Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves worked in the Oklahoma and Indian territories for 32 years. The formerly enslaved person was among the first Black marshals west of the Mississippi River. As with most Black American history, some of Reeves’ story is missing or unclear. However, historians have pieced together the story of this revered frontier lawman.
In July 1838, Bass was born to enslaved parents in Crawford County, Arkansas. State legislator William Steele Reeves owned the family.
Bass Reeves was eight (about 1846) when the family moved to Grayson County, Texas, with their master. Sometime later, his ownership was transferred to William’s son, Sheriff George Reeves, as a body servant before being forced to fight for the Confederacy.
Historynet.com states Colonel George organized the 11th Calvary for Grayson County. Reportedly, Bass Reeves knocked his master out cold during a disagreement over a card game.
Since an enslaved person could be killed for such an act, Bass ran away. He headed for Indian Territory, where he took refuge with the Creek and Seminole tribes, learning their language and customs.
Besides the fight with George, his master, there is little information about Bass Reeve’s Civil War participation.
Bass returned to Arkansas after slavery was abolished in 1865, according to the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. He married Jennie and fathered 11 children. Hsitorynet.org noted, “Several oral stories say that Bass Reeves [was a] scout and guide for federal lawmen going into Indian Territory in search of outlaws.”
NOTE: The Indian Territory is known today as Oklahoma. This region is where five Indigenous tribes were forced to relocate from their homelands due to the Indian Removal Act. While the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw governed through a system of tribal courts, their power did not extend beyond these tribes’ members.
Marshal James Fagan Recruits Bass Reeves
Therefore, “anyone who wasn’t part of those tribes — from escaped [enslaved persons] to petty criminals — could only be pursued on a federal level within” [the territory’s] boundaries.”
In March 1875, Judge Issac C. Parker became the head of Fort Smith, a federal court in Arkansas. This court’s jurisdiction included all Indian Territory and western Arkansas. He immediately ordered Marshal James Fagan to hire 200 deputies.
Bass Reeves was one of those hired that year. His marksmanship and apparent knowledge of the region and language might have helped boost his recruitment. He is “undoubtedly one of the first” commissioned Black deputy United States Marshals west of the Mississippi River, “and he certainly became the most famous Black deputies to work in the Indian nations before statehood.” [Click this link to read more of Reeve’s backstory.]
“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” Series
According to TV Line, the Paramount Network will premiere “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” as part of its “Yellowstone” anthology series — “a sort of extension of ‘Yellowstone’ prequel ‘1883.’”
The official description of Reeves’ story tells audiences that Season 1 “follows the journey of Reeves (Danny Oyelowo) and his rise from enslavement to law enforcement as the first U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.”
Furthermore, Paramount Network says, “Despite arresting over 3,000 outlaws during the course of his career, the weight of the badge was heavy, and he wrestled with its moral and spiritual cost to his beloved family.”
In addition to Oyelowo, the series includes Lauren E. Banks as Jennie Reeves, Dennis Quaid as Sherrill Lynn, Shea Whigham as George Reeves, Donald Sutherland as Judge Parker, and Demi Singleton as Demi Singleton.
The audience can watch the first two episodes of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” first season starting on Sunday, November 5, 2023, on Paramount+.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
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Featured and Top Image by Unknown Courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain License
First Inset Image by Unknown Courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain License
Second Inset Image by United States Bureau of The Census Courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain License
Third Inset Image by Tyler Boye Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License