Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Friday, May 20, 2016

Bass Reeves -- He Epitomized Old West Deputy U.S. Marshals

Bass Reeves was born sometime in July of 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. He died on January 12th, 1910 at the age of 71 in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

While he did other things in life, Bass Reeves will always be known as one of the Old West's greatest Deputy U.S. Marshals.

Bass Reeves was one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River, and has the impressive record of having arrested over 3,000 felons. He is documented to have shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense.

Yes, he was born into slavery in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. It's said that Bass was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington. But as for his surname, as with many freed slaves, Bass Reeves took the name of his slave owner.

Bass Reeves and his family were slaves of Democrat state legislator William Steele Reeves there in Arkansas. It is said that when Bass Reeves was eight year of age, William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. It is believed that Bass Reeves may have served William Steel Reeves' son, George R. Reeves who later became a Colonel in the Confederate Army and then was also a Democrat state legislator in Texas until the time of his death from rabies in 1882.

During the American Civil War, Bass Reeves fled Texas and slavery and headed north into the Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. He is said to have lived with the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek Indians until he was freed by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865.

Later Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas in 1864. Supposedly, they had eleven children together. Their family farmed there near Van Buren until 1875.

In early 1875, Issac Parker received a presidential appointment as judge of the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Judge Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, and held court for the first time on May 10, 1875.

Almost immediately, Judge Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal. He ordered Fagan to hire 200 Deputy U.S. Marshals to clean up the lawlessness.

The story goes that Marshal Fagan had heard about Bass Reeves. Fagan has heard that Bass had lived with the Native American tribes and knew the Indian Territory, and could also speak several of their languages. He immediately recruited him as one of his deputies, and thus Bass Reeves became the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal West of the Mississippi River.

Reeves served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which also had responsibility for the Indian Territory, until 1893. He was then transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas, for a short while. After that, in 1897, he was transferred to the Muskogee Federal Court.

Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a Federal peace officer in the Indian Territory. He was one of Judge Parker's most valued deputies.

Bass Reeves is said to have worn two pistols, one a Colt Single Action Army in .45 and a .38-40 pistol chambered for the same cartridge as his Winchester rifle. He was also known to carry a double-barreled shotgun. And according to all reports, besides his superior detective skills which he developed over time, he was said to be a great shot with both a rifle and pistol.

Bass Reeves was said to be a big man for his time. He is described as 6′ to 6’2″ tall, and weighing in at about 200 pounds. As for his encounters with outlaws, as stated before, he is known to have arrested 3,000 felons and was forced to kill 14 men in self-defense.

According to what I've researched, Reeves' first killing in the line of duty took place while in the process of arresting a bootlegger who had been selling illegal whiskey from a horse-drawn wagon.

Upon contact with Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, the bootlegger began cursing "a black badge don’t mean a damned thing to me!" The suspect immediate started to point a rifle towards Bass. While the rifle was in motion, Bass fired two bullets into his chest. He was dead before he fell from the driver’s seat.

From what I gather from research, that was not the only time someone refused to accept the authority of Reeves because he was a black Deputy U.S. Marshal. And frankly, it wasn't only criminals who had a hard time with the fact that Reeves was a Federal Marshal -- other lawmen may have had a problem with it as well.

A good example of this took place when Reeves and a team of other deputy marshals were tasked to transport Federal prisoners to a penitentiary. When a white prisoner took exception to Reeves issuing him orders, it is said that a local police officer actually sided with the prisoner.

How bad did it get? Well, supposedly guns were drawn. And it is said that it was only due to the intervention of a senior Deputy Marshal that prevented the incident from escalating into a full scale lawmen versus lawmen shootout.

Another incident in 1891, one that Bass Reeves felt the high point of his career, came about when bringing in killer Bob Dozier. This hombre was someone who would be by today's standards considered a serial killer and professional thieve.

The story goes that Reeves caught up with Dozier while leading a posse down a steep thickly wooded ravine during a raging thunderstorm. The instant the posse reached the bottom of the ravine, they came under fire. Bass and his posse immediately left their horses to seek cover.

After a few minutes, Reeves reported later that he saw the dim shadow of a man slipping from tree to tree. He waited until the shadow was caught between two trees and fired two quick shots. The shadow dropped and fell, but because Reeves two shots had given away his position -- a second man who immediately opened fire.

The rest of the story sounds like something that Hollywood would write, but according to Bass Reeves, he hit the dirt and waited in the mud and rain fully exposed. Then finally when a man stepped from behind a tree, he could hear him laugh aloud. His assailant must have been convinced that Reeves was dead, and that his posse had run off. It was killer Bob Dozier.

Then when Dozier was only a few yards away, Reeves rose up and ordered him to stop and drop his gun. Dozier stopped laughing and then crouched to shoot Reeves again. But yes, before Dozier could level his gun, Bass Reeves is said to have shot first -- hitting him in the neck and killing him instantly.

Another famous Reeves gunfight took place in 1884 when he was surprised at gunpoint by three brothers named Brunter. He calmly told them he had warrants for their arrest.

According to Reeves, he then grabbed the pistol barrel of the nearest man’s gun and holding the muzzle away from himself to divert three shots being fired. At the same time, Reeves supposedly drew a pistol with his other hand and opened fire to drop the other two brothers. Reeves is said to have then smashed his Colt .45 into the head of the man whose pistol he was holding and killed him.

As for the famous Jim Webb gunfight? Jim Webb was said to have been a Texas ranch foreman who had gone bad. It is said that Webb went from local bully to paid arsonist and murderer.

Bass Reeves and posse-man Floyd Wilson caught up with Webb in a ranch house in their jurisdiction. Supposedly, with a loaded revolver in Webb’s hand, Reeves smacked the gun away and grabbed Webb by the throat with his left hand and shoved his gun in Webb's face.

Webb's partner Frank Smith came out of hiding and fired two shots at Reeves, both missing. Beeves fired one shot and Smith fell to the ground. Floyd Wilson then handcuffed Webb.

Smith died en route from Reeves' bullet, and Webb was turned over to the proper authorities in Paris, Texas. Reeves learned later that Webb had posted bail. But because of a failure to appear in court, Reeves went after Webb again.

Reeves met up with Jim Webb and the incident turned into a rifle duel of sorts with Webb firing the first four shots at Reeves who was on horseback. Those bullets reportedly clipped the brim of Reeve’s hat, grazed his saddle horn, cut a button off his coat and shot the reins out of his hands.

Reeves dove to the ground with his rifle and immediately returned fire. Webb was hit and fell to the ground. Bass Reeves, and eyewitnesses John Cantrell and Jim Bywaters, then approached Webb as he lay dying.

According to eyewitness reports, all three bullets fired by Reeves had hit Webb’s body within a hand’s width of each other.

Jim Bywaters wrote Webb’s last words on the back of a freight receipt. Webb called Reeves "a brave, brave man" and wanted Reeves to have his revolver and holster. According to Jim Bywaters, the dying killer said, "I have killed 11 men, four of them in Indian territory, and I expected you to make the 12th."

Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. And yes, he even had to arrest his own son for murder and bring him in.

The story goes that his son Bennie Reeves was charged with the murder of his wife. Marshal Reeves was disturbed and shaken by the incident but demanded to accept the responsibility of bringing his son Bennie to justice.

Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried and convicted. He served his time in Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas before being released and living the rest of his life on the right side of the law.

As for Bass Reeves being charged with murdering a posse cook? Yes, that did happen.

It all took place in 1884, when Reeves discovered he had mistakenly loaded a .45 Colt revolver cartridge into his .44-40 Winchester. He was sitting by the campfire trying to pry the jammed round out of the magazine with his pocketknife when he accidentally discharged the rifle. The bullet struck his cook and killed him instantly. 

Accidental discharge or not, Reeves reported what took place and immediately turned himself in. He was subsequently tried for murder. 

At his trial before Judge Parker, Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton, who had been his colleague and friend. Reeves was acquitted of the murder. Though acquitted at trial, his substantial legal expenses depleted his life savings and left him financially in trouble for the rest of his life.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, retired from the Marshal service and became an officer with the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department. He served for two years before he became ill and had to retire completely.

In 1910, after Reeves' health began to fail, he died of Bright's disease (nephritis).

Yes, Bass Reeves was a man perfectly fitted for the times he lived in and the job he was destined to do. All in all, he was tough, skilled, resilient, and determined. All attributes that epitomize the Old West Deputy U.S. Marshal.  

And yes, that's the way I see it.
Tom Correa

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