Legendary Lawman: The History Of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves

Wednesday, February 9th 2022, 11:02 pm
By: Craig Day

At the Fort Smith National Historic Site, not far from the 1838 historic barracks and jail building, and the reproduction of the 1886 gallows, there is a statue of legendary lawman Bass Reeves. He is one of the most respected and feared lawmen in Indian Territory.

"Bass really was an iconic figure in American history," Dave Kennedy said.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery, escaped during the Civil War, and eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, out of Fort Smith, working for Hanging Judge Isaac Parker.

Reeves would cross the Arkansas River, on the trail of outlaws across more than 75,000 square miles in Indian and Oklahoma territories. Many of them were killers.

He'd travel hundreds of miles on horseback to bring them back to Judge Parkers' court.

Dave Kennedy is the Curator of the new U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, where Bass Reeves will be featured prominently when the museum opens toward the end of the year.

"He starts to become a success in the only part of the country where he could have become a success, as a black man working in law enforcement," Kennedy said.

Even without being able to read or write, Reeves' worked 32 years as a deputy marshal, when most Marshals out of Fort Smith served less than five.

His journeys into the territories would last for weeks.

The journey to find out more about Reeves took us to Chicago, where we meet author and historian Art Burton.

"Bass was so tough. If he spit on a brick it would break," Burton said.

Burton is an internationally known expert on Bass Reeves.

Although he lives just outside Chicago, Burton grew up visiting relatives in Oklahoma and became fascinated with Reeves.

"The greatest lawman in the wild west was from Oklahoma," said Burton.

Burton has researched African American figures on the western frontier, especially in Oklahoma and Indian territories, publishing several books.

He said Oklahoma has been overlooked when it comes to frontier history.

"The towns like Dodge City and those places, they were only wild for four or five years,” Burton said. “Oklahoma was wild for 30 to 40 years, even going up to the depression era."

The area was so wild that of the roughly 200 U.S. Marshals killed in the line of duty, 130 of them were killed in what would become Oklahoma.

"The majority of Deputy U.S. Marshals killed in the line of duty, were killed in a 50 mile radius of Muskogee," Burton said.

It's estimated Bass Reeves arrested as many as 3,000 people during his career, including his own son for murder, and his minister for selling illegal whiskey.

Reeves later became a Muskogee police officer to end his law enforcement career.

"Bass Reeves was pretty much a phenomenon,” Burton said. “He was six feet two and 190 pounds, and they said he could whip any two men with his bare hands. If you got into a gunfight with Bass Reeves, it was tantamount to committing suicide."

After statehood, few people knew much about Bass Reeves outside of the region.

"He was pretty much forgotten," said Burton.

Thanks to the work of Burton, by historians at places like the Fort Smith National historic area, and the U.S. Marshals Museum, that's changing.

Burton has optioned the rights to his book about Bass Reeves to Morgan Freeman.

Freeman has wanted to do a project about the legendary lawman for years.

That isn't the only international attention Reeves is now getting. In recent years, he's been the subject of a number of movies and television shows.

Some of the portrayals are more accurate than others, but the bottom line is more attention is being given to Bass Reeves - and more people are learning his story.

It’s a story of overcoming adversity. A remarkable true tale of service and justice.

"I want the world to know that Bass Reeves was the most prolific law enforcement officer our country has ever seen," Kennedy said.

"He's the greatest frontier hero in United States history," Burton said.

Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan and actor David Oyello are working with Viacom/CBS and MTV Entertainment for a limited series on Bass Reeves.

Although some historians disagree, Burton believes Bass Reeves was the inspiration of the Lone Ranger. It's all in his book 'Black Gun, Silver Star.'