There seems to be no shortage of famous Old West lawmen. Such men as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, and Bat Masterson have been immortalised in books, movies, comic books, and television shows. Among those lawmen of the Old West considered to be the greatest by historians and Old West aficionados is Bass Reeves. Bass Reeves was a Deputy U.S. Marshall who worked mostly in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In a career that spanned 32 years he arrested around 3000 criminals. He claimed to only be fair with a rifle, although curiously he was banned from turkey shooting competitions on a regular basis. He shot and killed 14 badmen, although each time it was in self-defence. Marshal. Reeves himself was never wounded although on two separate occasions his hat and his belt were shot off. Bass Reeves's record would put those of many more famous Old West lawmen to shame. Aside from his efficiency as a lawman, one thing that set Bass Reeves apart from other lawmen in the Old West is that he also happened to be black.
Bass Reeves was born into slavery in July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. Like the rest of his family, Bass was the slave of Arkansas sate legislator William Steele Reeves. Bass Reeves was only about eight years old when William Steele Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas to settle Peters Colony. When the American Civil War broke out, William Steele Reeves' son took Bass Reeves with him to war. It was during the Civil War that Bass Reeves escaped slavery. How he did so is a bit unclear. According to one story he beat George Reeves up after a disagreement over a card game and then fled. According to another story he simply departed after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Regardless, Bass Reeves went to the Indian Territory, where he lived with the Seminole and Creek tribes. It was while in the Indian Territory that Mr. Reeves not only learned the languages and customs of various Native American peoples, but also refined his skills as a scout and his skill with guns. He eventually married Nellie Jennie and settled down as a farmer. He had ten children--five girls and five boys.
It was on May 10 1875 that Isaac Parker (forever remembered as "the Hanging Judge") became the judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. To deal with the lawlessness of the Indian Territory and surrounding areas, Judge Parker appointed James F. Fagan as United States Marshal and ordered him to hire 200 Deputy U.S. Marshals. Stories about Bass Reeves, who was familiar with the Indian Territory, could speak several Native American languages, and was skilled as both a scout and a gunman, had reached Marshal Fagan. He then recruited Bass Reeves as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. This made Bass Reeves the first lawman west of the Mississippi.
At the time he became a Deputy U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves was 38 years old, not exactly young for the era. That having been said, he was an impressive figure. He stood 6 foot 2 inches and weighed 180 pounds. He was known for being calm, cool, and collected. The Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal wrote of him, “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is." Given his impressive figure, his skills with the gun and at tracking, and his very demeanour, Bass Reeves quickly earned a reputation as a lawman.
Indeed, Bass Reeves captured some of the most notorious outlaws of the time. Among these was Bob Dozier, who had held up everything from banks to stagecoaches and committed crimes from robbery to con games. Dozier also had a reputation for being elusive, and evaded capture on more than one occasion. Bass Reeves tracked him for months before finding him in the Cherokee Hills. Unfortunately Dozier refused to be taken alive and Bass Reeves ultimately killed him in a gunfight
As difficult as Marshal Reeves's pursuit of Bob Dozier was, it was perhaps not as remarkable as his encounter with the murderous Brunter brothers. The Brunter brothers knew Bass Reeves was pursuing them and actually accomplished something few criminals ever did--they got the drop on him. The three brothers ordered Bass Reeves off his horse and then proceeded to taunt him with what they thought would be his inevitable death at their hands. Marshal Reeves remained calm and simply asked the brothers for the date. When they asked him why he needed to know, he told them that he needed the correct date for their arrest papers. He also said it did not matter if he took them in dead or alive. The Brunter brothers broke into laughter, at which point Bass Reeves grabbed the gun barrel of the Brunter closest to him, while drawing his own gun. The other two Brunters drew their guns on Bass Reeves, but they were not fast enough. Bass Reeves shot and killed them both. It is not particularly clear what happened to the third Brunter. Some reports say that Marshal Reeves killed him, others that he merely arrested him.
Such was Bass Reeves's reputation that some criminals simply turned themselves into him without a fight. Among these may have been one of the most famous outlaws of all time. Bass Reeves was tracking none other than Belle Star for horse theft. Some accounts claim that when she found out it was Marshal Reeves who was pursuing herself, she simply turned herself into him. Much later in Bass Reeves's career his reputation was such that one criminal actually had nightmares about him. Jerry McIntosh, a man who had burned his wife alive (he claimed he was drunk at the time) dreamed that the legendary lawman cornered and shot him. It was because of this that he surrendered himself to Bass Reeves in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Bass Reeves was not only a skilled gunfighter and a superb tracker, but he was also a man of integrity. In the early 20th Century there was issued a warrant for the arrest of one of his sons, Bennie Reeves, for the murder of his wife. It was suggested to Bass Reeves that perhaps some other Deputy Marshal should handle the case, but he insisted on doing so himself. Marshal Reeves arrested his own son and Bennie Reeves was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. He would eventually be released on good behaviour and never violated the law again. Many other Old West lawmen might well have tried to protect a close relative who had committed the crime, but Bass Reeves insisted on seeing justice was served.
Bass Reeves's career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal ended in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state. He was 67 at the time. He then joined the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department. According to reports there was never a crime committed on Bass Reeves's beat in Muskogee. He left the force at age 69 and died two years later at the age of 71.
Despite a record of apprehending criminals that was much better than that of many more famous Old West lawmen, for most of the 20th Century into the 21st Century Bass Reeves was known only to historians and Old West aficionados. Fortunately the publication of Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton, the first and only scholarly work on Marshal Reeves, in 2006 has helped make him better known. He has since appeared in a few novels, including five written by Ken Farmer and Buck Stienke. Only a few films have been made about Bass Reeves, none of them major releases. The 2002 straight to video release Black Marshal: The Hunt for Dozier portrayed Bass Reeves's pursuit of Bob Dozier. Another straight to video movie, Bass Reeves, was released in 2010. Last year the short "Lawman" was released. It portrayed Marhsal Reeves bringing in an outlaw. Of late Bass Reeves has also appeared as a supporting character or less in a few films. As to television, Bass Reeves's only appearance in a drama was in the recent episode of time travel show Timeless, "The Murder of Jesse James".
As to why a lawman with an arrest record such as Bass Reeves has not seen a plethora of movies, comic books, and television shows made about him, the primary reason is quite simply the status of African Americans in the United States for much of the late 19th and 20th Centuries. During the Silent Era and the Golden Age of Hollywood African Americans were limited to supporting roles, often ones that were extremely stereotypical. Indeed, very few black characters appear in Westerns made during the Golden Age, something which contradicts historical fact. In the Old West African Americans were more than servants, boot polishers, and train porters. One in four cowboys was black. There were entire cavalry regiments composed of African Americans, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. There were black farmers, prospectors, drivers, and traders. Sadly, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, none of this was acknowledged. It would have been too much to expect the major studios of the era to acknowledge a black Deputy U.S. Marshal such as Bass Reeves.
By the late 20th Century things had improved with regards to African American roles. Not only did blacks feature more prominently in films, but films featuring African Americans in leading roles emerged. Unfortunately by this point the Western was in sharp decline. After enjoying decades of popularity, by the late Seventies the Western was considered passée. While the Seventies would see such films as Sounder (1972) and
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and the Eighties would see such films as A
Soldier’s Story (1984) and The Colour Purple (1985), a Western centred
on a black Deputy U.S. Marshall was not in the offing.
Of course, it must also be pointed out that fame was something that did not come to many of the lawmen of the Old West, even those, like Bass Reeves, who numbered among the very best. Bill Tighman served as a lawman for nearly fifty years, but he never became a household name. John Hughes served as a Texas Ranger for decades, and yet one would be hard pressed to find many in the general public who would recognise his name. Those Old West lawmen who did become famous were either lucky enough to have writers take an interest in them or to have a gift for self promotion. Wyatt Earp was not particularly well known until the publication of the biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake in 1931. Although the book is actually more a work of fiction than a proper biography, it led to Wyatt Earp's lasting fame. Wild Bill Hickok needed no biography to attain fame, as he had a knack for self promotion. He often told tall tales about himself that had no basis in reality. These tall tales would then be picked up by writers and often exaggerated even further. Given such similarly great lawmen as Bill Tighman and John Hughes never became household names, there was little chance that Bass Reeves would either.
Regardless, Bass Reeves has all the makings of a Western hero suitable for a major motion picture or a television series. He was deadly accurate with a gun. He was a master at tracking and had considerable skills as a detective. He knew several Native American languages. He was also an honest and honourable man who could not be bribed and always went by the law. Bass Reeves was in many ways a bigger than life figure, and one more impressive than many of the more famous Old West lawmen who are household names. What is more, with a long career in law enforcement there are a plethora of stories in newspapers and books about his adventures that could provide fodder for several movies or even a long running TV show. With the success of such films as 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Hidden Figures (2016), the time could finally be ripe for a major motion picture or TV show about Bass Reeves, quite possibly the greatest Old West lawman of them all.