In Recognition of Black History Month

Story by Art T. Burton, photo submitted by the Oklahoma Historical Society

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, born as a slave in Arkansas, grew up in Lamar and Grayson counties, Texas, where he belonged to Col. George R. Reeves, later to become the speaker of the house in the Texas legislature. As a young man Bass Reeves escaped north into the Indian Territory, and he became acquainted with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. It is believed he served as a soldier with the Union Indian Home Guard Regiments during the Civil War. After the war Reeves settled down in Van Buren, Arkansas, as a farmer. On occasion he would serve as a guide for deputy U.S. marshals who worked out of the federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, into the Indian Territory. Reeves had once boasted that he knew Indian Territory “like a cook knows her kitchen” and, as a result of his skills and his knowledge of the territory, he was able to make substantial money as a scout and tracker for peace officers. In 1875, when Judge Isaac C. Parker took over the Fort Smith federal court, Parker commissioned Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal. He is believed to be one of the earliest African Americans to receive a commission as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a deputy marshal in the Indian Territory. He was the only deputy to begin with Parker’s court and work until Oklahoma statehood in 1907. Reeves, standing six feet, two inches tall and weighing 180 pounds, became a celebrity during his lifetime in the Indian Territory. Muskogee Police Chief Bud Ledbetter said about him, “The veteran Negro deputy never quailed in facing any man.” Reeves became an expert with pistol and rifle. Territorial newspapers stated that he killed fourteen outlaws during his career as a peace officer.
When Reeves began riding for Judge Parker, the jurisdiction covered more than seventy-five thousand square miles. The deputies from Fort Smith rode west to Fort Reno, Fort Sill, and Anadarko, a round trip of more than eight hundred miles. When a deputy marshal left Fort Smith to capture outlaws in the territory, he took with him a wagon, a cook who served as guard, and at least one posseman. Reeves transferred to Wetumka, Indian Territory, in 1897 and then to Muskogee in 1898 after federal courts opened in the territory. The Chickasaw Enterprise on November 28, 1901, reported that Bass Reeves had arrested more than three thousand men and women for violating federal laws in the territory.
Newspapers praised Reeves’s reputation often. On November 19, 1909, the Muskogee Times Democrat wrote that “in the early days when the Indian country was overridden with outlaws, Reeves would herd into Fort Smith, often single handed, bands of men charged with crimes from bootlegging to murder. He was paid fees in those days that sometimes amounted to thousands of dollars for a single trip, trips that sometimes lasted for months.”
When Bass Reeves died on January 12, 1910, the Muskogee Phoenix wrote of the legendary lawman, “In the history of the early days of Eastern Oklahoma the name of Bass Reeves has a place in the front rank among those who cleansed out the old Indian Territory of outlaws and desperadoes. No story of the conflict of government’s officers with those outlaws, which ended only a few years ago with the rapid filling up of the territory with people, can be complete without mention of the Negro who died yesterday. During that time he was sent to arrest some of the most desperate characters that ever infested Indian Territory and endangered life and peace in its borders. And he got his man as often as any of the deputies.”
The greatest testimony to his devotion to duty was the fact he brought his own son in for murder once he received the warrant. Bass Reeves was one of the greatest peace officers in the history of the American western frontier.