Bass Reeves is a legend of the west, one of the first Black lawmen in the region and one of the first Black heroes of the era.
Reeves was born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. His owner was named William S. Reeves and was a prominent politician in the region as well as a farmer. Bass worked as a water boy in the cotton fields of the Reeves farm and was regaled with stories of adventure featuring Black heroes. The Reeves family moved near Paris, Texas in 1846.
Refining his skills as an outdoorsman, Bass became an expert sharpshooter. Because he was ambidextrous, he was alleged to have incredible accuracy shoot with either hand. In addition to earning a living as a farmer, rancher and a horse breeder, he also served as a guide into the Indian Territory for Deputy U.S. Marshals for the Van Buren federal court searching for outlaws.
In 1875, the legendary “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker was appointed a federal judge of the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James Fagan as U.S. Marshal and instructed him to hire 200 deputy marshals.
Knowing of Bass Reeves reputation with a pistol as well as his ability to speak several Indian languages and his ability to interact with them, as well as his knowledge of the territory, Fagan named Reeves a Deputy Marshal, the first Black to hold the title. Deputies in the territory were authorized to arrest only Black and White criminals who were not members of a tribe. Native Americans had their own laws and law enforcement procedures.
Although he arrested more than 3,000 felons, he was never harmed by gunfire (although his hat and gun belt were shot off). He did clam, however, to having to shoot to death 14 criminals in self-defense. On one occasion he claimed to have brought in nineteen horse thieves he captured near Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
One famous outlaw, the notorious Belle Starr allegedly turned herself in at Fort Smith, Arkansas when she heard that Reeves had the warrant for her arrest.
He also captured Seminole outlaw Greenleaf, wanted for the murder of seven people and alluding capture for more than eighteen years
Reeves died of Bright’s disease on January 12, 1910. For his service he has received several tributes in recent years.
He was the first African-American inducted into the Great Westerners Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1992 and was inducted into the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Hall of Fame on December 5, 2010.
On November 9, 2011, the U.S. Route 62 bridge crossing the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge by the Oklahoma State Legislature.
On May 26, 2012, a large, bronze statue designed by sculptor Harold Holden which depicted Reeves riding on a horse was dedicated in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park