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Bass Reeves
BassReeves.jpg
Born July 1838
Died January 12, 1910(1910-01-12) (aged 71)
Known for 3,000 Arrests
Height 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) at age 30
Opponent(s)
  • Jim Webb
  • Wiley Bear
  • John Bruner
  • Frank Buck
  • Ned Christy
  • Belle Starr
Spouse(s)
Nellie Jennie
(m. 1864; died 1896)
Winnie Sumter
(m. 1900)
Children 11
Police career
Country United States Government
Years of service 1875-1910
Rank Deputy

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was a runaway slave, Union soldier, gunfighter, farmer, scout, tracker, and deputy U.S. Marshal. He spoke several languages including Cherokee and Creek. Bass was one of the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River mostly working in the rough Indian Territory. The region was saturated with horse thieves, cattle rustlers, gunslingers, bandits, swindlers, and murderers. Bass made more than 3,000 arrests in his lifetime.

Bass was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas. His family were slaves belonging to Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. During the American Civil War, his owners fought for the Confederacy. At some point, Bass escaped and fled to Indian country where he learned American Indian languages, customs, and tracking skills. He eventually became a farmer. By 1875, Bass was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal along with 200 other individuals. He was 37 years old. Bass was well acquainted with the Indian territory and served on their land for over 32 years as a peace officer covering over 75,000 square miles, presently known as Oklahoma. He had several personal tragedies during his lifetime. He accidentally shot a man which led to the court case United States vs. Bass Reeves for which he was acquitted, his first wife Nellie Jennie died in 1896 and he had to arrest his son Benjamin "Bennie" Reeves who was charged with murder. His son was released after eleven years in prison and lived out the rest of his life as a model citizen.

Bass encountered some of the most ruthless outlaws of his day. His weapons of choice were the Winchester Models 1873 and 1892. They were guns that conveniently fit dual-purpose handgun/rifle cartridges. He also briefly used the Colt 45 peacemaker. He tracked and killed notorious outlaw Jim Webb. Another notorious desperado Bass encountered was murderer and horse thief Wiley Bear. Bass was immortalized in the popular media including TV shows, films, novels, poems, and books. He was also inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame. A bronze statue of Reeves was erected in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge in Oklahoma, was named after the legendary lawman.

Early life

Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. It appears plausible that Reeves was retained as a servant by William Steele Reeves's son, Colonel George R. Reeves, a Texan sheriff, legislator, and one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

When the American Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate States Army, taking Bass with him. According to the Reeves family, at some time between 1861 and 1862 he attacked George Reeves following an argument during a poker card game and escaped to Indian Territory which is now Kansas and Oklahoma and once there he became acquainted with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole, learning their customs, languages, and tracking skills. The Emancipation Proclamation gave Reeves his freedom and as a freedman, Reeves returned to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren.

Career

Reeves and his family farmed until 1875 when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Territory and could speak several Native languages. He recruited him as a deputy; Reeves, age 37, was the first Black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River. Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Native reservation Territory. He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas, for a short while. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Native Territory.

Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory and became one of Judge Parker's most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous fugitives of the time; he was never wounded despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves had on his record thousands of arrests of felons. According to his obituary, he killed 14 outlaws to defend his life.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before he became ill and retired.

Later years and death

Bass reeves family photo
Reeves (left) with a group of Marshals in 1907

Reeves' health began to fail further after retiring. He died of Bright's disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910.

Family and descendants

Reeves was married twice and had eleven children. In 1864 he married Nellie Jennie (d. 1896) and after her death Winnie Sumter (1900–1910). His children were named Newland, Benjamin, George, Lula, Robert, Sally, Edgar, Bass Jr., Harriet, Homer and Alice.

He was a great-uncle of Paul L. Brady, who became the first Black man appointed as a federal administrative law judge in 1972.

His great-great-grandson is former National Football League and Canadian Football League player Willard Reaves, while his great-great-great-grandsons are National Hockey League player Ryan Reaves and CFL player Jordan Reaves. Ryan Reaves's grandfather changed the family name from Reeves to Reaves. This claim has not been verified by historians and/or genealogists.

Legacy

Bass Reeves Statue
Statue dedicated to Bass Reeves in Fort Smith, Arkansas
  • In 2011, the US-62 Bridge, which spans the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, was renamed the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge.
  • In May 2012, a bronze statue of Reeves by Oklahoma sculptor Harold Holden was erected in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
  • In 2013, he was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame.

Television

  • Reeves is the subject of season 1, episode 6 titled "Bass Reeves: Trailblazing Lawman" (2021) in the Roku series Wild West Chronicles
  • Reeves is the subject of season 2, episode 4 titled "The Real Lone Ranger" in Gunslingers
  • Reeves figures prominently in an episode of How It's Made, in which a Bass Reeves limited-edition collectors' figurine is shown in various stages of the production process
  • In "The Murder of Jesse James", an episode of the television series Timeless (season one, episode 12), Reeves is portrayed by Colman Domingo.
  • In "Everybody Knows", a season two episode of the television series Wynonna Earp, Reeves is portrayed by Adrian Holmes.
  • Reeves is mentioned in the plot of "The Royal Family", a season two episode of the television series Greenleaf. Reeves' name is used as an alias by pastor Basie Skanks to support his church with gambling earnings.
  • Reeves' status as one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals plays a significant role as a childhood role model for the character of Will Reeves in the Watchmen television series. Reeves is portrayed by Jamal Akakpo in three episodes featuring a fictional 1920s silent film based on Reeves' exploits titled "Trust in the Law".
  • Reeves is mentioned in season 3, episode 2 of the television series Justified as two U.S. Marshals are discussing their all-time favorite historical U.S. Marshals.
  • Reeves features in the "Stressed Western" episode of Legends of Tomorrow, portrayed by David Ramsey. Ramsey is noted for having played Green Arrow's ally and confidant John Diggle in the Arrowverse since its inception. In context, Reeves is portrayed as Diggle's ancestor where Sara Lance called him "Dig" at one point even though he thought they were digging the gunfight activities. The Legends encounter him at Fist City, Oklahoma at the time when they were pursuing the Haverack, a rage-attracted alien worm that has been excreting gold. After the Haverack was slain by Astra Logue, Reeves brought Fist City back in order.
  • Reeves features as a character played by Gary Beadle in the 2021 TV Series Around the World in 80 Days.
  • A miniseries based on Art T. Burton's 2006 biography (and co-produced by Morgan Freeman) was reported to be under development by HBO in 2015. The concept was later acquired by Amazon Studios in 2019 and ordered to series in 2022 under the title Twin Territories.
  • In season 34, episode 14 of The Simpsons, "Carl Carlson Rides Again," the character Lenny states that the TV show "The Lone Ranger" is based on Reeves.
  • A limited series based on the life of Reeves entitled Lawmen: Bass Reeves from creator Taylor Sheridan and starring David Oyelowo began airing on Paramount+ on November 5, 2023.

Film

  • In They Die by Dawn (2013), Reeves is portrayed by Harry Lennix.
  • Hell on the Border is a 2019 action film based on the early law enforcement career of Reeves, starring David Gyasi. It was written and directed by Wes Miller and features Ron Perlman in a supporting role.
  • In April 2018, Amazon Studios was reported to be developing a biopic of Reeves with the script and direction helmed by Chloé Zhao. No subsequent announcement was made about the fate of the project.
  • Reeves is portrayed by Delroy Lindo in The Harder They Fall (2021).
  • Reeves is portrayed by Isaiah Washington in the independent film Corsicana.

Theater

  • A theatrical production about Reeves entitled Cowboy, written and directed by Layon Gray, debuted in 2019 at the National Black Theatre Festival. It opened Off-Broadway in December of 2022 and is playing through December 2023 at The Actors' Temple West 47th St in Manhattan.

Games

  • Reeves is a character in the miniature wargame Wild West Exodus.
  • Reeves is a playable character in the board game Western Legends.
  • In the card game Cartaventura Oklahoma, one plays the fictional escape of Bass Reeves with five possible outcomes. The game also includes an insert with a summary of Bass Reeves' story.

Comic books

  • Darko Macan, Igor Kordey: Marshal Bass (8 books), Delcourt
  • Reeves plays a supporting role in the Lucky Luke adventure "A Cowboy in High Cotton".
  • Reeves was a supporting character alongside Doc Holliday in the miniseries Atomic Robo and the Knights of the Golden Circle (5 Issues)

Hall of fame

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