Bass Reeves
Black History Month

In the United States of America, the month of February is Black History Month.  It is a time to remember the achievements of men and women of color made throughout the history of this country.  From a time of slavery to a time of freedom that did not really feel all that free, to a movement that would change the nation forever, men and women of color have played key roles in making a better quality of life for all mankind.

The Lone Ranger
A fiery horse with the speed of light
A cloud of dust and a hearty hi-o silver
The Lone Ranger!1

The Lone Ranger began as a radio program in 1933, in Detroit, Michigan. It ran until 1956, airing nearly 3,000 episodes. It spawned novels, movies, and an equally popular television show, which ran for 217 episodes between 1949 and 1957. In 2006, biographer and historian Art T. Burton asserted that there was a man behind the fictional Lone Ranger. A man who had sent most of his 3,000 arrests, as a federal marshal, to the Detroit House of Corrections, the same city that nearly a century later would spawn The Lone Ranger radio show. A man who during his 32 years of service, did not wear a mask, but would wear disguises to help capture the law breakers he tracked. A man with outstanding moral character. A man who carried out his arrests using methods that, today, sound like the plot of a television show!  That man was a Black man, named Bass Reeves!

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas in July 1838. Bass was enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. Around the age of eight, Bass moved with the Reeves family to Grayson County, Texas. Bass grew up learning how to hunt, shoot, and ride, but was kept from learning how to read. During the American Civil War, Bass’ owner joined the Confederate Army, taking Bass with him. At some point during the Civil War, Bass escaped into Indian Territory after an alleged disagreement over a card game. While in Indian Territory, Bass learned to speak the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole languages and developed an appreciation for their customs. In return, the Indians of the area respected and welcomed Bass among them.

In 1865, the 13th Amendment passed, making Bass a free man. Bass returned to Arkansas, where he married Nellie Jennie and had 10 children. Bass and his family farmed in Arkansas, until 1875. During his time farming, Bass refined his skills as a sharpshooter with both hands, as he was ambidextrous. Bass also bred horses and served as a guide into Indian Territory for US Marshals. Bass would go on to marry his second wife, Winnie Sumter, in 1900, after the death of his first wife, and have an 11th child.

In 1875, Isaac Parker was appointed a federal judge at Fort Smith and ordered to “save Oklahoma” and clean up the Indian Territory, which later came to include the Oklahoma Territory. To accomplish this task, Judge Parker, who became known as the “Hanging Judge,” ordered that 200 deputy US Marshals be hired. Because of his knowledge of the Indian Territory and language, and skills with a weapon, Bass was recruited to become the first African American deputy west of the Mississippi River.

Bass quickly became a legend, and valued deputy, with superior detective and tracking skills, in addition to his other skills. Bass also cut an imposing figure, at 6 foot 2 inches tall and around 200 pounds. He was known to be very strong, with some describing him as having superhuman strength. Throughout his 32 years as a federal marshal, Bass racked up over 3,000 arrests. One of those arrests included his own son, Bennie, who was accused of murdering his wife. Bass had a strict moral compass, and upon overhearing a suggestion that his son’s case be given to another marshal, Bass insisted upon being the one to bring him in. Bass’ son was later sentenced to life in prison, however due to good behavior, was later released. Upon his release, he is said to have lived as a model citizen.

During the time Bass was a marshal, over 100 marshals were killed in the territory attempting to bring in fugitives, as the Indian territory was largely lawless, making it extremely easy area in which fugitives could hide out. Throughout his career, Bass was shot at numerous times, although he was never directly hit. Bass did have his hat shot off on numerous occasions, and his gun belt shot off at least once. Bass also had an amazing memory and, never having never learned to read, memorized all of his warrants prior to setting out. He never arrested the wrong person and was able to recite the warrant line by line when arresting the wanted men and women!

Bass was known for wearing disguises to assist in his captures. In one case, Bass dressed as a beggar on the run, and walked approximately 30 miles to the home of his targets, two brothers. The brothers’ mother invited Bass to stay the night, proposing that the three of them flee together in the morning. Bass accepted the invitation, but come morning, both brothers were in handcuffs! Bass walked them the approximately 30 miles back to his camp, allegedly with their mother following for three miles, swearing at Bass the entire time!

Another time, Bass dressed up as an old farmer and rode in a cart pulled by oxen. Bass approached the house he believed outlaws were hiding in, he stopped the cart pretending it had become stuck on a stump. Six outlaws came out of the house to help, at which point Bass arrested them all. Bass is also connected to famous outlaw queen, Belle Starr. Some stories claim that Bass arrested Belle, while others say that she turned herself in once she heard Bass was after her. Despite never being shot, Bass did kill 14 criminals in self-defense throughout his career, always as a last resort.

Bass was once arrested and charged with the murder of a posse cook, William Leech. William was murdered in 1884, and Bass was arrested two years later. Bass argued that his gun accidentally discharged as he was cleaning it and that he immediately ordered a doctor be summoned, however, William died before the doctor could arrive. A jury determined that William’s death was a tragic accident and acquitted Bass. Bass’ stellar reputation likely contributed to his acquittal.

In 1907, at the age of 62 and after 32 years of service, Bass resigned his position due to Oklahoma becoming the 46th state to join the Union. Under new state laws, Bass was no longer eligible to serve as a US deputy marshal, due to the color of his skin. After his resignation, he was quickly hired by the Muskogee Police Department, where he remained for three years, until his death in 1910. It is claimed that during his time as a police officer, not one crime occurred on his beat. Residents alleged that he had a sidekick walking his beat with him, carrying a sack of pistols! Bass was 71 years of age when he died of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder.

Bass Reeves has received recognition in recent years for his great accomplishments as a marshal. Bass was the first black man inducted into the Great Westerns Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2010, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Hall of Fame. In 2012, a bronze statue was placed in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park, depicting him riding a horse.

1 http://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/thelonerangerlyrics.html

 

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