Bass Reeves was a legendary American lawman who rose from slavery to become a deputy U.S. Marshal. Not only was he the first black man to be appointed a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, but he was also revered for his superhuman strength, excellent detective skills, and efficient marksmanship, which saw him capture not less than 3,000 criminals during a career spanning 32 years.
It has been over a century since Bass passed on, but he is still remembered for his remarkable service to his country as a police officer. For generations to come, his legacy would remain a part of such tales that illustrate the potential for greatness in everyone. Despite coming from a background that gave him zero chance to make something meaningful out of his life, Bass was able to turn things around and establish his name as one history would have a hard time forgetting.
What History Remembers Bass for
Given the history of the United States of America in terms of slavery, it is remarkable for someone who was born a slave to become the first black deputy U.S. marshal in the west of the Mississippi River. But that’s not where the story ended for Bass Reeves, he went about his duties in extraordinary ways, attaining many fine records that eventually highlighted his name in the annals of law enforcement in the US.
As the story goes, Bass ran away from his master sometime in 1861 or 1862 after a card game led to a physical altercation that had him beat up his master. In fear for his life, Bass ran to the Indian territories now known as Kansas and Oklahoma. Even though he was illiterate, he was able to learn the languages of the five civilized tribes occupying the territory at the time: Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. It was there that Bass Reeves learned his excellent horsemanship and tracking skills.
Upon the abolition of slavery in 1865, Bass Reeves moved to Arkansas and took up farming. He also worked as a guide for government officials traveling through the Indian territory, which he knew like the back of his hand. As a result of that knowledge, as well as his other acquired skills, he was commissioned as a deputy U.S. Marshal by Judge Isaac Parker in 1875.
Bass Reeve was a fearless lawman and went on long expeditions throughout the Indian territory, single-handedly apprehending criminals and bringing them for trial at Fort Smith. During a tenure spanning 32 years, Reeves reportedly apprehended not less than 3,000 criminals. He retired from federal service in 1907 at the age of 67. Thereafter, he worked as a policeman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, for two years before eventually retiring as a result of illness.
Bass Reeves Popularized Undercover Operations
Reeves made use of numerous disguises to catch up with the unsuspecting criminal he hunted and arrest them. He was one of a kind lawman who would do whatever it takes to bring offenders to justice. It is said that he would dress up as a preacher, a tramp, and even a woman just to nail his targets.
On one famous occasion, he was tipped off that a bunch of offenders was holed up in a cabin near Keokuk. He dressed up as a poor farmer and set off with his old Oxen and an outdated wagon. When he got there, he deliberately got himself stuck, and when the outlaws, who were about 6 in number, came out to see what was going on, he arrested all of them.
Bass Reeves was involved in numerous shootings with criminals, but not once was he hit. He, however, had many narrow escapes. His belt was once shot into two. On another occasion, the horse reins in his hand were shot, and on yet another occasion, a bullet hit the brim of his hat, a narrow escape indeed! All of these earned him “The Invincible Marshal” as a nickname.
The Invincible Marshal Was a Principled Crime Fighter
In all, the man was someone very dedicated to serving his country to the best of his ability. He accurately executed any writ or warrant, which he was given to execute and never arrested the wrong person. Reeves was not only a diligent law officer but was most importantly a principled one. He demonstrated this on numerous occasions, but prominently in 1903 when his son Benjamin murdered his wife over accusations of infidelity.
When the warrant for his arrest came, Reeve dutifully executed it even though his colleagues were willing to effect the arrest to save him the agony of arresting his son. Benjamin was eventually tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was, however, released in 1914.
His legacy has been sustained in the mind of Americans in various ways. For instance, he was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame in 2013. The previous year, a bronze statue of Bass Reeves was erected at Pendergraft Park located in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Earlier in 2011, the US-62 Bridge was renamed to honor him. Now known as the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge, it is located between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, as it spans the Arkansas River.
Before all of this, and in 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. As one would expect, Bass’ life has inspired several works of literature, many movies, and television shows.
The Family Life of The Iconic Lawman
Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, Reeves moved to Arkansas and became a farmer. He got married to Nellie Jennie from Texas, and they had a total of 11 children. They include Sally, Robert, Harriet, Georgia, Alice, Newland, Edgar, Lula, Benjamin, Homer, and Bass Jr.
After the passing of his first wife, Bass Reeves got married a second time to a Cherokee freedwoman named Winnie J. Sumner in 1990. Bass had a stepdaughter called Estella Sumner, from Winnie’s previous marriage. It is interesting to note that the National Hockey League player, Ryan Reaves, is Bass’ great-great-great-grandson.
Bass Reeves Hailed from a Family of Slaves
As the foregoing has already hinted, Bass Reeves was born a slave. Born in July 1938 in Crawford County, Arkansas, his family members were slaves of an Arkansas state legislator by the name of William Steele Reeves.
Bass Reeves got his first name from his grandfather Basse Washington and took the surname of the Reeves family, who owned him as a slave. Bass Reeves’ mother’s name was Pearlalee, and he also had a sister named Jane Reeves.
At the age of 8, the Reeves family, together with their slaves, moved to Texas. Bass worked as a waterboy, a field hand, and when he got older, he started working with the household animals consisting of mules and horses. Bass Reeves died at the age of 71 in January 1910, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He died from nephritis.