Bass Reeves: Key Facts about the legendary lawmen of the Wild West

Bass Reeves was the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Reeves was one of the greatest American frontier heroes and legendary lawmen of the Wild West.

“Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin”

— Bass Reeves

Key Facts & Information

Early Life

1.       Bass Reeves was born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas.

2.       He took the name of his owner, William Reeves, a farmer and politician.

3.       He worked as a water boy alongside his parents until he was old enough to work in the slave fields.

U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves 1907

4.       In 1846 William Reeves moved to Paris, Texas located in Grayson County.

5.       It is unclear, but he reportedly served under George Reeves, William Reeve’s son, in the Confederate Army.

6.        Bass Reeves’s family claimed that Bass and George got into a fight over a card game and Bass Reeves escaped to Indian Territory.

7.       He was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and left Indian Territory and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas. He became a successful farmer and Rancher.

8.       In 1864 he married Nellie Jennie and they had 10 children, five girls, and five boys.

9.       After the Civil War, he also served as a guide to U.S. government officials who wanted to travel through the Indian Territory

Career

1.       In 1875 he was commissioned to be a deputy U.S. marshal by a judge from the Western District of Arkansas. He was responsible for catching criminals within the Oklahoma region.

2.       Reeves was known for his courage and captured more than 3,000 criminals. One of the criminals was his own son whom he captured for shooting and killing his own wife.

3.       Reeves was said to always give criminals a chance to turn themselves in before using his firearm.

4.       He caught several major criminals such as the infamous horse thief, Jim Webb, from a quarter-mile away after being on the run for two years.

5.       He also tracked down and captured the notorious Bob Dozier was a very skillful and successful criminal. According to Reeves’s daughter, Alice Reeves Spahn, capturing Bob Dozier was the highlight of his career.

6.       Due to Jim Crow, in 1907 after Oklahoma became a state, he joined the Muskogee Police Department.

7. Reeves was arrested and charged with murdering a posse cook in 1887. Judge Isaac Parker, the same judge in which many outlaws tried his case. Reeve’s friend and colleague, United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton, represented him; in the end, Reeves was acquitted.

8. In 1890, Reeves arrested a notorious Seminole outlaw named Greenleaf. He had been on the run for 19 years and was accused of murdering seven people. The same year, Reeves went after the famous Cherokee outlaw Ned Christie. Reeves and his posse burned Christie’s cabin, but he escaped.

Legacy & Honors

Oath of Deputy Marshal for Bass Reeves.


1.       In 2012, a large monument was dedicated in his honor at Ross Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith.

2.       He is respected as one of the most accomplished lawmen of his time.

3.       Bass Reeves died in 1910 of kidney disease.

4.       Paul Brady, Bass Reeves nephew, became the first Black appointed federal administrative law judge

5.       It is believed that the famous TV show, The Lone Ranger, was inspired and based on the stories of Reeves’s life as a lawman.

Read More About Bass Reeves

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