Lawman: The Legend of Bass Reeves
He rode for Judge Parker’s court in Fort Smith. He was a legend in the Indian Territory, feared by the lawless and respected by those who foresaw a promising future for a civilized land. Bass Reeves probably was born near Paris, in Lamar County, probably in July 1838. He was a slave, one of seven owned by Reeves, a Tennessee native who moved to Grayson County in the years before the Civil War. Colonel Reeves was a farmer near Pottsboro, the sheriff of Grayson County, the tax collector, and a member of the state legislature who served a term as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 17th legislature after the war.
As a child, Reeves worked as a water boy in the fields and later as field hand. He was big, six feet two and 180 pounds full grown, and possessed a quick mind and good humor. In time, he left the fields and became a personal servant to the Colonel.
In later years, Reeves said that he had gone into battle with the colonel at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge in Georgia and Tennessee. He told of being on hand at the fight at Pea Ridge, Arkansas when former Texas Ranger and Confederate General Ben McCullough was felled by a sniper’s bullet, although there is no independent source of verification for any of these stories.
At some time during the war, Reeves and the colonel parted company. The story in the Bass Reeves family is of a quarrel over a card game and fight between the two men, after which Reeves, who as a slave could have faced execution for the brawl, fled into the Nations and freedom. The truth of that story is not known. Neither Reeves nor the colonel ever spoke of the event in later years.
In the Nations, Reeves lived with the Seminoles and Creeks, where he learned their language and their ways. Members of these tribes fought with both sides during the war, and one story says that war’s end saw Reeves wearing the stripes of Union sergeant, but that too is part of the mystery.
With peace and emancipation, Reeves married a Texas girl named Nellie Jinney, and the couple settled on a farm outside Van Buren, Ark. Their union would produce a big family of five boys and five girls. Reeves was making a success of both his family and farm and had little reason to change his life until 1875.
That was the year President Grant appointed a Missouri congressman named Isaac C. Parker to the post of United States Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. The court sat in Fort Smith, hard along the border with the Indian Territory, and its jurisdiction extended into that violent and troubled land.
The Western District Court was in trouble. A previous judge had been force out with the threat of impeachment for a long record of corruption. His replacement had lasted only six months before giving the job up as impossible. Parker accepted the post with an unusual proviso: there would be no appeals from his court; his rulings were final. Congress agreed to the arrangement and Parker moved to Fort Smith.
One of the new judge’s first acts was to authorize the hiring of two hundred United States deputy marshals. They were to reach out into the Indian Territory and no man’s land and corral the murderers, robbers, and thieves who thought they had found sanctuary. One of the first men to step up and swear the oath was Bass Reeves.
Reeves had everything the job required. He knew the country from his time living with the Creeks and was fluent in several Indian dialects. His courage was unquestioned and his prowess with the tools of his trade, a pair of Colt long revolvers and a rife, were legendary. He rode a big red horse with a white blaze, and he was always neatly dressed and topped off by a big black hat.
Before heading off into the territory, he would get someone to read the warrants to him—Reeves could neither read nor write—and describe the physical characteristics of the wanted men. He relied on his memory, and it is said he never arrested the wrong man in in the thirty-two years he rode for the court.
Tracking down some of the worst of the worst was not a duty for the faint hearted. The outlaws considered all the land west of the Katy railroad their territory; they posted signs warning any lawman that he would shot on sight. But the law moved west anyway.
While Judge Parker had made it plain, he want these villains brought in alive or dead, there was more to the business than wild shoot outs and frantic chases. Marshal Reeves often relied on stealth and cunning to outwit his adversaries.
Once, while trailing two train robbers on whose heads lay a $5,000 bounty, Reeves disguised himself as a broken down old tramp and walked twenty-eight miles into the country to the bandits’ cabin. He asked for shelter and was invited to dinner and offered a place to sleep for the night. By morning he had his prey arrested and cuffed and the trio walked the twenty-eight miles back to the posse. But sometimes, deadly force was the only answer. During his career, Reeves killed fourteen men. After one incident, he was charged with murder, tried and quickly acquitted.
Perhaps the most famous of his many confrontations with the bad men, was the affair with Bill Dozier. Dozier was prolific outlaw whose affronts to society touched many levels. He was a murderer, a cattle rustler, an armed robber of banks and stores, a road agent, fence, swindler, and horse thief. If it was crooked and violent, Bill Dozier was likely to have a hand in it.
Reeves had been looking for the outlaw for years and had studied his movements and tendencies carefully. He set out with one other deputy to find the him. They finally ran Dozier to ground deep in the thickets of the upper Cherokee Nation, during a tremendous thunderstorm.
It was nearing sundown as the two marshals rode down a wooded ravine seeking shelter from the storm. As the rain fell through fading light and lightening cracked across the sky, a bullet whistled by Reeves’ head. Through the mist, he saw the image of man darting through the dark woods. He fired two shots and the shadow fell.
Then, from another quarter, came more fire. Reeves jerked upright, spun and fell on his face on the wet ground. Long minutes passed, until the assailant, convinced that Reeves was dead, cautiously stepped out from behind a tree and approached the body. That was when the marshal rose, raise the cocked revolver he had hidden under his body, and demanded that the outlaw drop his weapons.
Bill Dozier was stunned by the sudden turn of events, but he would not go easily. He reached for his pistol, but Reeves was quicker and the outlaw sank to his knees, dead from a bullet through the neck. The long pursuit was over.
Benny Reeves had caught his wife in an affair with another man, had killed her, and then fled. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and the paper lay on the desk for several days as none of the marshals wanted to serve it. Finally Bass Reeves picked up. It was his son and his problem he said. He would see the job done.
After a two-week hunt, he returned with Benny and turned him over to the federal court. The younger Reeves was tried, convicted and sent to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas to serve his sentence. Benny was a model prisoner, and shortly after his father’s death in 1910, the citizens of Muskogee petitioned the government for a pardon. It was granted, and Bass Reeves’ son came home.
The end of the Indian Territory, with the admission of the new state of Oklahoma to the union in 1907, marked the end of Bass Reeves’ career as a U.S. marshal. He was sixty-nine by then, but not quite ready to take off his badge, so he joined the Muskogee Police Department.
It was said that in the two years he patrolled the beat bordered by the Ritz Theater, north to Fourth Street between the courthouse and the Katy tracks, there were no crimes, not even minor ones. He walked his beat with a cane and a companion who carried a bag full of pistols.
Reeves took sick in the late fall of 1909. He died January 12, 1910 and was buried at the Union Agency Cemetery with hundreds of friends and associates in the crowd. During his career he faced death many times. He served over 3,000 arrest warrants. The close calls, the gunfights, the near misses are uncountable.
And he was not alone. There were so many others, the men who rode with the Indian Lighthorse Police and former slaves like Reeves, Isaac Rogers, Crowder Nicks, Edward D. Jefferson and Jim Ruth. There are some men, like Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas, whose exploits are better known, but with them too, the real story of the violent world they rode in is more fable than fact, lost to the writers of pulp adventures and makers of fanciful movies. But that is changing, and every day we learn a little bit more about the men who brought law to the West.