Who was Bass Reeves? In February and March this year, thousands of people worldwide tore down statues of slave-owning white men, symbols of a past of systemic oppression. Search, and the debate began for new idols of courage and merit, which would mark the advent of a more inclusive, egalitarian future. One name stands out, previously lost to the sands of time Bass Reeves.
Bass Reeves was born a slave in the estate of William S Reeves, which was in Crawford, Arkansas, in 1838. When William Reeves moved his household to Texas, Bass went with him and grew up there. He was known to be well mannered and to have a good sense of humor. A turning point in his life came during the American Civil War. It seems like Bass was on good terms with William Reeves and went with his son, George Reeves, into battle as his bodyguard and companion.
Leaving The Past
It is not clear what transpired during the war, which led to Bass leaving Reeves’s household. Some say Bass and George fell out over a game of cards, the former taking the chance to leave the care of the slaveholding family. Others say that the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963 was reason enough for him to leave the company of Reeves. In any case, the war allowed him to leave behind a past of enslavement, and he took it at the first chance.
He returned to Arkansas, seeking a domestic life. He married, sired ten children, and took up farming. He was successful enough to build a large home for himself in the middle of the main town. Bass, while still carrying the name of his slaveholding family, freed the shackles which once bound him by being enterprising and industrious.
By the early 1870s, Reeves had become adept at making the best of the diverse demography of the area. He was known to help white Marshals make their way through Indian territory, looking for outlaws. This experience led him to the job he’s best known for.
The ‘Hanging Judge’
The U.S. Marshals Service employed Reeves in 1875 to work under Judge Isaac Parker at the Western District Court for Arkansas in Fort Smith. It was one of the busiest criminal courts at the time, and Parker was known for being liberal with the death sentence. Parker appointed US Marshal Fagan as a deputy, who, taking note of Bass’s expertise in Indian tribes, recruited him as a Deputy.
The Wild West
In the late 19th century, the territory occupied by the Native American tribes was rife with criminal outlaws and fugitives seeking to escape the enforcement of the law. The area was hard to patrol, and the exploration westwards was still underway, making it an attractive place for fugitives to hide. Deputies were dispatched to find them and bring them back to face justice. Bass was one among them.
A Rising Star
Very quickly, it was apparent that Bass was one of the best Deputies in the area. As a Marshal, he was tasked with patrolling the whole Indian territory in Oklahoma and Arkansas. His biographies are filled with tales of exciting exploits and dangerous encounters. He helped capture some of the most infamous outlaws of the time, like Bob Dozier and Greenleaf. By the end of his 32-year long career, he had caught over three thousand criminals – one of the highest records for any US Marshal.
Six feet and two inches tall, with a lithe yet imposing frame, Bass became one of the most feared Marshals in the region. His high success rate was many times that of his white counterparts. At the same time, he was known to be well dressed, with meticulously polished boots. It seems that being top of the game and maintaining dignity was extremely important to him. Each capture, of course, also brought him substantial earnings.
Cunning And Disguise
Bass was often seen on his horse, with three guns with him at all times. He was adept at using revolvers with both hands, and his go-to weapons of choice were a Colt pistol and a Winchester rifle. In addition to his impeccable marksmanship, he also was a master of disguise, which proved invaluable in apprehending criminals. Most famous of all his exploits is the story of how he apprehended a pair of brother outlaws by posing to be a fellow criminal to their mother.
Adulation And Praise
His place as the best Marshal in the country was undisputed. Newspapers from all over the region hailed him as the terror of the lawless in the west. Indeed, his race or origins seemed to have little bearing on how his success was acknowledged.
Commitment To Duty
Bass’s true test would come at a personal cost. His son ended up murdering his wife in 1902 and ran away, escaping the wrath of the law. The warrant for his son’s arrest moved from desk to desk among the other deputies, who were too hesitant to take it up while Bass was away. The tale is touching - when he returned, he saw the warrant and quietly asked for it in a soft voice, bearing the responsibility for bringing his son in. He succeeded, and his son, after being sentenced to imprisonment, was later let out on the grounds of good behavior.
While there are no explicit accounts of his having suffered as a black man in a profession dominated by white counterparts, Bass Reeves certainly faced challenges his colleagues would not have to on account of his birth. Some of these aspects are still very relevant today and gives pause to think of how far we’ve come in 200 years.
Illiteracy And Opportunity
Having been born a slave, Bass had been forbidden, in his childhood, from learning how to read. This, however, did not stop him, and he worked his way around this disadvantage. He found an oral method to learn the sounds of the suspects' names for whom warrants and subpoenas had been issued and how their names appeared as forms on the papers. Thus, whenever he apprehended a criminal, he was able to pull out the correct document.
Attempts At Sullying His Good Name
In 1887, Reeves was tried for the murder of his cook, which historians estimate would not have happened had he been white, like his colleagues. The death of his cook had occurred many years earlier, yet he was brought up only much later in this career. In the end, Reeves had been able to hire a good lawyer, who was also his friend and colleague, and was acquitted. Nonetheless, it cost him many of his savings, and he had to move out of his large home and into a smaller one.
Taking Racial Responsibility
Bass did not ignore his roots entirely, either. He had no qualms about confronting white perpetrators of racial violence. There are accounts of him apprehending men who started race wars and lynchings. He was also reported to have caught, and instead uncharitably kept bound in a prison van, two white men who had been accused of killing a black man.
Later Life Bass Reeves, Police
When law enforcement became a part of more institutionalized state machinery in the Indian Territory, Bass retired as a deputy marshal after much success in 1907. He was posted as a patrolman with the Oklahoma Police Department. He was now sixty-eight years old and was put in charge of patrolling Muskogee. There are multiple accounts of the strict grip he had on the town’s safety, which was ultimately hailed as the reason for there being no crimes on his watch during his term.