FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA) — Bass Reeves is one of the most revered names of the “shoot ’em up” Old West thanks to his turn as an unlikely officer of the law during the days of the Western Frontier.
While the gunslinger from Crawford County, Arkansas’ record speaks for itself, it is perhaps who Reeves was was that still resonates with so many folks today.
“He represents a big story of the U.S. Marshals who fought to bring back a lot of law and order,” Fort Smith National Historic Site Park Ranger Cody Faber explained.
The legendary lawman’s accomplishments eclipse those of just about every U.S. Marshal of his time in the days of the Indian Territory. Operating out of Fort Smith for much of his career, he was said to be many things, including a deadly shot with any one of the many firearms he used.
“Could take a nose hair off of a fly,” Bass Reeves re-enactor Reggie Moore pointed out with a laugh.
He was also a skilled tracker and horseman, as well as a master of deception.
“He wore disguises,” Moore shared. “He went 20 miles just to arrest two brothers.”
However the deputy U.S. Marshal is best known for getting his man, and there were a lot of them.
Reeves hauled in more than 3,000 fugitives, including his own son at one point, from 1875 to 1907. U.S. Marshals Museum Curator David Kennedy pointed out Reeves was far more successful than most.
“Bass came from nothing, and he was very much a self-made man he went into a career in law enforcement,” Kennedy said. “And was able to succeed where few others did.”
The storied lawman brought thousands of outlaws to stand in a courtroom before Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, better known as the “Hanging Judge.”
Faber revealed Reeves was one of the judge’s most trusted deputies, operating out of Fort Smith — which rightfully earned the nickname “Hell on the Border” during the rough and tumble days of the Western Frontier.
“It was probably one of the most dangerous periods of time to be a law enforcement officer in the history of the United States,” Faber explained.
After learning who he was, Bass Reeves would set off, across the Arkansas River, into Indian Territory — which is now modern day Oklahoma — and would not return until he completed his mission . After which, he would haul his captured outlaws back to Arkansas to face justice.
“He actually would have helped fill this jail to capacity,” Faber said. “And we know that sometimes Bass brought in 20 to 30 guys at a time. And, again, that’s a huge number.
“And, considering these deputy marshals are paid per arrest, that’s how he made his money. And he made good money, to the point that he actually owned several properties.”
Reeves’ reputation even prompted notorious outlaw Belle Starr to turn herself in immediately after learning he had the warrant to bring her in.
“He is known as a feared deputy,” Kennedy explained. “If you knew that Bass was coming after you, you knew that you were going to get caught.”
Despite all his success, there are few pictures of him and not a lot written about him in the newspapers of the day. It is possible his status as a former escaped slave, who ran off to the Indian Territory after a fight with his master, might be to blame for that. Bass Reeves re-enactor Reggie Moore says the first African-American Deputy Marshall West of the Mississippi River deserves his due.
“History among blacks has been lost,” Moore shared. “We are resurrecting it. We’re pulling all of those individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the making of America.”
Moore points out a black man arresting a bunch of white folks in the post-Civil War South ruffled a few feathers.
“I really admire him for being able to go into those different circles, in his different costumes and disguises, and actually get the individual that he was tracking and looking for,” Moore offered.
Reeves was embodied in a statue that stands today in Fort Smith. He was not the only black lawman in the region later in his career, but he was the most notable because of what did in his career.
“Bass probably stood against a lot of insults and jeers and things that were said about him and against him, but he still stood tall,” Moore explained. “He completed his role as a Deputy Marshal.”
Reeves kept on as a marshal until the Jim Crow laws forced African-Americans out of the marshal service in Oklahoma. He finished his career as a beat cop in Muskogee, Oklahoma before his death in 1910. However there is more to his story.
Watch the video below to why Reeves has been called the inspiration behind the lone ranger, though there’s a fair amount of debate about that. U.S. Marshals Museum Curator David Kennedy explains.
Watch the video below to learn why Reeves faced his own murder trial at one point. U.S. Marshals Museum Curator David Kennedy explains: