Lawman Legend Bass Reeves: The Invincible Man Hunter
Casualty rates among deputy U.S. marshals were extremely high in Indian and Oklahoma territories, but Reeves completed his long reign there unscathed while making life miserable for outlaws…white, black or Indian.
He was a frontier lawman above reproach and probably made a greater impact on his assigned jurisdiction than any other badge wearer west of the Mississippi. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was part Superman, part Sherlock Holmes and part Lone Ranger. But he was real, and he was black.
Born a slave, Bass Reeves fled his master and soon carved a name for himself as one of the most famous marshals in the West. (Oklahoma University Library)
The larger-than-life African-American marshal worked in the most dangerous area for federal peace officers, Oklahoma and Indian territories, for 32 years. Recent research shows that before the two territories merged into the state of Oklahoma in 1907, at least 114 deputy U.S. marshals died on duty there. It was no picnic for members of the Indian police or local law enforcement, either, but the challenges and hardships were usually greatest for the deputy marshals.
The majority of federal lawmen were killed in the Cherokee and Creek nations of Indian Territory, within a 50-mile radius of Muskogee, in the Creek Nation. When recognizing the wild towns of the Wild West, Muskogee must be mentioned along with Tombstone, Arizona Territory; Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory; Dodge City, Kan.; and El Paso, Texas.
Born a slave near Van Buren, Ark., in July 1838, young Bass moved with his owner to north Texas in the 1840s. His owner, George R. Reeves, was a farmer, tax collector and sheriff before the Civil War. During the war, Colonel Reeves organized the 11th Cavalry Regiment for Grayson County, Texas. Bass Reeves said in a 1901 interview that he had been George’s body servant but that they had parted company (not on good terms, according to family history) during the war. Supposedly, Bass and George argued during a card game, and Bass knocked his master out cold. In Texas, a slave could be killed for such an act, so Bass headed for Indian Territory and found refuge with the Creek and Seminole Indians, learning their customs and language. (After the war, George Reeves would rise to become speaker of the House of Representatives in Texas before dying from a rabid dog’s bite on September 5, 1882.)
Exactly what Bass Reeves did during the Civil War after he left his master remains uncertain. One uncorroborated claim says that Reeves served in the U.S. Army as a sergeant during the conflict. It’s possible he could have been with one of the guerrilla Union Indian bands in the territory, such as the Cherokee Pins. He might also have served with the Union’s First Indian Home Guard Regiment, composed mostly of Seminoles and Creeks, under an Indian name. The Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole), who earlier had been relocated from the Southeast to Indian Territory, fought on both sides during the conflict. Afterward, the western portion of the territory was taken away from them and set aside as reservations for Plains Indian tribes (Comanche, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Apache and Kiowa) who were subdued by the U.S. military.
By the early 1870s, Bass and his family (wife, Jennie, and four children; eventually there would be 11 children) were living in Arkansas. Although other blacks lived in the countryside near Van Buren, Reeves built a substantial home for his family right in the town proper on the riverfront. Several oral stories say that Reeves served as a scout and guide for federal lawmen going into Indian Territory in search of outlaws. A better employment opportunity came in 1875. That March, Judge Isaac C. Parker took over the Fort Smith federal court in Arkansas, which had jurisdiction over all Indian Territory and western Arkansas, and he promptly ordered his marshal to hire 200 deputies. At that time, the territory consisted of all the land that would become the state of Oklahoma except for the panhandle. This was the largest federal court, in terms of area, in U.S. history, and most likely there were never more than 70 deputies covering the vast area at any one time. Bass Reeves was one of the deputies hired that year. He was skilled with weapons, could speak several Indian languages and apparently knew the lay of the land. The federal police had jurisdiction over whites or blacks that were not citizens of the respective tribes in Indian Territory. The Indians had their own police and courts for their citizens. Noncitizens who committed crimes against the Indians would have to be arrested by deputy U.S. marshals and their cases heard in federal court.
Bass Reeves has been called the first commissioned African-American deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, but this may not be true. A story in the “Indian Pioneer Papers” at the Oklahoma State History Museum in Oklahoma City tells of a posse led by one “Negro” Smith from Fort Smith in 1867. Smith was sent to catch a gang of outlaws who had robbed a stagecoach and killed the driver near Atoka, in the Choctaw Nation. The Cherokee Advocate reported on October 14, 1871, that a Cherokee Indian named Ross had killed a black deputy U.S. marshal on the banks of the Arkansas River opposite Fort Smith. Reeves, though, was undoubtedly one of the first, and he certainly became the most famous black deputy to work the Indian nations before statehood.
In the late 1870s, despite being a commissioned deputy U.S. marshal, Reeves served as a posseman and went into Indian Territory with more experienced lawmen, including Deputy U.S. Marshals Robert J. Topping and Jacob T. Ayers. Later, Reeves and his good friend Deputy U.S. Marshal John H. Mershon teamed up on occasion. Federal law mandated that deputies take at least one posseman whenever they went into the field. On extended trips into the territory, deputy marshals often brought two or more possemen, along with a guard and a cook. One or two supply wagons (sometimes referred to as “tumbleweed wagons”) would serve as headquarters on the prairie while the lawmen rounded up desperadoes. The Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad tracks in the territory were known as the “deadline.” Deputies couldn’t arrest anyone east of the tracks until they were on their way back to Fort Smith. The lawmen typically traveled west to Fort Reno and Anadarko, south to Fort Sill and then back to Fort Smith. This trip took in about 400 miles and would take one to two months depending on high water.
Reeves made catching criminals while in disguise part of his modus operandi. He did this throughout his years while working for the federal courts at Fort Smith, Ark., and Paris, Texas. Sometimes he would appear as a drifter, other times as a cowboy, preacher or farmer. For example, he once got a tip that some dangerous outlaws were holed up in a log cabin, so he dressed in farmer overalls and intentionally got his ramshackle wagon stuck on a nearby tree stump. When the four outlaws came out to help him get unstuck, he got the drop on them and brought them to justice.
In disguise or not, it was a dangerous business. The closest he came to losing his life, he said in a 1906 newspaper interview, came sometime in 1884 while riding the Seminole whiskey trail in search of four men, two white and two black, for whom he had warrants. His pursuit was interrupted by three brothers named Brunter—who had been accused of horse stealing, robbery and several unsolved murders in Indian Territory. The Brunters got the drop on Reeves. With their guns pointed at the lawman, they ordered him to dismount and keep his hands away from his Colt revolver. Reeves played it cool, showing the brothers warrants for their arrest and asking them what day of the month it was, so that he could make a record for the government. The outlaws thought the lawman must be out of his mind. They told Reeves, “You are just ready to turn in now,” but they were laughing too hard and relaxed their guard. Reeves whipped out his Colt and killed two of the brothers as quick as lightning. While he was in the act of shooting those two, he grabbed the gun barrel of the third outlaw, who could only manage three harmless shots. Reeves hit the third Brunter in the head with his revolver, killing him. There would be no fees to collect on the three dead men, but there were now three fewer desperadoes infesting Indian Territory.
Also in 1884, a benchmark year in Reeves’ long career, Bass and the noted Choctaw lawman Charles LeFlore arrested Texas horse thief Robert Landers right in Fort Smith. Reeves’ most celebrated gunfight occurred that same year. Jim Webb, the foreman of the huge Washington-McLish Ranch in the Chickasaw Nation, was his foe. A black preacher who owned a small farm adjacent to the ranch had let a fire get out of control, and it spread onto ranch land. Webb had scolded the preacher, but that didn’t satisfy his anger. He had then shot him to death. Webb was one tough hombre who had reportedly killed 11 men while living in the Brazos River region in Texas. Reeves was able to arrest Webb without incident but was forced to go after him again when the foreman jumped his bond.
In June 1884, Reeves located Webb at Bywaters Store at the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains. Webb refused to surrender this time, and the two men had a running gunfight. After nearly being shot himself, Reeves got down from his horse, raised his Winchester and shot Webb twice from a distance of about a quarter-mile. Several cowboys and the owner of the store witnessed this gunfight. Heroics like that had caused the Muskogee Indian Journal to refer to Reeves as one of the best deputy U.S. marshals in Indian Territory. At that time, after Reconstruction, it was rare to find black federal policemen anywhere in the country except Indian Territory. Reeves and the other black deputies there would blaze a trail of justice and equality for all citizens of that federal protectorate. During the territorial era, at least 50 black deputy U.S. marshals served in Indian Territory.
Reeves stood out in most any gathering of marshals, white or black, and not just because he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 180 pounds. He had a reputation for being able to whip any two men with his bare hands and manipulate six-shooters and rifles equally well with either hand. His most trusted weapon was a Winchester rifle, but he was also known to carry as many as three revolvers, two butt forward at his belt for easy access. Territorial newspapers reported that during his career he killed 14 desperadoes—but it could have been twice that number. He brought in a great many men alive, too, including outlaws with bounties on their heads. As a man hunter, he had few equals. On one occasion he hauled in 17 horse thieves in “Comanche country” near Fort Sill. Texas rustlers often ventured into Indian Territory to steal ponies from the Indian residents.
Not that Bass Reeves was perfect. Nobody could be a lawman that long without chalking up a blemish or two on his record. On one of his 1884 trips into the Chickasaw Nation, Reeves shot and killed his black cook, William Leech. On April 8, while Reeves and his posse were camped near the Canadian River, he uttered a few choice words about Leech’s cooking, and Leech responded in kind. The possemen assumed the banter was all in fun, since Reeves and Leech had seemingly gotten along in the past. But this time things apparently got out of hand. Leech, according to one popular account, poured some hot grease down the throat of a puppy that Reeves had in camp, and the deputy marshal proceeded to shoot down the cook. Then again it might not have happened that way at all, and the dog might have belonged to Leech. In any case, nothing came of the shooting for a while.
The next year, 1885, was considerably less eventful. But in September ’85, Bass Reeves did swear out a warrant for the arrest of the infamous female outlaw Belle Starr, as well as Fayette Barnett, for horse stealing. Reeves and Belle Starr were apparently on friendly terms. Many times in dealing with people he knew, Reeves would inform them that they were wanted in Fort Smith and it might be better if they would turn themselves in so he wouldn’t have to haul them around the countryside. Although it is not known for sure that he made this suggestion to Mrs. Starr, she did soon turn herself in at Fort Smith—the only time on record that she did so—and reportedly said that she “did not propose to be dragged around by some federal deputy.”
In January 1886, two years after shooting his cook, Reeves was indicted for first-degree murder, arrested by Deputy U.S. Marshal G.J.B. Frair and held in the Fort Smith federal jail. It took six months before Reeves could make bond. On May 21, President Grover Cleveland appointed a new U.S marshal, John Carroll—the first former Confederate veteran that Reeves would serve under at Fort Smith. Whether Carroll had anything to do with the proceedings against Reeves is not known. The trial was finally held in October 1887. Eleven witnesses were called for the prosecution, while Reeves and his excellent attorneys requested 10 witnesses for the defense. Reeves testified that he had argued with Leech while in camp but that nothing had come of it. That same evening, Reeves said, a cartridge caught in his Winchester rifle and while trying to dis lodge the bullet, the gun accidentally went off. The bullet, the defendant continued, struck Leech in the neck, and though Reeves sent for a doctor, the cook expired before medical help could arrive. Reeves was acquitted of malicious murder, but because the murder trial had depleted his substantial savings, he had to sell his home in Van Buren and move his family to a house on the outskirts of Fort Smith.
Reeves resumed his productive ways in the field after this interlude, once again bringing in desperadoes and villains by the dozen. In the spring of 1889, Jacob Yoes, a Union Army veteran, was appointed U.S. marshal at Fort Smith. Late that year, Yoes sent Reeves after a gang of killers, and on December 30, Reeves sent a note to the marshal saying, “Have got the three men who killed Deputy Marshal [Joseph] Lundy [on June 14, 1889].” His three prisoners were Seminole Indians— Nocus Harjo, One Prince and Bill Wolf. In April 1890, Reeves captured the notorious Seminole Tosa-lo-nah (alias Greenleaf), who had murdered and robbed three white men and four Indians. Greenleaf had been on the run from the law for 18 years, and this was the first time he was arrested.
In November 1890, Reeves went after an even more famous Indian Territory outlaw, the Cherokee Ned Christie, who was accused of killing Deputy U.S. Marshal Dan Maples in May 1887. Christie had maintained his innocence but refused to come to the white man’s court, for he felt no justice would be served. Reeves and his posse attacked Ned’s hideout in the Cherokee hills, known locally as Ned’s Fort Mountain. Reeves was able to burn down the fortified cabin. At first, he believed Christie was trapped inside, but he later found out that the renegade had escaped. Christie swore vengeance on Reeves but failed to make good on the threat before a large federal posse killed Christie at Fort Mountain on November 2, 1892.
The first white and black settlers had been allowed onto Indian lands in 1889, when Oklahoma Territory, just west of Indian Territory, was opened. In a 1930s interview, Harve Lovelday, an early white settler in Pottawattomie County, described the scene in the territories:
_In Old Oklahoma the West was West when the six-shooters worked out in the gambling halls and in the saloons of Asher, Avoca, Wanette, Earlsboro, Violet Springs, Corner, and Keokuk Falls about the time of 1889 and 1890 ….These small Western towns were inhabited by Negroes, whites, Indians, half-bloods, gamblers, bootleggers, killers and any kind of an outcast…. _
Bass Reeves, a coal-black Negro, was a U.S. Deputy Marshal during one time and he was the most feared U.S. marshal that was ever heard in that country. To any man or any criminal what was subject to arrest he did his full duty according to law. He brought men before the court to be tried fairly but many times he never brought in all the criminals but would kill some of them. He didn’t want to spend so much time in chasing down the man who resisted arrest so would shoot him down in his tracks.
The new Oklahoma Territory towns were different from the Indian Territory towns in that saloons were legal in the former. Profiteers—principally white men and women—could make a killing by buying liquor in Oklahoma Territory and bringing it into Indian Territory, as long as the deputy U.S. marshals didn’t catch them. The federal court for Oklahoma Territory was in Guthrie. Reeves, like many other deputy U.S. marshals, became cross-deputized so that he could work in both territories.
The worst saloon town in Oklahoma Territory was said to be the Corner, just across the boundary with the Seminole and Chickasaw nations. The term “bootlegging” supposedly came from the drovers, cowboys and ranchers who would put a flat bottle of whiskey in their boots and smuggle the contraband into Indian Territory for profit. The term “last chance” was coined here, because these border saloon towns offered the last chance to get legal whiskey before a traveler crossed into the dry Indian nations. On at least one occasion, Reeves reportedly killed a gunman in a Corner saloon who called him out for a gunfight.
In late June 1891, Reeves and his posse rode into Fort Smith with eight prisoners (five wanted for murder) from the Indian nations. The captured outlaws included William Wright, a black man; Wiley Bear and John Simmer, Indians; and William McDaniel and Ben Card, white men. McDaniel and Card had been arrested for allegedly killing John Irvin, a black man, but Reeves apparently didn’t have enough solid evidence to indict the pair. The Fort Smith Weekly Elevator attacked Reeves for chaining up the two men and dragging them around Creek country for nearly a month. Most likely, Reeves was reprimanded by Marshal Yoes, but there is no record of such action.
Reeves left Fort Smith around 1893 and transferred to the federal court at Paris, Texas. This court had jurisdiction over much of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations in the 1890s. Reeves was stationed at Calvin, Choctaw Nation, and would take many of his prisoners to Pauls Valley, Chickasaw Nation, where a federal commissioner was stationed and there was a jail. Hearings would be held at Pauls Valley, and if necessary, criminals were transferred to the Texas court for trial. By the late 1890s, three federal courts were located in Indian Territory to hear major and minor cases—the Southern District at Ardmore, Central District at McAlester and Northern District at Muskogee. Federal authorities transferred Reeves to the Northern District, where he was first stationed at tiny Wetumka in the Creek Nation. By 1898 he was living in Muskogee, where he would stay until statehood in 1907.
Reeves escaped many assassination attempts during his career, one of the last occurring on the evening of November 14, 1906, at Wybark, Creek Nation. While riding in his buggy looking to serve warrants, he was fired upon under a railroad trestle by unknown parties. He returned fire, but nobody was hit. By that time, Reeves was focusing on arresting black and Indian felons, though he would still arrest white outlaws if the occasion called for it.
The last major gunfight that Reeves took part in erupted in Muskogee on March 26, 1907. A large group of black anarchists calling themselves the United Socialist Club had taken over a two-story house and declared that they could claim any property in town. Two city constables, John Colfield and Guy Fisher, were sent with eviction papers, only to be met at the door of the house by gunfire. Fisher was wounded, but escaped; Colfield was severely wounded and couldn’t move from where he lay. The U.S. marshal’s office was alerted, and Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Bud Ledbetter, along with a black deputy U.S. marshal named Paul Smith and others, arrived on the scene. An intense gunfight followed. Ledbetter killed two of the offenders, and Smith saved Ledbetter’s life by killing one of the radicals who had Ledbetter pinned down. Reeves arrived late. After noting where most of the gunfire was coming from, he plugged an anarchist who was shooting down on the lawmen from an upstairs window. The lawmen killed two more of the group before the remaining seven anarchists surrendered. Constables Colfield and Fisher recovered from their wounds, and Ledbetter called Reeves “one of the bravest men this country has ever known.”
Even before that shootout, on March 8, 1907, the Oklahoma City Weekly Times- Journal ran a story headlined “He has Killed Fourteen Men: A Fearless Negro Deputy of the Indian Territory.” Two days later, on March 10, The Washington Post reprinted that lengthy article. It would be the most national exposure Bass Reeves received during his lifetime. And if accurate, it means that the black anarchist he killed later that month would have been No. 15.
When Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907, the federal office was downsized, and many of the lawmen found other jobs. Bass Reeves, now 68, took a job with the Muskogee police department, walking a downtown beat. Old-timers reported that Reeves would walk with a sidekick who carried a satchel full of pistols and that there was never a crime on his beat. Reeves would complete 32 years of service as a law officer without ever being reported wounded. He died at home of Bright’s disease on January 12, 1910, at age 71, and was buried somewhere in Muskogee. The exact location is not known today; it was probably either in the Old Agency cemetery or in a small black cemetery west of town on Fern Mountain Road. Reeves’ long service and remarkable dedication to duty could match any lawman of his time, and his six-shooter had been, as the two newspapers reported in March 1907, “a potent element in bringing two territories out of the reign of the outlaw, the horsethief and bootlegger, to a great common wealth.”
Art T. Burton, a native of Oklahoma, is a history professor at South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill. His 2006 book Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves is recommended for further reading along with his 1991 book Black, Red, and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territories.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.