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The Legend of Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in 1838 and would eventually become one of the first black U.S. Deputy Marshals under Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith. He was owned by the Reeves family, so, like most of the slaves from that time, he was given the owner’s surname. He grew up as a trusted and well liked person by George Reeves and Reeves made Bass his personal companion. When the Civil War broke out, George joined the Confederate Army and brought Bass with him. They fought side by side for awhile until Bass got word of free slaves being around. He wanted to be one those as well. He escaped from Reeves and the army one night and headed to Indian Territory, which is now today known as Oklahoma.

While living in the wild, untamed territory, Bass Reeves learned to become extremely proficient with firearms and was ambidextrous. He was extremely accurate with either hand. He stayed in Indian Territory until 1863. He learned and was able to speak several different Native American languages, which would provide to be very useful to him later on. He left the Indian Territory in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed into law and in essence banned slavery and all fugitive slaves were completely exonerated and Bass bought some farm land in Arkansas. He soon married a woman from Texas named Nellie and they lived a happy life on their ranch and raised ten kids as well there.

In1875, Judge Parker was the assigned judge at Fort Smith, Arkansas and part of his jurisdiction was Indian Territory. By this time, Indian Territory had become known as a place where the lawless could hide because there was no law enforcement at all in the future state of Oklahoma. Judge Parker hired a federal marshal to bring the criminals hiding in Indian Territory, to justice. This man was Marshal James Fagan and he was told to hire some two hundred deputies. Fagan knew about Reeves and his firearm proficiency as well as his extensive knowledge of the territory, so he hired Reeves as one of his deputies. Reeves could not read or write but that didn’t stop him from executing arrest warrants. He would have someone read them to him and he memorized which warrant was for whom.

Reeves became a feared lawman and sometimes had to resort to disguises to arrest some of the outlaws. It is even said that the famous outlaw Belle Starr had heard that Bass Reeves had a warrant for her arrest so she went and turned herself in to Judge Parker.
Tales of Reeves’ captures were that of legendary status. He even walked twenty-eight miles with two wanted fugitives one time to bring them to justice. One of his most troubling arrests was that of one of his sons. The son was wanted for murdering his own wife. No other marshal wanted this warrant and when Bass was told about it, he requested to serve the warrant himself. A couple of weeks later, he returned to Muskogee, Oklahoma, with his son in tow.

Bass Reeves was a deputy U.S. Marshal for over thirty years and brought more than three thousand criminals to justice and only killing a handful of men during his discharge of duties. He succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1910. It is said that he is buried in Muskogee, Oklahoma but the exact location is unknown. Is it poor record keeping or the prejudice of his skin color that so little is known about one of the greatest lawmen that had ever worn a badge and should be a role model for any law enforcement officer even today. I will provide links at the bottom of this article so you can find out more about this legendary lawman that no one has heard of. Learn who truly helped bring this country, the United States of America, to where it is today.

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This content was written by Vance Rowe. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Vance R. Rowe for details.

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