Bass Reeves: The Best Lawman in the Old West

One of the most effective lawmen of the old west wasn’t Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok. He was a Federal Marshall who worked out of Judge Parker’s court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His job was hunting outlaws in the 75,000 square miles of Indian Territory – what is now the state of Oklahoma.

Bass Reeves – Born July 1838; Died Jan. 12, 1910 (71) in Muskogee, OK

This Marshall excelled at his job. Over his 32 years working for Judge Parker, he rounded up over 3000 hardened criminals. His name was Bass Reeves, and he was an African-American, a former slave from Paris, Texas.

Born in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, Bass grew up to be a strong, dependable worker. When the civil war broke out, Reeves’ owner went to fight and took Bass with him. During the war he escaped and fled to Indian Territory where he took refuge with the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Indians. He learned their customs and languages, and was a natural at tracking and hunting. He also became very quick and accurate with a pistol and a rifle.

Indian Territory was a rough place then, a refuge for outlaws of all kinds. But Bass Reeves was a strong and self-confident man who could task care of himself so the outlaws avoided trouble with him. After the war Reeves left Indian Territory and built a farm near Van Buren, Arkansas, and married Nellie Jennie from Texas. They raised 10 children on their homestead — five girls and five boys. During this time, Reeves sometimes worked as a scout and guide for U.S. Deputy Marshals going into Indian Territory for the Federal Court, which had jurisdiction over the lawless Territory.

Federal Western District Court was moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas and on May 10, 1875, Isaac C. Parker was appointed as Judge with authority over the Indian Territory. At that time, there was little law and order in the Territory; it was well known as a haven for thieves and murderers.

One of Parker’s first official acts was to appointJames F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal and told him to hire some 200 deputies. Fagan knew about Bass Reeves’ significant knowledge of Indian Territory and that he spoke several languages, and recruited him as a U.S. Deputy.

The deputies were tasked with cleaning up Indian Territory and on Judge Parker’s orders, “Bring them in alive — or dead!”

It was a job that well suited Bass Reeves. He learned his new trade quickly. A flamboyant and courageous man, he had that unique ability to blend into any group or situation.

Standing over 6 feet tall and physically powerful, an expert with pistols or rifle, and fluent in at least two Native languages, he was an impressive man. Over his career he was in several shootouts, and reportedly killed 20 men in gunfights.
He also developed excellent skills as a detective and with his acting ability, he was a master of disguise, often infiltrating outlaw hideouts to gain information about his targets.

He was and still is a legend. Covering the vast Oklahoma Territory was no easy task. Working for the Hanging Judge was a demanding job that made him a target for every bad man in the territory. He was Judge Parker’s best Marshall and the outlaws hated him and wanted him dead. The outlaws learned that Bass Reeves couldn’t be bought and couldn’t be scared away from his target.

Yet, he was unable to read or write. He overcame this handicap by having someone read him the warrants. He wuld memorize the contents and recognize which warrant was for which outlaw.

Like the other deputies, he would start out from Fort Smith with his warrants, a wagon, a cook, and a posse man, usually Native American, and they would ride after their assigned targets. He survived several attempts on his life, and even though he was in numerous gunfights, he never took a bullet.

A measure of his character showed when his son was charged with murdering his wife in a domestic dispute. Marshall Reeves took charge of the warrant and brought him in for trial. He was convicted and sent to Leavenworth.

Reeves was a flamboyant and inspiring character – so inspiring that some people believe that the radio and TV show The Lone Ranger was patterned after him. It seems likely, considering that Reeves was known for wearing disguises, was a crack shot with pistol or rifle, often rode with a Native American partner, passed out silver coins, and had high ideals. He certainly sounds like he was a good role model for the radio and tv legend. But Bass Reeves was the real thing; a truly remarkable man, and a real hero of the American West.

Leave a Reply