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Article: Warrior Wednesday: The Indomitable Lawman Bass Reeves

Warrior Wednesday: The Indomitable Lawman Bass Reeves

Imagine you’re a horse thief or a cattle rustler, you had just shot and killed two men in your escape and you’ve been on the run for months. You hide out in the vast and dangerous wilderness that is “Indian Territory” knowing that most lawmen would hesitate at entering the dangerous lands you’re seeking refuge in. One morning you wake up from a kick and you look up and you see a grim, mustached man standing in front of you. You look up and down his dusty 6’2” frame. He is made of iron will and sheer determination. In one hand he has a warrant with your name and face on it. His other hand is resting on one of the pair of .45 Colt Single Action Army revolvers that are strapped on his hips, butts forward. The sun shines on the Star on his jacket. You know you have met your maker. He is the Indomitable Marshal, a man incorruptible and unfazeable. The grim right hand of “Hanging Judge” Issac Parker. This series of events happened to thousands of outlaws and desperados who tried to outwit or outfight the legendary US Marshal Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves was supposedly born into slavery on July 16th 1838 in Arkansas. I say supposedly because the birthdates of people who were viewed as property tend not to be accurately recorded. His first name came from his grandfather who was also named Bass. His last name was that of his master William Steele Reeves, a politician in Arkansas. During his harsh upbringing Bass worked as a stable hand and as a blacksmith’s assistant. Eventually he was picked to be a manservant for his Master’s son, George Reeves. George Reeves was Speaker of the House in the Texas State Legislature and would later on become a Confederate Colonel in the American Civil War. As his manservant, Bass was obligated to follow George into battle. Bass actually fought in the Battle of Pea Ridge. While playing a game of cards with his Master, Bass was accused of cheating and when George came to strike him, Reeves beat his owner into the dirt. Knowing full well what happened to slaves who attacked their masters, Reeves made a decision.

He fled into the Indian Territory, a vast lawless land that encompassed much of present day Oklahoma. During this period he made peace with the Cherokee, Seminole and Cree tribes and lived among them as an honored friend and became fluent in their languages. He learned to track from these survival experts. At the end of the Civil War, Bass Reeves was legally recognized as a Freedman. He would settle in Van Buren, Arkansas as a farmer and raise a family, but as you can imagine, farming in a southern state after the Reconstruction era was anything but easy. So to make ends meet Bass often sold his services as a scout and guide for US Marshals and other Lawmen who needed help navigating the Indian Territory. A Black Freedman, who knew the land, lived among the tribes as a friend and spoke their languages was one hell of a Rockstar.

For some context let me explain how dangerous and vast the Indian Territory was, cus at the time it was no joke. The US Marshals Service has been active since 1789. From its founding till now, a little over 200 US Marshals have been killed in the line of duty over the course of its entirety of 232 years. Over 130 of them were killed in the Indian Territory between the end of the Civil war till 1890. Bass Reeves’ skillset meant that he was highly sought out by Marshals, Private Detectives, and local lawmen all around the Indian Territory. When “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory, he in turn appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan had heard about Reeves, and based on his skill he recruited him as a deputy immediately; Reeves was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River. His area of responsibility encompassed almost 75,000 miles.

Under the tutelage of a fellow US Marshal Arch Landon, Reeves learned the art of gunfighting with pistols. He would apparently practice drawing and shooting every night during his early years as a federal lawman. He eventually learned to shoot with both hands and dual wield his sixguns at the same time. He routinely carried a pair of Single Action Army Colts which were both chambered in .44-40 or .45 Colt as the situation dictated, a Winchester lever action rifle chambered in the matching caliber to his pistols and a double barreled shotgun slung on a scabbard on his saddle. Wherever he went, he was prepared for a gun fight and everyone knew it. He was forbidden to enter in rifle shooting competitions in towns all around the Indian Territory because he was so accurate with his shooting abilities. His detective skills, which weren’t taught but rather learned naturally over the course of his 30 years were also legendary. By all accounts he was relentless, incorruptible and a harsh but fair lawman.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves haunted the nightmares of desperadoes in  Indian territory - Arkansas Times

Reeves never learned how to read, so he would have his warrants read to him by another deputy until he could remember them verbatim and would recite his warrants to his prisoners from memory. Over the course of 32 years as a Federal Peace officer in the Indian Territory Reeves had arrested over 3,000 Felons and killed 14 men in gunfights while somehow miraculously avoiding any bullet holes of his own.

We’d be here for days if I tried to go through every single arrest that Bass Reeves took part in,As an example of Bass Reeves’ lightning fast skills, his first justified kill occurred when Reeves was in the process of arresting a bootlegger and his heavily armed bodyguard who had been selling illegal whiskey from a horse-drawn wagon. The bootlegger immediately surrendered, but the gun-thug yelled out “A Black badge don’t mean a damned thing to me!’ as he swung the rifle up towards Bass. In that brief instance Bass drew his Colt and fired two bullets into his chest. The Gunman was dead before he fell from the driver’s seat.He liked to outsmart tough outlaws using various disguises. Once he posed as a beggar, seeking charity from the mother of two known assailants. After having dinner with the outlaw family and spending the night, Reeves handcuffed the outlaws and marched them over 20 miles on foot.

Then there was the time that Bass was ambushed by the three Brunter brothers, who were notoriously dangerous murderers and horse thieves. The brothers told Reeves to drop his weapons, but he played it cool and asked the men for the date. When asked why, Reeves said so he could mark it on their arrest warrants, The Brunter brothers almost fell over laughing, thinking the outgunned lawman was crazy. But Reeves used that moment to whip out his Colt revolver, shoot two of the brothers dead and pistol whipped the third into unconsciousness.

There was also the time when Reeves was called in by his fellow deputy U.S. marshals to help smoke out a stubborn fugitive. After an hours long shootout, the outlaw made a run for it.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bud Ledbetter hollered, 'Get him, Bass!' And Bass coolly and calmly stated, 'I will break his neck.' Bass took his Winchester rifle at a quarter of a mile and broke this man's neck.

In 1889, after Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang of horse thieves. He waited along the route that the gang was known to have used and surprised Tom Story with an arrest warrant. The outlaw panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew faster and shot him dead. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again.

In 1889, after Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang of horse thieves. He waited along the route that the gang was known to have used and surprised Tom Story with an arrest warrant. The outlaw panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew faster and shot him dead. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again.

In 1902, after delivering two prisoners to U.S. Marshal Leo Bennett in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Bass arrived to bad news. His son, Bennie, had been charged with murder after killing his wife. Though the warrant had been lying on Bennett’s desk for two days, the other deputies were reluctant to take it. Bass demanded the responsibility for finding his son. Two weeks later, Reeves returned to Muskogee with his son in tow and turned him over to Marshal Bennett. In 1907, State agencies assumed law enforcement, and Reeves’ duties as a deputy marshal came to an honorable end. Bass took a job as a patrolman with the Muskogee, Oklahoma Police Department. During the two years of his time with the Muskogee Police Department There wasn’t a single crime on his beat. Reeves’ diagnosis with Bright’s disease finally ended his career when he took to his sickbed in 1909. He died on January 12, 1910, and he was buried in the Agency Cemetery at Muskogee, Oklahoma, His Obituary described him perfectly “Absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.

Lawman Legend Bass Reeves: The Invincible Man Hunter

Over the 35 years that Bass Reeves served as a Deputy US Marshal, he earned his place in history as one of the most effective lawmen in the world bringing in more than 3,000 outlaws taming the lawless territory. 

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