COLUMN — Reeves was first Black U.S. Marshal

Published 12:55 pm Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

With lawlessness in the Indian territory in the United States, a firm hand was needed to curb the criminal activity that existed during the antebellum and Civil War eras. Bass Reeves was the man for the job.

In 1838 Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas and was named after his grandfather Bass Washington. He and his family were owned by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves, yet in 1846, they moved to Grayson County, Texas.

As a youngster, Reeves had a special way with animals, especially horses. While working with the livestock he would often sing about guns, knives, bandits and killers, which concerned his mother. Moreover, he grew up to have a decent and kind heart with brains to match.

Colonel George Reeves his owner was impressed with his shooting skills and took him along when he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Yet, one action changed everything. According to some, one night Reeves and the colonel got into an argument and Bass hit Reeves. During this time, for a slave that meant certain death so Reeves ran away to Indian territory. The Indian territory was the western part of the U.S. and was home to Native Americans in the 1850s like the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole who had been moved there by force by the U.S. government. Bass lived with the tribes learning their languages and perfecting his marksmanship.

In April 1865, Reeves became a free man. Eventually, he married Nellie Jennie, a Texan and they moved to Arkansas and had 11 children. Reeves raised livestock and worked the land there. After Nellie’s death in 1896, he wed Winnie Sumter four years later.

In May 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker hired 200 deputy marshals to track down outlaws and Bass Reeves was one of them. He has the distinction of being the first African American deputy U. S. Marshal. Reeves’s assignment was the Western District of Arkansas which included the Indian territory which he served until 1893. Reeves had a reputation as a trustworthy person but fair and just. Ironically, he only used deadly force when necessary. Reeves often wore disguises to capture the outlaws. Being illiterate was not going to stop this dedicated lawman. In some cases when they found out Reeves was behind these disguises the criminals gave themselves up. As a U.S. deputy marshal, Reeves would bring in as many as 17 prisoners at a time. Reeves was a dedicated man of faith and he would talk to these outlaws about the Bible and doing right.

Unfortunately, in the case of capturing Jim Webb, the use of force was inevitable. Webb was on the run in Indian territory and for two years stayed one step ahead of Bass. When Bass approached Webb, the outlaw attempted to run but Reeves stopped him. He had arrested Webb before and wanted to bring him in alive, but that was not to be the case. Knowing he couldn’t escape, Webb took out his rifle shooting at Reeves three times, no less. Bass was not hit. Webb was shot with Reeves’s Winchester rifle and killed. Out of respect for Webb, Bass buried him and turned in Webb’s boots and gun belt as proof he had captured the criminal. Before his death, Webb gave Reeves his revolver out of respect.

In November 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Reeves was hired as an officer of the Muskogee Police Department which he served in for two years before he became ill and retired. Sadly, Reeves died of Bright’s disease on January 12, 1910 in Muskogee, Oklahoma at the age of 71. In March 1912 he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Country and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In addition, in 2013 Reeves was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame. Reeves always got his man or woman following the letter of the law, but never failing to conduct his character with faith, humility and fairness. He is another example of the great and respectable work that law enforcement officers do for their communities.

It was evident in the 1800s, and it is like that in 2020.

Judy Moore can be reached at