Bass Reeves: The Transformation from Slave to Old West Legend

David Oyelowo Takes on the Role of the Legendary Bass Reeves in Taylor Sheridan’s Western Lawmen: Bass Reeves, a captivating anthology series that also features Dennis Quaid as Sherrill Lynn and Donald Sutherland as Judge Parker. This gripping series begins by narrating the incredible journey of Bass Reeves from enslavement to becoming the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.

How did a former slave, Bass Reeves, transform into a Western legend?

In the early 1870s, Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma, was overrun by a wave of horse thieves, murderers, robbers, and whiskey peddlers. To restore law and order to this chaotic region, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Isaac C. Parker as the judge of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker, in turn, recruited James Fagan as U.S. Marshal and authorized him to hire 200 deputy marshals to police the vast 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory. Judge Parker’s directive was clear: “Bring them in alive—or dead!” Among those deputies was Bass Reeves, the only Black man among the recruits.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838 but was taken to Texas by his owner in 1846. At some point, he managed to escape and fled north to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Cherokees, Seminoles, and Creeks. Here, he immersed himself in their cultures, languages, and learned the lay of the land. He acquired valuable skills in tracking, stalking, and survival and developed a sharp eye and quick draw. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Reeves returned to Arkansas, purchased a farm, and started a family.

After the Civil War, Reeves served as an interpreter for settlers returning to Indian Territory. During the construction of railroads in the area, he protected surveyors and later construction workers from being swindled by con men. When he became a deputy marshal, some questioned whether a former slave should carry a gun, make arrests, or handle federal prisoners. However, Reeves won over many skeptics with his strong sense of justice, dedication to duty, and belief in equality for all citizens.

Despite being unable to read or write, Reeves had an incredible ability to memorize warrants as they were read to him, ensuring he never apprehended the wrong person. He became so adept at capturing criminals that they often surrendered once they knew he was on their trail. As a deputy marshal, Reeves had a trusty team, including a chuckwagon and cook, a posseman for protection, and a tumbleweed wagon used as a mobile jail to transport captives. Standing at 6 feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, he was an imposing presence on horseback.

Reeves’ commitment to the law was unwavering, even when it meant arresting his own son, Ben, who had tragically taken a life.

In 1907, after a remarkable 32-year career as a U.S. deputy marshal, Reeves’ service came to an end when Oklahoma became a state, and the federal government’s responsibility for law enforcement in Indian Territory ceased. Reeves had served longer than any other deputy in the Western District, with 21 of those years spent under Judge Parker’s jurisdiction. For a brief period, he served as a U.S. Marshal in Paris, Texas, and then spent two years as a police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where not a single crime was reported during his watch. Despite using a cane in his later years, Reeves remained a striking figure. He retired in 1909, and on January 12, 1910, he passed away due to Bright’s disease (nephritis).

Legacy of Bass Reeves:

Reeves’ legacy lives on, with hundreds of people attending his funeral. Fellow lawman Bud Ledbetter hailed him as “one of the bravest men this country has ever known.” In 1992, Bass Reeves was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Twenty years later, a bronze statue of Reeves, created by Harold T. Holden, was erected at Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The statue portrays the lawman on his horse, holding a rifle, with his loyal dog running by his side.

Each year, in July, the Bass Reeves Western History Conference is held in Muskogee, Oklahoma, celebrating the enduring legacy of this remarkable figure in Western history. Bass Reeves’ journey from a former slave to one of the Old West’s greatest lawmen is a testament to his unyielding dedication to justice and equality, making him an unsung hero worth remembering.

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