Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton
(1838-January 12, 1910)
During the late 19th Century no area in the United States was a haven and a refuge for criminals like the Indian Territory, pre–statehood Oklahoma. The jurisdiction of this territory fell to the United States court for Western Arkansas, located at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith, a frontier town, was located on the eastern border of the Indian Territory. The court was the largest federal court in United States history covering over 75,000 square miles. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker, was given the task of cleaning up the territory by President Ulysses Grant. It would not be an easy task. Parker authorized the hiring of 200 deputy U.S. marshals to sweep over the territory and arrest felons and fugitives. The Fort Smith federal court never hired that many deputies to work, there were usually between twenty and thirty deputies at any one time.
The Indian Territory was originally the domain of the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Due to the fact that some of the Indians fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the western portion of the territory was taken away and set aside as reservation space for Plains Indians. The Five Tribes had their own governments, courts, and police, but could not arrest white or black men who were not citizens of the tribes. This task fell to the deputy U.S. marshals who worked out of Fort Smith. Also, the deputies were responsible for arresting Indians who committed crimes against white or black men.
One of the first of the deputies hired by Judge Parker's court was a former slave from Texas named Bass Reeves. It is believed that Reeves fought in the Indian Territory during the Civil War with the Union Indian brigades. Reeves was known as an expert with pistol and rifle, stood about six foot, two inches, weighed 180 pounds, and was said to have superhuman strength. Reeves had a reputation throughout the territory for his ability to catch outlaws that other deputies couldn't. He was known to work in disguise in order to get information and affect the arrest of fugitives he wanted to capture.
Reeves was involved in numerous shootouts but was never wounded. He stated that he killed fourteen men in self defense, at the time of his death newspapers reported that he had killed over twenty men. In 1901, Reeves was interviewed by a Territorial newspaper, at that time he stated he had arrested over 3000 men and women who had broke federal laws in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory, later to include the Oklahoma Territory, in 1890, was the most dangerous area for federal peace officers in the Old West. More than one hundred and twenty lost their lives before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Bass Reeves escaped numerous assassination attempts on his life, he was the most feared deputy U.S. marshal to work the Indian Territory.
Reeves according to research is the only deputy on record who started working for Parker's court in 1875 and worked up to statehood in 1907. Bass Reeves worked a total of thirty–two years as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Indian Territory.
Being a former slave, Reeves was illiterate. He would memorize his warrants and writs. In those thirty–two years it is said he never arrested the wrong person due to the fact he couldn't read.
On one occasion, Reeves son, Bennie committed a domestic murder against his wife. Bass took the warrant and bought his son in for murder shortly thereafter his son convicted and sent to Leavenworth.
At the age of 67, Bass Reeves retired from federal service at Oklahoma statehood in 1907. He was hired as a city policeman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he served for about two years. Reeves had a beat in downtown Muskogee, during that time it is reported there was not one crime reported on his beat. It was told by residents that Reeves while walking his beat he would have a sidekick who carried a satchel of pistols.
African American deputy U.S. Marshals who worked the Indian Territory had the authority to arrest whites, blacks or Indians who broke federal laws. This was a very unique reality for black men given the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. On one occasion Bass Reeves was given the warrant for Belle Starr, it was the one time she turned herself in at the Fort Smith Federal Court. Bass Reeves was a legend in his own time. He was the epitome of dedication to duty, Judge Parker's most trusted deputy and one of the greatest lawmen of the western frontier. On January 12, 1910, Bass Reeves died at the age of 71, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Did You Know?
Lady Bird Johnson came to Fort Smith National Historic Site to dedicate the park on October 27, 1964.