Bass Reeves was the first African American commissioned to serve as a deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River.
He was born in 1838 as a slave in Crawford County, Arkansas. Reeves grew up in Grayson County, Texas, following the relocation of his owner, William S. Reeves, in 1846. William Reeves was a farmer and politician, Bass took the surname of his owner, like other slaves of the time. His first name came from his grandfather, Basse Washington.
Bass Reeves grew up illiterate and remained illiterate for his entire life. Reports regarding Reeves’s activities and whereabouts during the American Civil War are ultimately unclear, but some accounts claim that when the Civil War began, George Reeves, Bass’ owner, joined the Confederate Army, taking Bass with him.
It is unclear how and exactly when Bass Reeves left his owner but at some point during the Civil War he gained his freedom. Reeves’s family members, however, claimed that at some time between 1861 and 1862 Bass Reeves and his owner had an altercation over a card game. Others believe that Bass heard too much about the “freeing of slaves” and simply ran away. In any event Reeves fled to the Indian Territory where he lived as a fugitive slave among the Creeks and Seminoles.
After being “Freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and no longer a fugitive, Reeves left Indian Territory and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a successful farmer and rancher. A year later, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas, and immediately began to have a family. Raising 10 children on their homestead — five girls and five boys, the family lived happily on the farm. During this time, oral history states that Reeves worked as a guide for U.S. government officials interested in traveling through Indian Territory.
On May 10, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Isaac C. Parker as the judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, a jurisdiction that included the Indian Territory. Parker, in turn, appointed a U.S. Marshal and authorized him to hire 200 deputies to curb the rampant lawlessness that had terrorized the region. Because of his knowledge of the area and fluency in the Creek and Seminole languages, Reeves was recruited to work as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Indian Territory.
He was an imposing figure, always riding on a large white stallion, Reeves began to earn a reputation for his courage and success at bringing in or killing many desperadoes of the territory. Always wearing a large hat, Reeves was usually a spiffy dresser, with his boots polished to a gleaming shine. He was known for his politeness and courteous manner. However, when the purpose served him, he was a master of disguises and often utilized aliases.
For the next thirty-two years Bass Reeves brought to justice over 3,000 criminals and killed fourteen outlaws during his years as a marshal, garnering a reputation as one of the most successful lawmen in the Indian Territory. Among those he captured was Bob Dozier, a murderer and cattle and horse thief who eluded Reeves for several years before being tracked down and killed after refusing to surrender. He also tracked outlaw Tom Story for five years between 1884 and 1889, finally killing him in a gunfight.
Though Reeves was illiterate it did not harm his effectiveness in bringing back the criminals. Before he headed out, he would have someone read him the warrants and memorize the contents and which warrant was which. When asked to produce the warrant, he never failed to pick out the correct one.
Bass Reeves’s legendary career as a U.S. marshal ended in 1907 when the new state of Oklahoma assumed policing duties over the Indian Territory. At the age of 69 Reeves became a policeman for the City of Muskogee. He worked there for two years before failing health forced his retirement. Bass Reeves died on January 10, 1910 in Muskogee, Oklahoma.