Overcoming the harsh conditions of a slave's life in the 1800s to rise to a position of particular note would be a
noteworthy accomplishment for anyone born into that life. But to become the most famous U.S. Deputy Marshal West of
the Mississippi and perhaps the greatest frontier hero in our nation's history would be an impressive feat.
That man was Bass Reeves, who became the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Over the 35 years
Reeves served as a Deputy United States Marshal, he captured more than 3,000 outlaws.
Bass heard too much talk about freeing the slaves and simply Bass fled to Indian Territory and lived with the Seminole and Creek Indians.
During this time Reeves practiced endlessly sharpening his firearm skills, becoming quick and deadly accurate with a pistol. Although
he claimed to be only a fair shot with a rifle, he was barred on a regular basis in competitive turkey shoots. He wore two Colt pistols,
butt forward. Ambidextrous, he rarely missed.
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 meant Reeves was no longer a fugitive, so as a free man Reeves bought land near Van Buren,
Arkansas and became a successful farmer and rancher. A year later, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas. The Reeves raised ten
children on their homestead . . . five girls and five boys.
However, Reeve's life changed dramatically when Isaac Parker was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort
Smith on May 10, 1875. At the time, Indian Territory was teeming with thieves, murderers and notorious outlaws who took refuge
in the territory that previously had no law to speak of.
One of Parker's first acts was to appoint U.S. Marshal James F. Fagan as head of some 200 deputies he was ordered to hire. Fagan
had heard of Bass Reeves being someone who knew the territory as well as being able to speak several tribal languages fluently.
Fagan lost no time in recruiting him as a U.S. Deputy Marshal. His orders . . . bring them in, dead or alive!
Reeves' courage and ability to apprehend or kill his quarry quickly earned him a formidable reputation. Wearing his large
signature black hat and riding a large stallion, Reeves struck an imposing figure. He always dressed impeccably and kept his boots brilliantly
shined, and he was known for being polite and courteous. However, he was also a master of disguise. Sometimes he would masquerade as a
cowboy, farmer, gunslinger or outlaw.
The tales of his captures are legendary. On one occasion, Reeves was in pursuit of two outlaws in the Red River Valley near the
Texas border. Bass formed a posse and set up camp about 28 miles from where the two were hiding at their mother's home. Reeves
disguised himself as a tramp wearing old shoes, dirty clothes and a floppy hat, complete with three bullet holes.
Arriving at the home, he told the woman who answered the door his feet were aching after being chased by a posse who had put the
three bullet holes in his hat. She invited him in for something to eat. During the meal she told him about her two outlaw sons,
even suggesting the three should join forces.
Saying he was worn out from the chase, she consented to let him stay a while longer. Later Reeves heard a whistle coming from
beyond the house. The woman went outside and two riders rode up. Shortly, the three of them came inside and she introduced her
sons to Reeves. After a brief discussion, it was agreed it would be a good idea to team up.
Reeves later watched the pair as they drifted off to sleep and when he was convinced they were asleep, he handcuffed the pair
without waking them. At dawn, he marched them out the door . . . followed closely for the first three miles
by an irate cursing mother. Within days, the outlaws were delivered to the authorities.
One of the high points of Reeves' career was capturing Bob Dozier. Dozier rustled cattle and horses, robbed banks and stagecoaches,
and was a murderer and swindler. Dozier was unpredictable, which made his capture difficult. Many lawmen had tried and
failed . . . until Reeves came along. Dozier eluded Reeves for several years but he finally tracked him down in
the Cherokee Hills. After refusing to surrender Reeves killed him in a gun battle on December 20, 1878.
However Reeves' toughest assignment was having to hunt down his own son. His son had been charged with murdering his wife. The other
deputies were reluctant to take the job. And though Reeves was saddened, he demanded the task. Two weeks later, Reeves returned to
Muskogee with his son and turned him over to authorities. His son was tried and sent to Leavenworth, Kansas prison. However, with a
citizen's petition and an exemplary prison record, his son was pardoned.
In 1907, state agencies assumed law enforcement and Reeves' duties as a deputy marshal ended. Bass however, didn't give up being a
lawman. He signed on as a patrolman with the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department. It is reported there were no crimes on his beat
during the two years he served there.
During his exemplary career Reeves Killed about 14 known men. Reeves always said he never shot a man when it was not necessary for
him to do so in the discharge of his duty to save his own life.
Reeves' career finally ended when he was diagnosed with Brights disease in 1909. He died January 12, 1910 and though he was buried in
Muskogee, Oklahoma, the exact location of his grave is unknown.