Bass Reeves has been called one of the greatest deputy U.S. marshals in the history of the West.
Born a slave in Arkansas in 1838, Reeves was later taken to Texas. He ran away and headed north to the Indian Territory where he lived for a spell with the Creek and Seminole. He could converse well in all the languages of the Five Civilized Tribes. When Isaac Parker became federal judge for the Indian Territory in 1875, he called on U.S. Marshal Jim Fagan to hire 200 deputies to police the territory. Fagan hired the 37-year-old Reeves, who became the first black man west of the Mississippi River to be appointed a deputy U.S. marshal, and he served in that role for 32 years.
The fearless Reeves was possessed with natural detective instincts. The Indian Territory was a sanctuary for some of the most dangerous outlaws in Western history; of the 22,000 whites living in the Indian Territory, an estimated 17,000 were criminals (as were a fair number of Indians).
A giant of a man for his time, Reeves stood six-foot-two-inches tall with broad shoulders. He was a crack shot with rifle and pistol. One time, during a gunfight with three suspects, he killed two and captured the third. Over a two-year stretch, he arrested nearly 100 killers, arsonists and whiskey peddlers.
In 1901, the Chickasaw Enterprise noted that he had arrested more than 3,000 men and women in his then 26-year career. The next year, he arrested his own son, charged with murdering his wife. Reeves also claimed to have killed 14 felons.
He retired in 1907, at the age of 67, but he hired on with the police force in Muskogee, Oklahoma, before he finally quit law enforcement for good in 1909. He died the following year.
In the words of Louis L’Amour, Reeves was a man with the bark on. For further reading, check out Dr. Art Burton’s excellent book, Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org