Born a slave in 1838, Bass Reeves would go on to become the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. During his astounding life, Reeves worked as a farmer, fought for the confederacy during the Civil War, and fathered 10 children. He was also one of the most legendary lawmen in the American west.

As deputy marshal, it is said that Reeves arrested over 3,000 felons and shot and killed 14 men — all without sustaining a single wound. Legend has it that the wildly-popular Lone Ranger radio series was based on his career.

In reality, Reeves accomplished far more than any fictional character ever would, and his incredible 32-year run as one of America’s greatest heroes is still unmatched today.

Born a slave

Bass Reeves was born to slave parents in Crawford County, Arkansas, and owned by state legislator William Steele Reeves. Like other slaves of his time, he took his master’s surname. Working alongside his family, the young Reeves worked as a water boy until he was old enough to be a field hand. In 1846, his master moved his family and operations to Grayson County, Texas.

Photo Courtesy: [Henry P. Moore]/[Getty Center] via Wikimedia
Bass was a polished young man, with good manners and a fine sense of humor, and he was soon appointed personal valet to the politician’s son, George. George was also a legislator and a colonel in the U.S. Army. When the Civil War broke out, George sided with the confederacy and headed into battle, taking Reeves with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

A daring escape

Reports regarding Reeves’ activities during the war vary and records are sparse. He claimed to have served in several battles for the Confederacy under his master, Col. Reeves. The colonel’s family, however, claimed that Reeves attacked his owner during an argument over a card game and later fled. Others believe the fight never happened and the young man simply ran away.

However it happened, Reeves did end up in Indian Territory (what is now Kansas and Oklahoma) without his master. There, he took refuge with the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Indians, learning their languages and tracking skills. It was also there that he became quite proficient with a rifle — so proficient that he would later be banned from several competitive turkey hunts for an unfair advantage.

The first black U.S. marshal

After emancipation, Reeves (now married) moved his family back to Arkansas. In 1857, he was commissioned to be a deputy U.S. marshal by Federal Judge Isaac Parker. The man had heard of Reeves’ ability to speak several tribal languages and was impressed. Tasked with “cleaning up” Indian Territory and bringing in outlaws “dead or alive,” Reeves more than rose to the task.

“Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin.” – Bass Reeves

During his time as a U.S. marshal, Reeves was responsible for apprehending criminals in a 75,000-square-mile area. Depending on who he was searching for, he would often ride a round trip of more than 800 miles. Work kept the busy lawman away from home for months at a time and he rarely saw his wife and kids — but the rewards and bounties more than made up for it.

Known for valor

Reeves quickly gained a reputation for bravery and valor. Though he couldn’t read or write, it didn’t curb his effectiveness: The marshal was known for having someone read him the warrants before he set out so he could memorize the contents. It’s said that he never failed to pick the correct one out of the pile when the time came.

By the end of his career, Reeves had apprehended more than 3,000 outlaws and killed 14. The tales of his escapades are legendary: He once marched two outlaws on foot 28 miles to a camp of possemen. Unfortunately, he was forced to “retire” in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state and law did not allow him to remain a marshal. He died just three years later.

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