Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910)

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Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was an American law enforcement official, historically noted as the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory.[a] During his long career, he had on his record more than 3,000 arrests of dangerous criminals, and shot and killed 14 of them in self-defense.


Early life[edit]

Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838.[1][2] He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves.[1] When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony.[1] It appears plausible that Reeves was kept in bondage by William Steele Reeves’s son, Colonel George R. Reeves, who was a sheriff and legislator in Texas, and a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.[3]

When the American Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate Army, taking Bass with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves escaped, but at some point during the Civil War, he gained his freedom. One account recalls how Bass Reeves and George Reeves had an altercation over a card game. Bass severely beat George, and fled to the Indian Territory where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles.[2][3][4] Bass stayed with these Native American tribes and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.[3]

As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren.[5][6][7][8]


Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Territory and could speak several Native languages.[5] He recruited him as a deputy; Reeves was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River.[2][5] Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Native reservation Territory.[9] He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas, for a short while. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Native Territory.[9]

Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and became one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time; he was never wounded despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.[2]

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves had on his record over 3,000 arrests of felons.[2][5] He killed 14 outlaws to defend his life.[5] Reeves had to arrest his own son for murder;[2] Benjamin “Bennie” Reeves was charged with the murder of his own wife. Despite being disturbed and deeply shaken by the incident, Reeves nonetheless insisted on the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was subsequently captured, tried, and convicted. He served 11 years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before his sentence was commuted; he reportedly lived the rest of his life as a model citizen.[2]

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department.[2] He served for two years before he became ill and retired.[5]

Later years and death[edit]

Reeves was himself once charged with murdering a posse cook. At his trial before Judge Parker, Reeves claimed to have shot the man by mistake while cleaning his gun; he was represented by former United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend. Reeves was eventually believed and acquitted, possibly based on his exceptional record.[10]

Reeves’ health began to fail further after retiring. He died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910.[5]

Family and descendants[edit]

Reeves was married twice and had eleven children. In 1864 he married Nellie Jennie (d. 1896) and after her death Winnie Sumter (1900–1910). His children were named Newland, Benjamin, George, Lula, Robert, Sally, Edgar, Bass Jr., Harriet, Homer and Alice.[5][6][7][8]

He was a great-uncle of Paul L. Brady, who became the first black man appointed as a federal administrative law judge in 1972.[11]

His great-great-great-grandson is National Hockey League player Ryan Reaves.[12]


  • Historian Art Burton has said that Reeves was the inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger. Burton makes this argument based on the sheer number of people Reeves arrested without taking any serious injury, coupled with the fact that many of these arrested were incarcerated in the Detroit House of Correction, the same city where the Lone Ranger radio plays were broadcast on WXYZ.[13] This theory is disputed.[14][15]
  • In 2011, the US-62 Bridge, which spans the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, was renamed the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge.[16]
  • In May 2012, a bronze statue of Reeves by Oklahoma sculptor Harold Holden was erected in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas.[17]
  • In 2013, he was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame.[18]


  • Reeves is the subject of the season two Episode four of Gunslingers, “The real lone ranger”.[19]
  • Reeves figures prominently in an episode of How It’s Made, in which a Bass Reeves limited-edition collectors’ figurine is shown in various stages of the production process.[20]
  • In “The Murder of Jesse James”, an episode of the television series Timeless (season one, episode 12), Reeves is portrayed by Colman Domingo.[21]
  • Reeves was a featured subject of the Drunk History episode “Oklahoma” in which he was portrayed by Jaleel White.[22]
  • In “Everybody Knows”, a season two episode of the television series Wynonna Earp, Reeves is portrayed by Adrian Holmes.[23]
  • Reeves is mentioned in the plot of “The Royal Family”, a season two episode of the television series Greenleaf. Reeves’ name is used as an alias by pastor Basie Skanks to support his church with gambling earnings.[24]
  • Reeves’ status as one of the first black sheriffs plays a significant role as a childhood role model for the character of Will Reeves in the Watchmen television series. Reeves is portrayed by Jamal Akakpo in three episodes featuring a fictional 1920s silent film based on Reeves’ exploits titled “Trust in the Law”.[25]
  • Reeves is mentioned in season 3 episode 2 of the television series Justified as two US Marshals are discussing their all-time favorite historical US Marshals.[26]
  • Reeves features in the “Stressed Western” episode of Legends of Tomorrow, portrayed by David Ramsey. Ramsey is noted for having played Green Arrow‘s ally and confidant John Diggle in the Arrowverse since its inception. In context, Reeves is portrayed as Diggle’s ancestor where Sara Lance called him “Dig” at one point even though he thought they were digging the gunfight activities. The Legends encounter him at Fist City, Oklahoma at the time when they were pursuing the Haverack, a rage-attracted alien worm that has been excreting gold. After the Haverack was slain by Astra Logue, Reeves brought Fist City back in order.
  • Reeves features as a character played by Gary Beadle in Around the World in 80 Days.[27]




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  • Reeves is a character in the miniature wargame Wild West Exodus.[35]
  • Reeves is a playable character in the board game Western Legends.[36]
  • Reeves served as the inspiration for Cornelius Basse in the miniature wargame Malifaux.
  • The character of Sheriff Freeman in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is based on Reeves.
  • In the card game Cartaventura Oklahoma, one plays the fictional escape of Bass Reeves with five possible outcomes.[37] The game also includes an insert with a summary of Bass Reeves’ story.

Hall of fame[edit]

In 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.[38]


  • Reeves is the subject of a 2020 comic book titled “Bass Reeves”, produced by Allegiance Arts & Entertainment, and written by Kevin Grevioux with art by David Williams.
  • Reeves appears in Un cow-boy dans le coton, an album in the Lucky Luke Belgian comic book series by Jul and Achdé.
  • Reeves is the subject of the book, The Legend of Bass Reeves, by Gary Paulsen, which features both true and fictional accounts of Reeves.[39]


  1. ^ Native Territory comprised most of what became Eastern Oklahoma on November 16, 1907, when Oklahoma became a state. Reeves’s former position as a U.S. Marshal was abolished at that time, so he became an officer with the Muskogee Police Department, where he served for two years until he was forced to resign because of his declining health.


  1. Jump up to:a b c Burton, Art T. (2008). Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 9780803205413.
  2. Jump up to:a b c d e f g h Burton, Art T. (May–June 1999). “The Legacy of Bass Reeves: Deputy United States Marshal”. The Crisis106 (3): 38–42. ISSN 0011-1422.
  3. Jump up to:a b c Burton, Art T. (2008). Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press. pp. 21–23. ISBN 9780803205413.
  4. ^ “Bass Reeves – Black Hero Marshal” Retrieved June 9, 2016.
  5. Jump up to:a b c d e f g h “Bass Reeves, the Most Feared U.S. Deputy Marshal”. The Norman Transcript. May 3, 2007. Archived from the original on September 7, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  6. Jump up to:a b “United States Census, 1870” p. 10, family 75, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 545,550. Retrieved April 1, 2016. Bass Reeves, Arkansas, United States
  7. Jump up to:a b “United States Census, 1880” enumeration district ED 50, sheet 582A, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 0042; FHL microfilm 1,254,042. Retrieved April 1, 2016. Bass Reeves, Van Buren, Crawford, Arkansas, United States
  8. Jump up to:a b “United States Census, 1900” citing sheet 20B, family 468, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,241,853. Retrieved April 1, 2016. Bass Reeves, Muscogee (part of M K & T Railway) Muscogee, Creek Nation, Natives Territory, United States
  9. Jump up to:a b “Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves”U.S. Marshals Museum. U.S. Marshals Museum, Inc. Archived from the original on March 2, 2014. Retrieved August 27, 2013.
  10. ^ Burton, Arthur; Art T. Burton (2006). Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 139–148ISBN 978-0-8032-1338-8.
  11. ^ “Judge Paul L. Brady Retires from Job Safety Commission” Archived February 15, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. press release: United States Occupational Safety and Health Review Committee. April 15, 1997. Retrieved August 13, 2007.
  12. ^ Gold-Smith, Josh. “Reaves putting Kane feud aside, joining him for ‘much bigger cause'”
  13. ^ Morgan, Thad (August 31, 2018). “Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man?”History. Retrieved November 27, 2019.
  14. ^ LaCapria, Kim (February 13, 2019). “Was the Original ‘Lone Ranger’ a Black Man?” Retrieved May 27, 2020.
  15. ^ Grams, Martin Jr. “Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth, Part 1”. Retrieved May 27, 2020.
  16. ^ Goforth, Dylan (November 11, 1977). “Bridge to be renamed in tribute to famed lawman”Muskogee Phoenix. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  17. ^ “Statue of U.S. marshal to travel from Oklahoma to Arkansas Wednesday”Associated Press in The Oklahoman, May 16, 2012 (pay site).
  18. ^ “Bass Reeves”Western Heritage from the Texas Trail of Fame. December 26, 2013. Retrieved April 14, 2018.
  19. ^ IMDb Gunslingers, “Bass Reeves – The Real Lone Ranger”
  20. ^ “How It’s Made: Resin Figurines” Science Channel. Archived from the original on September 22, 2013. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
  21. ^ The Murder of Jesse James at IMDb
  22. ^ IMDb Drunk History, Oklahoma
  23. ^ IMDb Wyonna Earp, Everybody Knows
  24. ^ IMDb Greenleaf, The Royal Family
  25. ^ “Watchmen on IMDb”.
  26. ^ IMDb Justified, Cut Tiles
  27. ^ “In a New Series, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ Gets More Worldly”.
  28. ^ “‘The Harder They Fall’ Director Jeymes Samuel on New Netflix Western”Variety. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
  29. ^ Hell On The Border at IMDb
  30. ^ “Mini About Hero Lawman Bass Reeves In Works At HBO With Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary & James Pickens Producing” May 18, 2015. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  31. ^ N’Duka, Amanda (April 20, 2018). “Amazon Studios Lands Biopic on Bass Reeves, First Black U.S. Deputy Marshal, From ‘The Rider’ Helmer Chloé Zhao”Deadline. Retrieved May 12, 2018.
  32. ^ “U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves featured in new Netflix film” July 6, 2021. Retrieved October 26, 2021.
  33. ^ O’Neal, Sean (July 3, 2021). “‘The Harder They Fall’ Is About to Bring New Excitement to the Old-school Western”Texas Monthly. Retrieved October 26, 2021.
  34. ^ “2019 National Black Theatre Festival Brochure” (PDF). North Carolina Black Repertory Company. June 11, 2019. pp. 5, 9. Retrieved March 16, 2022.
  35. ^ “Faction Lawmen – All Unit Cards” (PDF). Wild West Exodus. Retrieved April 14, 2022.
  36. ^ “Western Legends”Board Game Geek. Retrieved April 14, 2022.
  37. ^ “Cartaventura Oklahoma”BoardGameGeek. Retrieved April 14, 2022.
  38. ^ “Hall of Great Westerners”National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Retrieved November 22, 2019.
  39. ^ “The Legend of Bass Reeves”Kirkus Reviews. 2006.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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