came to an end as state agencies took over policing. Bass Reeves then took a job as a patrolman for the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department for the next two years when his health failed and he had to retire in 1909. In 1910, Bass Reeves succumbed due to complications of Bright’s Disease and is buried someplace in Muskogee, but it is not known exactly where.
In popular culture, some people believe that Bass Reeves’ life was the basis for the radio program and then television series, The Lone Ranger; although he was never a Texas Ranger and there is no evidence to support that claim.
Clint Eastwood’s character Marshal Jed Cooper in the movie “Hang ‘Em High” is also loosely based on Bass Reeves and Pat Hingle’s character portrayal of Judge Fenton is based on Judge Isaac Parker.