Is Bass Reeves the Only 6’2, Ambidextrous, Multilingual, Black U.S. Marshall You Never Heard Of?
Bass Reeves Unsung American Hero
By Yvette Brown
Bass Reeves was born a slave in July,1838 in Arkansas. He was the property of Arkansas State Legislator Williams S. Reeves and family. Wild Bill Hickok was born a year earlier in 1837 in Troy Grove, Illinois. The Life and Times of Mr. Hickok are a part of American folklore. Yet, the amazing life of Mr. Reeves would have almost been forgotten had it not been for diligent historians and the Reeves family descendants. It is believed that many of the exploits of the fictional American television and radio character Lone Ranger were actually based on events in the life of Bass Reeves.
In 1946 Reeves’ owners moved to Grayson County, Texas. The Civil War began in 1861. At some point during the War, Bass left the Reeves family, becoming a fugitive slave. It is said, Bass left after a dispute and fight with his owner over an ill-fated card game. Like many blacks at that time he found refuge in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) amongst the Creek and Seminole Indians. Reeves is also believed to have served with the irregular or regular Union Indians.
After the end of the war, Reeves had married and settled down to life as a farmer in Arkansas. Yet, even in his life as a farmer, I would imagine Reeves would have been a person of note in his community. Reeves was a strikingly handsome black man, 6 feet 2 inches in height at a time when the average American male was 5’6. In addition, after years of life in Native Territories, Reeves had become multi-lingual and was fluent in a number of native languages. In 1875 Reeves was recruited by U.S. Marshall James Fagan making him one of the first black federal lawman west of the Mississippi River. He was responsible for Indian Territories in the Western District of Arkansas. He would eventually work in Texas and later Oklahoma.
Reeves served for over 32 years as a lawman in the Territories. He was said to be one of the most highly held officers. Like the fictional, Lone Ranger, Reeves was said have to ridden a white horse. He also had an Native American companion and tracker. The Native American tracker was said to be a friend Reeves acquired while a fugitive in Indian territory. Reeves’ skills included the ability to shoot with both hands with deadly accuracy. He was also said to have had great physical strength and would often restrain detainees without weapons or as it was described “he could whip you with his bare hands”. Reeves became a legend for his skill and ability to track criminals throughout the territory. He brought fugitives by the dozen into the Fort Smith Federal Prison in Arkansas. Reeves said the largest number of outlaws he ever caught at one time was nineteen horse thieves he captured near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Well known female outlaw Belle Starr turned herself in at Fort Smith when she found out Reeves had the warrant for her arrest.
If you can imagine the figure of a 6’2 Reeves on a white horse with his Native companion. A quite impressive figure of the law riding into town.
In 1902, Reeves arrested his own son, Bennie, for murdering his wife in Muskogee. Bennie was convicted and sent to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Reeves worked until Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907. Over the span of his career he was said to have arrested over 3,000 criminals. He died of Bright’s disease on January 12, 1910.
On May 26, 2012, a bronze statue by sculptor Harold Holden depicting Reeves on a horse riding west was dedicated in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park. The statue was commissioned by the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative whose mission is to educate and share the Reeves legacy and story.
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson recounts Reeves life in a children’s book “Bad News for Outlaws”
America is a vast country with many unsung heroes. One is shown below commemorated in bronze.