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From Slave To Lawman: The Life And Times Of Bass Reeves, The Trailblazing Black Deputy U.S. Marshal
Bass Reeves was one of the greatest lawman of the old West, but until recently he was a historical footnote. Now Hollywood is telling his story.
In honor of Black History Month, Oxygen.com is highlighting the stories of Black pioneers in criminal justice.
Whitewashed from history, the story of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, is suddenly everywhere.
Reeves is featured in the opening scene of HBO’s award-winning series, Watchmen. A little boy sits transfixed in a movie theater as Reeves brings a crooked white sheriff to justice. In the show, that little boy is quickly ushered out of the movie theater by his terrified parents as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre unfolds.
Reeves appears along with several other real-life historical figures from the Old West including Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, and Stagecoach Mary in the Netflix movie, The Harder They Fall, released in October.
At least two television series are in the works about the lawman. One is slated to appear on Paramount + with David Oyelowo as Reeves. Taylor Sheridan, the mastermind behind the wildly popular Yellowstone and 1883 is producing. Oscar winner Morgan Freeman is also developing a television show about the legendary lawman.
Historian and author, Dr. Bob Blackburn, a consultant on the Paramount + series, told Oxygen.com that people have always been fascinated with Reeves’ story even in the 1890s toward the end of his career.
“Even in a segregated ultra-racist society that America was in 1900, the story of Bass Reeves resonated with many people. A man of the frontier, the slavery connection, the Indian connection, the law enforcement, the relationship with Hanging Judge Isaac Parker … a Black man working in a multi-cultural society that was the Indian territory. It wasn’t colorblind, but it was less racist than the surrounding former slave states.”
Blackburn said he met with Freeman in 1988 about Reeves. The actor was trying to develop a movie about the lawman.
“Western history is like a bridge between slavery ending and the civil rights movement [beginning]. It’s empowering when people are able to see their rightful place in society and the many different avenues that were taken other than what is generally shown in movies, television and textbooks,” Gloria Austin, co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth told the Los Angeles Times.
Reeves' life seems uniquely suited to movies or television. He was born a slave but would eventually serve more than 30 years as a U.S. marshal in the Oklahoma territory from 1875 to 1907. He arrested around 3,000 men – many of them white -- and killed anywhere from 14 to 20 depending on the source. He became a U.S. Marshal along with hundreds of others recruited under the orders of Judge Isaac “Hanging Judge” Parker, who presided over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith.
“Bass was by far the best candidate to be working out of that court,” Reeves’ great-nephew, retired Judge Paul L. Brady told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year. “To give a Black man a gun and the authority to shoot white people. That was unheard of.”
Over six feet tall and 200 pounds, he was physically imposing with a push broom mustache. He frequently used disguises – sometimes he was a tramp, a farmer, and even an outlaw -- to capture the bad guys.
Reeves was fluent in the languages of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" – Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole. He was a skilled and ambidextrous gunman.
One sharpshooter said Reeves “could shoot the left hind leg off a contented fly sitting on a mule’s ear at a hundred yards and never ruffle a hair.”
He was unable to read or write but would memorize the arrest warrants after they were read to him. He always brought in the right person.
Reeves was known for his honesty and integrity. He even arrested his own son after he killed his wife in a jealous rage. He also arrested the man who baptized him.
“Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the Paris (Texas), Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have affected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee,” D.C. Gideon wrote of Reeves in his book Indian Territory in 1901. “His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired only after years of practice. Several ‘bad’ men have gone to their long home for refusing to halt when commanded to by Bass.”
Art T. Burton, who has spent decades re-introducing Reeves to American audiences with books like Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, calls him the “Michael Jordan of law enforcement.”
“Bass Reeves was the greatest frontier hero in American history. Period. He walked in the Valley of Death everyday for 32 years, and he came out alive,” Burton told Oxygen.com. “Some people say he was never wounded.”
Burton first became fascinated by Reeves’ story after hearing about him while summering with his grandparents in Arcadia, Oklahoma at the age of 11.
Several years later, when he first started researching Reeves’s life, he was told by someone at a local historical society, “I am sorry, we didn’t keep Black people’s history.”
But Burton was able to collect newspaper accounts of Reeve’s exploits and court documents.
“Bass Reeves is the most successful marshal that rides in the Indian country,” according to a story in the Daily Arkansas Gazette in 1891. “He is a big ginger-cake colored negro, but is a holy terror to the lawless characters in the west. … It is probable that in the past few years he has taken more prisoners, from the Indian Territory, than any other officer.”
At one point, Reeves ran afoul of the law. He was charged with the murder of his cook, William Leach, in April 1884. Reeves maintained that it was accidental and spent six months in jail. He was acquitted in October of 1987.
Some have suggested that the Lone Ranger was modeled after Reeves. Burton notes the similarities between the two in the first chapter of his book Black Gun, Silver Star. U.S. Marshals at the time were required to travel with at least one posseman. Reeves frequently rode with Native Americans much like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto.
Reeves used disguises while hunting for outlaws. The Lone Ranger wore a mask. People didn’t know Reeves’s name and called him “Black Marshal.” That was the case with the Lone Ranger as well. While the Lone Ranger was known for the silver bullet, Reeves handed out silver dollars.
“I doubt we would be able to prove conclusively that Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. We can say unequivocally that Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,” John W. Ravage wrote in his book Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier.
Reeves was not the only Black man to work the Indian Territory, but he was the most prominent, according to Burton.
Sidney Thompson became so fascinated by Reeves’ life that he went back to school so he could write about him, moving his family from Alabama to Texas eventually earning a PhD with a specialization in African-American narratives. The result is a trilogy of three fictional books based on Reeves. The first two have already been published: Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book One and Hell on the Border: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book Two. He’s working on the third and final installment.
“He would get close to these outlaws, even befriend them and then he would turn the tables on them and arrest them without bloodshed,” Thompson told Oxygen.com. “That is so different from his white counterparts in the West, who went out guns blazing and big OK Corral shoot outs. He was involved in shootouts, but he tried to avoid them. He tried to preserve life and be non-violent whenever possible and use violence as a last resort.”
Reeves fathered 12 children and married twice. He retired as a deputy marshal in 1907 and died in 1910. He was 71.
“During his lifetime Reeves has some mighty close calls. His belt was shot in two once, his hat brim shot away, a button on his coat was shot off, the bridle reins in his hand were shot in two,” according to an article from the Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal on March 8, 1907, which appears in Burton’s book, Black Gun, Silver Star. “Yet he has never had the hood drawn in a fight, though fourteen men in all have had their lives snuffed out by his deadly gun and not in a single instance did he ever shoot at a man until the other fellow started the fight.”