Bass Reeves was a legendary lawman who became one of the most accomplished, admired, and respected figures in the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born into slavery in 1838 in Arkansas, Bass was named after his grandfather Bass Washington and was owned by William S. Reeves, who eventually moved to Texas, taking his then-8-year-old slave with him. William’s son George Robertson Reeves may have taken possession of Bass at some point. George R. Reeves would go on to serve as Texas’s Speaker of the House and as a Colonel in the Confederacy’s 11th Texas Cavalry Regiment. In 1861, Bass escaped from slave owner Reeves and headed to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Creek and Seminole tribes until the end of the Civil War. One account says that Bass and George Reeves fought over a game of cards, with Bass beating George badly in the ensuing fistfight. After the war, Bass and every other former and current slave was freed by the 13th Amendment, and he settled in Arkansas and farmed with his family.
In 1875, Reeves was appointed as a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, making him the first Black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River. He served under the “Hanging Judge,” Isaac Parker, as one of the 200 deputy U.S. marshals hired by James A. Fagan. Reeves was intimately acquainted with Indian Territory from his time there after his escape, and his knowledge of the land and terrain, the relationships with Cherokee and Creek people in the area, and his ability to speak their languages made him one of the most effective lawmen in Indian Territory. Reeves was known for his exceptional tracking skills and his ability to outsmart and apprehend some of the most notorious outlaws of the day. He was also known for his marksmanship and ability to maintain his cool in the most dangerous situations. It's said that Bass Reeves never once had to kill a man in the line of duty.
Reeves was instrumental in bringing law and order to the Indian Territory, where he worked for more than 30 years. He became a master of disguises and often used his ability to blend in with the local population to track down and apprehend fugitives. Reeves was also a respected member of the community, and it is said that he was often called upon to settle disputes and serve as a mediator between different groups.
One of the most remarkable stories from Bass Reeves’ long and distinguished career involves his own son. In the late 1890s, Bass was serving as a deputy U.S. Marshal in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). He received a warrant for the arrest of a man named Bennie, wanted for the murder of his wife. Bennie Reeves was Bass Reeves' own son, who had fled the territory and was hiding out in Texas.
Despite the personal connection, Bass Reeves took his duty as a lawman seriously and set out to track down and apprehend his own son. He traveled to Texas and spent several days gathering information and tracking Bennie Reeves' movements. Eventually, he was able to locate his son and make the arrest.
According to some accounts, Bass was forced to shoot Bennie during the arrest, as his son had allegedly resisted and attempted to draw a weapon. However, other reports suggest that the arrest was made without violence and that Bass Reeves was able to bring his son in peacefully. Bennie was subsequently captured, tried, and convicted. He served 11 years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before his sentence was commuted and he reportedly lived the rest of his life as a model citizen
Regardless of the details, the arrest of Bennie Reeves by his own father was a dramatic and emotional event, and it speaks to the strength of Bass Reeves' commitment to justice and the rule of law. It also underscores the difficult and often dangerous nature of law enforcement in the American West, where family ties and personal relationships could be complicated by the demands of duty and the need to maintain order in a rugged and untamed land.
Despite his many accomplishments, Reeves faced discrimination and racism throughout his career. He was often paid less than his white counterparts and was not allowed to participate in arrests or trials that involved white suspects. However, Reeves remained steadfast in his commitment to justice, and his reputation as a fair and effective lawman eventually earned him the respect of even his harshest critics.
Reeves retired from his position as a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1907 at the age of 68. He lived out the rest of his life in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he served two years on the Muskogee police force. Bass died there in 1910. Today, Reeves is remembered as one of the most iconic figures of the American West, and his legacy as a trailblazing lawman continues to inspire generations of people who seek to uphold the principles of justice and equality. In 2010, the U.S. Marshals Service honored Reeves by dedicating a statue in his likeness at the federal courthouse in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he once worked.
Bass Reeves is rightfully remembered as one of the most effective and impressive lawmen in American history, and Yellowstone creator and showrunner Taylor Sheridan is currently working on a new television series tentatively titled “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” and starring British actor David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves, Dennis Quaid as Deputy U.S. Marshal Sherrill Lynn, and Donald Sutherland as Judge Isaac Parker.