You think you know the West.
Every American thinks they do, conjuring up a fever of dusty towns, quick-draw gunmen, drunks, honky-tonk pianos, cowboys, desperadoes, black hat villains and white hat heroes out of bits of John Ford movies and "Lone Ranger" episodes. In that pulp paper West, all Native Americans were the bad guys (other than Tonto, of course) and all women were either wife, nun or saloon girl. If there was a black man, chances are his only job was to hold the horse of the courageous — and very white — sheriff.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves is where the fictional West gives way to the actual West, and it was lot more diverse in reality than it is on celluloid. One of several African-American deputy U.S. marshals who rode the bloody trails of the Indian Territory that eventually became Oklahoma — a place Reeves' biographer unflinchingly calls "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" — Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas, but rose to the status of living legend during his 30-plus years wearing a marshal's star, most of that served as a manhunter for "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker of Fort Smith. With a reputation for going after the baddest of the bad — a giant for his day at 6'2", a crack shot with both hands, a skilled horseman and master of disguise — Reeves arrested more than 3,000 men, including his own son, and killed more than a dozen in the line of duty, often dragging in criminals a dozen at a whack, lashed to his chuck wagon.
Though there are stories of Reeves repeatedly having his hat and even his gunbelt shot off during firefights, he was said to live a charmed life by the Native Americans in the territory, able to walk between the bullets in a land where desperadoes pasted up wanted posters for police instead of the other way around, in a time and place where more than half the U.S. marshals ever killed in the line of duty met their end.
While Jim Crow and a general apathy about the history of non-whites worked to try to make sure Reeves' legend was never known in the modern day, his story has been resurrected fairly recently by a few dedicated researchers. It's one of the greatest Old West legends you've probably never heard.
Historian Dr. Art Burton — author of the Reeves biography "Black Gun, Silver Star," and the researcher who has probably done the most to save Reeves' story from obscurity — started researching the life of Bass Reeves more than 20 years ago. Born in Oklahoma into a family that put kids in a saddle from an early age, Burton said there was always a disconnect between his experience as an African American and the West as seen in movies and books.
"There are a lot of cowboys in my family," he said. "I grew up during the cowboy era on television, but you didn't see blacks in those programs. I felt like, my folks are doing this in Oklahoma because this is what people in Oklahoma do. It wasn't until later that I found out that African Americans played a role in the Western frontier."
Burton began researching the life of Bass Reeves during work for his 1991 book "Black, Red and Deadly," which presented profiles of African-American and Native-American outlaws and lawmen of the Old West. Burton said that most people who base their understanding of the West on popular culture just don't appreciate how diverse it was.
"African Americans were pretty much written out of that whole history," Burton said. "But if we look at the real Western frontier, we find blacks that were mountain men, blacks who were scouts, blacks who were entrepreneurs and cowboys... . You also found blacks who were in law enforcement across the West, in Montana and Colorado and New Mexico. Twenty percent of the military on the Western frontier were African Americans. So Hollywood just totally left out African Americans in the telling of the West, sad to say."
Burton has worked his whole life to try and correct the perception of a monochromatic West. When the Coen Brothers made their movie remake of Charles Portis' "True Grit" a few years back, Burton tried to reach out to them, without success, to encourage them to get the complexions more in line with history.
"They positioned their film for 1878," Burton said. "The majority of the federal workers for Fort Smith court in 1878 were African Americans. The majority. Many of the people who sat on the juries were African Americans. There's a case where a criminal was being tried in Fort Smith before Judge Parker's court, and the jury was majority black."
The more he learns about Reeves, Burton said, the more amazing his story becomes. Early on, his research was slow going, because the history of blacks wasn't often preserved, forcing him to go back to sources like court records, oral histories and newspaper stories. (He starts off "Black Gun, Silver Star," with an anecdote about an Oklahoma historical society writing to him with apologies, saying they didn't keep the history of black people). Before "Black, Red and Deadly" came out, the latest mention of Reeves in a book that Burton could find was a short item in an Oklahoma City School System textbook. "Previous to that book, he wasn't mentioned in a book since 1899," Burton said. "He had pretty much been left out of the discourse and discussion on the American West and frontier."
Though most of the people who actually remembered Bass Reeves were gone by the time Burton started his research ("I ran into a ton of folks who told me that I should have talked to so-and-so who passed away five years ago who knew quite a bit. That was really disappointing. I thought, man, if I'd done this 10 years earlier, I could have got a lot more oral stories.") Burton kept digging. Slowly, Reeves began to emerge from the mist.
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Crawford County in July 1838, the son of a woman owned by William S. Reeves. A prominent figure on the frontier, William Reeves had served in the Tennessee legislature before moving to Arkansas, and would eventually serve in both the Arkansas state legislature and the Texas state legislature.
When Bass was 8 years old, William Reeves moved his family and slaves to north Texas, where Bass worked as a stable hand and a blacksmith's apprentice. Eventually, according to a book by Bass Reeves' great-grandnephew, former federal Judge Paul Brady, Bass became William Reeves' manservant, following him everywhere. When William Reeves joined the 11th Texas Cavalry as an officer just before the Civil War, Bass followed him to battle, with Reeves later telling a newspaper interviewer that he'd accompanied his master to the battles at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Pea Ridge in Arkansas (though Burton believes including Missionary Ridge and Chickamauga may have been a bit of subterfuge on Reeves' behalf, added to conceal his true activities during the war).
Though the historical records are unclear as to when or why Reeves fled his master and took off for the lawless Indian Territory — family history says it was over an argument during a card game in which he slugged Col. Reeves — he did just that at some point during the Civil War. Burton believes Reeves ran away after Northwest Arkansas's Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, which would have put Reeves in close proximity to sanctuary in the Indian Territory.
As a fugitive slave, Reeves took up with the Creeks and Seminoles, eventually learning to speak the Muscogee language and becoming relatively conversational in languages spoken by other tribes. In "Black Gun, Silver Star," Burton recounts that he found at least one legend that says Reeves served as a Union sergeant during the Civil War, with Burton suggesting that Reeves may have taken up with a unit made up of blacks and Native Americans that fought Confederate-allied tribes.
After the Civil War, Reeves and his wife, Jennie, moved back to Van Buren, where he bought a farm. Though he set out to become a farmer and horse breeder, Reeves employed his knowledge of Indian languages and the wilds of the Indian Territory gained as a fugitive slave by working as a tracker and guide for the U.S. Marshals' Office at Van Buren.
In the years after the Civil War, the Indian Territory became increasingly lawless, with many criminals fleeing there from all over the U.S. It made for a hellish place where death was always close. Burton said the closest analogy he can come to the Indian Territory is "modern day Afghanistan."
"You could just lose your life over your hat, your horse, your gun, your woman, any damn thing," Burton said. "The Indian Territory was where the majority of deputy U.S. marshals had been killed in the line of duty in the history of the Marshals Service. You're looking at a little over 200 who have been killed in the line of duty to this date right now. On record, over 130 were killed in the Indian Territory. You also had Indian policemen getting killed. You had town municipal policemen getting killed. It had to be the greatest battleground between crime and law in the history of the United States of America."
Over the Dead Line
With the Indian Territory on the verge of anarchy, the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was moved from Van Buren to Fort Smith in 1871, with former U.S. Congressman Isaac C. Parker confirmed as the federal judge there in 1875. Parker acted quickly, ordering his chief U.S. marshal to hire 200 deputy marshals to uphold the law and serve warrants in the Indian Territory and most of western Arkansas — almost 75,000 square miles. One of those hired was Bass Reeves, making him one of the first — if not the first — black deputy U.S. marshals west of the Mississippi.
In that world before radios to call for assistance, Reeves would have ridden out into the Indian Territory with only a pocketful of warrants from the federal court, a cook, a chuckwagon and a single "posseman" for backup (Reeves himself often worked as a posseman in his early days as a deputy marshal). Beyond that, Burton said, he would have been on his own.
"When you rode into the Indian Territory, you couldn't call for backup," Burton said. "It was you against the elements and desperadoes. Many times, they would be ambushed at night while they were sleeping in their camps. They would be assassinated."
Deputy marshals for the Fort Smith court would have ridden as far as Fort Supply in far western Oklahoma in pursuit of fugitives. Amazingly, Reeves was illiterate his whole life, so he memorized the warrants when he received them.
It was a difficult, dangerous place to try and enforce the law, beset both by entrenched criminals and jurisdictional quirks, such as the one that allowed a deputy marshal to arrest a Native American who had committed a crime against a white or black, but not another Native American. Though the deputy marshal's primary job was tracking down and bringing in those sought under warrants, they were also allowed to make on-the-spot arrests for most serious crimes, including murder, assault, arson, rape, robbery, theft and incest. Marshals were paid by the arrest, plus a per-diem fee and a fee for feeding the prisoners they arrested. They had a set time limit of 30 days (with allowances for high water) to make their rounds in the territory and return to Fort Smith, with the time limit serving to keep them from padding their per-diem account — a temptation that many deputy marshals appear to have succumbed to.
In a 1907 article from an Oklahoma City newspaper, reprinted in Burton's book, a recently retired Reeves talked about the dangers of his career to a reporter, who wrote:
"Eighty miles west of Fort Smith, it was known as 'The Dead Line,' and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas and Texas [Railroad] track, he took his life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed The Dead Line they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit, and in those days such a notice was no idle boast."
Historian Dan Littlefield, the director of the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a friend of Art Burton, wrote the foreword to Burton's book "Black Gun, Silver Star." Littlefield said the Indian Territory was a place where those fleeing the law could quickly disappear.
"The Indian Territory was notorious for people going there and changing their names," Littlefield said. "The Indian kids had a little song that they sang. It went something like: 'Oh, what was your name in the States? Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates? Did you kill your wife, and fly for your life? Say, what was your name in the States?' It was just common knowledge that many of the people in the Territory were crooks who went from one jurisdiction to another to avoid capture."
The secret to Reeves' longevity in those conditions, Littlefield said, was his toughness. "I think he was just meaner than anybody he tried to catch. That's what the qualifications were for the marshals in those days," Littlefield said. "Some of them were former outlaws who got a badge. But [Reeves] earned a reputation and a lot of respect, certainly among Indian nations. I think he got more cooperation from local people in the tribes than some of the other people did. I think that was part of his survival."
Reeves and the law
Though the history of the Wild West is full of fluffed resumes, Reeves was a figure who seems to live up to the hype. Story after story uncovered by Art Burton reads like something out of pulp fiction, with papers as far away as Galveston and St. Louis marveling over Reeves' skill and daring in the 1880s and '90s. Fort Smith papers regularly carried news of Reeves dragging back 15 prisoners or more at a time — many of them murderers — to face justice.
In one case, after Reeves had left the Fort Smith court and moved to the court at Paris, Texas, he and another deputy marshal singlehandedly put down a 1902 "race war" in Braggs, Texas, arresting 25 men, both black and white, who had participated. In another instance, related to Burton by an Osage woman, Reeves came across a lynch mob on the high prairie, rode into the middle of the angry mob, took their prisoner without a word, then rode off without a shot fired. Reeves' commitment to the law was so great that Reeves arrested the minister who baptized him for selling illegal liquor. Later, he arrested his own son, Ben, after he was charged with killing his wife. After his conviction, Ben Reeves was sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth.
Eventually, Reeves became so much larger than life that he started chasing criminals into their nightmares according to an article, one of Burton's favorites, that appeared in a Texas newspaper. "I found a story where a guy tried to burn his fiance up. He tried to set her on fire," Burton said. "When he went to bed that night, he had a nightmare that Bass shot him while he was trying to get away. The first thing he did the next morning is go to the federal office and turn himself in."
Reeves' career wasn't without blemish, however, though that blemish may have been racially motivated. In April 1884, Reeves shot his cook, William Leach, while out on patrol in the Territory. Wounded in the shoulder, Leach eventually died. An inquest met, and no charges were filed. After a regime change that saw the U.S. attorney's seat filled by a Democrat and former Confederate, however, Reeves was arrested in 1886 in the killing of Leach. Stripped of his badge and charged with murder, he was held in jail for more than three months.
Though there was some testimony that the shooting might have been about an argument over a stray dog, Reeves and others testified that the shooting was accidental, with his rifle going off while Reeves was trying to pry a faulty cartridge from the chamber with a knife. Though he was acquitted of murder after a headline-grabbing trial, all accounts point to Reeves being financially ruined by the experience, forced to sell his home, presumably to help pay his legal fees and other expenses.
Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears is on the committee of the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative, and has studied the transcripts from Reeves' murder trial. He believes that while the charges against Reeves were politically and racially motivated, Reeves' character is shown by the fact that he decided to continue his career after his acquittal.
"It cost him everything he had, but he had the character to put his badge back on and go back into the Indian Territory capturing bad guys," Spears said. "To me, that shows a lot of character ... . If he lets them run him off, they win. I think he had enough character and native intelligence to say: I don't think I'll let them win. I think it hurt him deeply, though."
Times were changing, however. Burton said many of the black employees of the Fort Smith federal court were pushed out of their jobs by the early 1890s as former Confederates came back into power. Reeves transferred to the federal court at Paris in the years after his trial. He retired from the Marshals Service in 1907, edging into semi-retirement by joining the police force in Muskogee, Okla.
He died there in January 1910 from Bright's disease, a disorder of the kidneys. Newspapers across the country carried Reeves' obituary, lauding him as a symbol of law and order in a rapidly vanishing Wild West. Though several stories commented on the pomp and honor with which Reeves was laid to rest, strangely, none of them mentioned where he was buried. With many of the old tombstones in Muskogee worn down to illegibility over the years, by the time Art Burton began searching for Reeves' grave, it couldn't be found. He believes Reeves may be buried in a small cemetery outside Muskogee, but the location of the great lawman's final resting place is, at this writing, lost.
Though it looks like even the elements have conspired to erase Bass Reeves from history, thanks to historians like Art Burton, his legend is poised to thrill a whole new generation of history buffs. In May of last year, a 25-foot bronze statue of Reeves on horseback, accompanied by his dog, was unveiled in Fort Smith's Ross Pendergraft Park, and his story is sure to be front and center at the $50 million National U.S. Marshals Museum, set to open in Fort Smith in 2016. Reeves' gun and badge, donated to the Marshals Museum by his great-grandnephew Brady, are currently on display at the Rogers Historical Museum.
Judge Jim Spears was instrumental in raising the $300,000 needed to get the bronze of Reeves cast and placed in Fort Smith. Spears said he started out just looking for a piece of public art for Fort Smith, but wound up fascinated by the life and legend of the lawman he calls an inspiration for everyone. "What I want it to show is that it's a new day," Spears said. "That a city in Arkansas could erect a statue to a former slave, so little black kids can come down with their mother and father and say, 'Who is that?' and Momma and Daddy swell with pride to tell them."
Art Burton said that a slew of famous actors have shown interest in making the Bass Reeves story into a movie over the years, most notably Morgan Freeman. He remains hopeful that a film biography will happen. In the meantime, though, Burton is happy to have been a part of making Reeves' story more known. He's been chasing Reeves for 20 years, and the story is a part of him now.
"As I got deeper and deeper into it, it became more and more of a passion to find out who this man was," Burton said. "He's with me every day now. It's just like he's a part of the family."