Bass Reeves, Deputy United States Marshal
America's Greatest Lawman

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Even among the deadly "citizens" of Indian Territory in the 1870s, the Brunter brothers were considered the worst. Their list of crimes was almost endless, going back many years into the Civil War days – numerous murders, robberies, extortion, horse theft, assault and battery. Nothing was beneath the Brunter boys and even other bad folks steered clear of them.

So it was with some arrogance and anticipation that the three of them stepped out in front of a large bay stallion ridden by a tall black man, his face shaded by a large black hat. This man was worth killing just to take his horse. Pointing an assortment of weapons at the man, the boys ordered him to dismount. Displaying no sign of fear, the rider complied.

The Brunters sneered at the man as he calmly walked the few steps toward them. This would be easy and fun, killing a black man.

"I'm a Deputy U. S. Marshal," he spoke. "I have a warrant for your arrest." Reaching into the inside pocket of his black frock coat, he withdrew a worn piece of paper. It was only then that the boys saw the gleaming brass six-pointed star pinned to the black man's vest. And the butts of two Colts worn cross-draw.

"Can you boys tell me what day it is, so I can put it in the report?" He thrust the paper at the astonished outlaws. As they glanced at the proffered document, the marshal's right wrist flicked and suddenly one of the Colts appeared. Almost as one, two shots rang out and two of the boys died where they stood. The third, taken off guard, raised his own Colt too late. A huge black hand seized the piece, forcing the barrel skyward as the marshal's gun barrel struck the man's temple, knocking him senseless.

The Brunter brothers had just met Deputy United States Marshal Bass Reeves, arguably the greatest lawman in United States history.

The two dead brothers were two of fourteen men Reeves killed during his 32 years in the Indian Territory – and the surviving brother was only one of over 3,000 fugitives this amazing man brought in to face courtroom justice.

When Judge Isaac Parker of "Hanging Judge" fame was appointed to the United States District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, he was charged with cleaning up the outlaw element of the Oklahoma Indian Territory. Of the 22,000 white people living in the 73,000 square mile territory, it was estimated that some 17,000 were wanted fugitives. It was a dangerous place for anyone, even more so for any lawman bold enough to enter. During the years leading up to Oklahoma's statehood, over 120 Deputy U. S. Marshals died there in the line of duty.

Parker's first act was to appoint James Fagan as United States Marshal for the territory and authorized him to hire 200 deputy marshals. One of Fagan's first choices was Bass Reeves, with good reason.

Born a slave, it was rumored that Reeves fled to Indian Territory after cold cocking his master, Colonel George Reeves, in a disagreement over a card game. Others say he simply ran away when he learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. Either way, he joined up with the Seminoles and Cherokee tribes and lived with them for several years, learning their languages and survival skills that were second to none.

He also learned the skills of a gunfighter. Fully ambidextrous, a tremendous advantage in that line of work, Reeves was an expert shot with either hand and deadly at long range with a Winchester. He wore his Colts in a butt forward cross-draw position and practiced until his draw was smooth, fast and deadly. He served with one of the few groups of Indians who joined and fought with the Union Army.

Reeves never learned to read or write, but his memory was flawless. As he received the warrants, he would make a symbol next to the subject's name and commit it to memory so that he knew which warrant to serve with an arrest. He never made a mistake.

At 6 feet 2 inches, Reeves towered over most men of the day. He required the largest saddle horses to carry his weight; the normal cow pony would quickly flounder. In spite of his great size and strength, Reeves was always a quiet, polite and respectful man and he was respected by any and all who knew him on both sides of the law. He was a larger than life Rooster Cogburn – and he was real.

Stories of his exploits are wonderful "wild west" fare. One of his favorite techniques was to disguise himself as a tramp, or a farmer, or a cowboy, or a fugitive. He was apparently very good at it, as it enabled him to get close enough to many of his fugitives to overpower and arrest them.

As a tramp, he once approached a cabin on foot where two fugitive brothers lived with their mother. His old slouch hat displayed three bullet holes (which he had administered himself) and a tale of woe and hunger. The boys were away, but their mother took pity on the poor black man, fed him and fell for his story. She suggested that he might wish to join up with her two sons and Reeves agreed. When the boys arrived home, they accepted the newcomer's story because their mother had and agreed that they ought to join forces. That night, as the boys slept like babies, Reeves quietly slipped the cuffs on them. Rudely awakening them at dawn, Reeves herded the very surprised and handcuffed boys on foot the twenty miles to his camp; their mother screaming at his back for the first several miles.

On another "outing," Reeves returned to Fort Smith with no less than nineteen captives to stand trial before Judge Parker.

For all the duties and distractions of his job, Reeves was still a family man with ten children. On one very sad occasion, he returned to Fort Smith to learn that there was a warrant for his son for murdering his wife. None of the marshals would touch it. Reeves dutifully requested the warrant and rode out to arrest his son for murder. It did not take long before he delivered the young man to the U. S. Marshal at Muskogee. Young Reeves was sentenced to life in prison. After Reeves' death, when the son had served 20 years, he was discharged as a model prisoner at the request of a citizens' committee.

Bob Dozier was another hard case that had avoided capture for several years. Wanted for a plethora of crimes ranging from murder to cattle rustling to bootlegging, Dozier was crafty and resourceful with a network of cronies to alert him of pursuers. Reeves eventually tracked him into the Cherokee Hills and dispatched him in one of his storied gunfights.

Deputy Marshals were paid from fines and rewards for the fugitives they brought in. Reeves was indeed well paid. He and Parker had a warm and long-standing professional relationship; Parker had filled his new black deputy with a sense of the importance of his role as a trusted and professional black lawman, a mission that Reeves took seriously the rest of his life.

In 1907, Oklahoma was admitted to the Union as a state and the U. S. Marshal's job was suddenly no more. Now in his late 60s, Reeves signed on with the Muskogee Police Department and walked his beat armed with a cane and his six-gun. Such was his reputation that no crime was ever recorded on his beat. And no citizen of Muskogee was more respected. His reputation was not forgotten by those who knew of him. At his death in 1909, the entire town joined his funeral procession and mourners came from far and wide to pay their respects.

Sadly, Jim Crow laws soon appeared, erasing any record of the many black deputy marshals – and there were many. Bass Reeves was remembered only as long as those who knew of him lived. When they in turn passed on, the name of this remarkable man, one of the greatest lawmen in American law enforcement history was slowly forgotten.

Fortunately, Reeves has been rediscovered and belated honors and memorials are bringing him into his rightful place in history. Books are written about his life and deeds. He was the first African-American inducted into the Great Westerners Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1992. Today, a life-sized statue of Reeves astride his stallion and holding his Winchester at the ready stands at the United States Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Burton, Art; Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves; University of Nebraska Press, 2006

Brady, Paul L.; Black Badge, Deputy United States Marshal Bass Reeves from Slave to Hroic Lawman; Milligan Books, 2005

Burton, Art: Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1875-1907; Eakin Press, Austin, TX, 1991

Nelson, Vaunda M.; Bad News for Outlaws, The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal; Carolrhoda Books, 2009

Paulsen, Gary; The Legend of Bass Reeves; Wendy Lamb Books; New York