Pale Horse Revelations #41 - Bass Reeves
Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. And welcome to my first blog entry of 2023. This week's entry features a legendary lawman that some of you may have never heard of. But before we jump into that, I want to quickly apologize for the long, unplanned gap in blog posts. Unfortunately, I fell ill just before the holidays and took some time to recover. Fortunately, I'm feeling like my old self and couldn't wait any longer to resume sharing these little nuggets of old west history. I hope you enjoy this week's content.
Today, I want to share with you the incredible story of Bass Reeves, the first African American US Deputy Marshall. He was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas. He derived his first name from his grandfather and his last from the family that owned him. William Steele Reeves was an Arkansas state legislator. In 1848 William relocated to Grayson County, Bass was kept in bondage by William's son, Colonel George R. Reeves. George was a Texas sheriff, legislator, and a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
When the Civil War broke out, George joined the Confederate Army and forced Bass to go with him. At some point during the war, Bass was able to escape, although the circumstances are unclear. According to one account, he and George got into an altercation during a card game and Bass severely beat George before fleeing to Indian Territory. He lived among the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminoles until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. Bass returned to Arkansas and took up farming.
Reeves was content with farming, but the trajectory of his life would change drastically in 1875. That was the year that Issaac Parker was appointed federal judge for Indian Territory. Parker appointed James Fagan as a U.S. Marshall and tasked him with recruiting 200 deputies. Fagan knew of Bass Reeves and recruited him due to his knowledge of the territory and his ability to speak the native languages. Reeves was the first African American deputy to serve west of the Mississippi.
Reeves initially cover the Western District of Arkansas, which included responsibility for the Native reservation territory. In 1893 he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas. Four years later he transferred again, this time serving the Muskogee Federal Court in Indian Territory.
All told, Reeves served as a federal peace officer in the territory for thirty-two years. In that time period, he killed fourteen men in self-defense and made more than 3,000 arrests. Perhaps none was more difficult on Bass than the pursuit and capture of his own son, Benjamin Reeves. Benjamin was charged with murdering his own wife and fled to avoid incarceration. Bass insisted that his was his responsibility to bring Benjamin to justice and he did just that. After being captured, Bejamin was subsequently tried and convicted. He served eleven years at Fort Leavenworth before his sentence was commuted.
In a surprising twist, Bass once found himself standing trial for murder. He was accused of killing a posse cook and had to stand trial before his friend, Judge Parker. Bass was represented by another friend and colleague, former United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton. At the trial, Bass claimed to have shot the cook by mistake while cleaning his weapon. Reeves was eventually acquitted.
In 1907 Oklahoma (formerly known as Indian Territory) was finally granted statehood and at the age of 68 Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before his failing health forced him to retire. Bass Reeves died on January 12, 1910.
In his lifetime he went from slave, to fugitive, to decorated lawman. As previously stated, he is credited with 3,000 arrests among which were some of the most dangerous fugitives of the time. Like another legendary lawman, Reeves was never wounded although he did have his hat and belt shot off during separate incidents. And while Bass Reeves may not be as well known to the modern public as that other lawman, Reeves was truly an old west legend.
This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.
As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.