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The Life and Times of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves

Over his 32-year career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves arrested 3,000 felons, killed 14 men, and was never shot himself. His reputation for persistence, his total fearlessness, his skills with a gun, and his ability to outsmart outlaws struck terror into lawbreakers in what we now call Oklahoma. Although other colorful characters made their way into our pop culture, Bass was the real badass of the Old West.

Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. His slavemaster, William S. Reeves, moved the household to Texas in 1846. When the Civil War broke out, William Reeves' son George was made a colonel in the Confederate army and took Bass to war with him. At the most opportune moment, Reeves escaped while George was sleeping and took off out west for Indian Territory. Accounts vary on whether Bass beat up George as he left, and whether his immediate aim was freedom or to escape punishment over a card game dispute. In any case, Reeves went to live among the Creek and Seminole Indians. He learned their customs and languages and became a proficient territorial scout. Reeves eventually procured a homestead in Van Buren, Arkansas, where he was the first black settler. He married Nellie Jennie, built an eight-room house with his bare hands, and raised ten children—five girls and five boys. Life was good, but it was about to change for Bass Reeves.   

Image credit: Kmusser via Wikipedia

The state of Oklahoma at the time was two different territories: Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory. Indian Territory was where the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes who were forcibly removed from their homes were resettled following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But they weren't the only citizens of Indian Territory. There were also former slaves of the tribes, freed and made tribal members after the Civil War, settlers from the East (both black and white) who sharecropped tribal property, and a good measure of outlaws fleeing from civilization. Indian territory was attractive to lawbreakers because of its peculiar judiciary arrangement: The tribal courts had jurisdiction only over tribal members. Non-Indians were under the jurisdiction of federal courts, but there were few marshals to supervise a very large area.

In 1875, “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker was made the federal judge of Indian Territory. One of his first acts was to make James Fagan a U.S. Marshal and order him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan knew of Reeves and his ability to negotiate Indian Territory and speak the languages, so Reeves was named the first black Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. As such, he was authorized to arrest both black and white lawbreakers. Reeves was well aware of the historic precedent, and took his responsibilities seriously.

Reeves was 38 years old at the time, 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 180 pounds, and rode a large horse. He cut an imposing figure as he patrolled the 75,000 square miles of Indian Territory. He quickly gained a reputation as a tough and fearless lawman who managed to bring in outlaws thought to be invincible. Reeves traveled the long circuit with a wagon, cook, and often a posse. He carried chains to secure prisoners to the wagon, as he sometimes had a dozen or more by the time he returned to Ft. Smith, where Judge Parker held court.  

In 1882, Reeves arrested Belle Starr for horse theft. Some accounts say that she turned herself in when she heard that the legendary Bass Reeves was looking for her.

In 1889, after Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang for their long-term horse theft operation. He waited along the route Tom Story used, and surprised him with an arrest warrant. Story panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew and shot him dead before Story could fire. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again.

Reeves approached the three murderous Brunter brothers and handed them a warrant for their arrest. The three outlaws laughed and read the warrant, and in the split second they all took their eyes off Reeves, he managed to draw his gun and kill two of them, and immediately disarmed and arrested the third.

Although Reeves was a skilled frontiersman and spoke several languages, he had never learned to read. Once, when two potential assassins forced Reeves off his horse, he asked them for one last request - that someone read him a letter from his wife. When the outlaws were momentarily distracted by the piece of paper they were handed, Reeves drew his gun and turned the situation around. The second outlaw dropped his gun in surprise, and they were both arrested. Reeves used the "piece of paper" ruse several times in his career to distract felons to similar ends.   

Reeves was arrested himself in 1887, and charged with murder in the death of his posse cook, William Leach. Brought to trial before Judge Parker, he testified that he shot the cook by accident while cleaning his gun, and was acquitted.

The marshal was famous for fair-mindedness and was impossible to bribe or corrupt. In 1902 he arrested his own son, Benny, for murdering his wife (Reeves' daughter-in-law). Benny had fled to the badlands after the crime, and no other marshal was willing to pursue him. As distasteful as the task was, Reeves brought him back, and Benny served twenty years at Leavenworth.  

Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and Reeves' commission as marshal ended. He was 68 years old by then, but took on another position with the Muskogee Police Department, which he kept until his health began to fail. Reeves died of Bright's disease in 1910. In his 32 years as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Reeves had seen bullets fly through his clothing and hat, but was never injured by an outlaw. His record of 3,000 arrests dwarfs the arrest records of better known Old West lawmen such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.

The story of Bass Reeves is sometimes cited as the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. It also may have been an inspiration for the film Django Unchained. The 2010 straight-to-video movie Bass Reeves is a fictionalized account of the lawman's life. In 2011, the bridge that connects Muskogee and Fort Gibson in Oklanahoma was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge.

Once asked why he spent so much effort enforcing the "white man's laws," Bass reportedly replied, "Maybe the law ain't perfect, but it's the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin'."

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84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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Miss Cellania
10 Famous Birthdays in May
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Some of our favorite historical figures were born in May. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a few of the notable people we'll be celebrating.

1. SIGMUND FREUD: MAY 6, 1856


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Sigmund Freud is known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. The Vienna psychiatrist developed a theory of the unconscious mind, where the id, ego, and superego struggle to balance each other out in the human psyche. Freud attributed his patients' neuroses to childhood trauma, often cloaked in a sexual conflict. His work was at first deemed perverted, but his ideas started to spread after a series of lectures in the U.S. in 1909. After Freud's death in 1939, Freudian theory was hailed as genius in mainstream culture. But beginning in the 1960s, Freud's theories started to fall out of favor in academia and are largely discredited today. However, his attempts to map the psyche gave us the language we still use to discuss personality and mental health.

2. FRED ASTAIRE: MAY 10, 1899


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Fred Astaire began dancing when he was just four years old. Soon he and his sister Adele were in a performing arts school and started dancing professionally. First came vaudeville, then Broadway, and when Adele married, Fred headed to Hollywood. Producers were at first reluctant to cast Astaire as a leading man because of his looks, but his dancing soon won them over. Astaire appeared in dozens of films between 1933 and 1981, 10 of them with with dance partner Ginger Rogers. Although his later films did not revolve around dance numbers, Astaire was seen dancing in an episode of Battlestar Galactica as late as 1979, when he was 80 years old.

3. MARTHA GRAHAM: MAY 11, 1894


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Martha Graham wanted to dance from an early age, but her parents disapproved, so she didn't study dance until college. Her wildly emotional dancing led her to performances in New York, and in 1926 she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Through the company, Graham promoted modern dance as a spiritual and emotional outlet. Over time, she came to be seen as a genius of the genre. Graham danced until she was in her '70s, and continued to choreograph dances until her death at age 91.

4. KATHARINE HEPBURN: MAY 12, 1907


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Katharine Hepburn caught the acting bug in college and headed to the stages of New York upon graduation. She was spotted in a Broadway production and was offered the lead in RKO's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. That kicked off a movie career of more than 60 years, in which she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four. Hepburn was a certified box office draw, but off screen she refused to behave like a Hollywood star. She spoke her mind, wore pants, and even appeared in public without makeup occasionally. Hepburn was also known for her devotion to the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, who was separated from his wife but refused to divorce her. The last of nine films they made together was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967, just before Tracy died. Hepburn continued making movies through 1994, when she was 87 years old.

5. PIERRE CURIE: MAY 15, 1859


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French physicist Pierre Curie is often overlooked in favor of Marie Curie, his brilliant student and later wife. Together they discovered radium and polonium, and did extensive research into radioactivity. Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research. Curie might have gone onto many further discoveries, but he was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn cart ran over him in Paris. If he had lived longer, Curie might have also succumbed to illness caused by radiation, as did his wife, daughter, and son-in-law—all Nobel Prize winners.

6. MARY CASSATT: MAY 22, 1844


Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Renowned American painter Mary Cassatt wanted to become an artist, but her parents objected and her Philadelphia art school didn't take women students seriously. So she went to Paris and studied privately under teachers from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as the school did not admit women. Gradually, Cassatt's works sold and her reputation grew. She drew the attention of Impressionist Edgar Degas, and worked with him for years. By 1886, she left the Impressionist movement behind, and afterward refused to be defined by any art genre. Cassatt's body of work often featured women and children in their everyday lives. Her most memorable painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, broke with tradition by portraying a child in a naturalistic, casual pose instead of a formal portrait.

7. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: MAY 22, 1859


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Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for his many short stories and novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle worked full time as a medical doctor until an illness convinced him he had to choose between writing and medicine. Years later, Conan Doyle volunteered with the British army to fight in the Second Boer War, but because of his age (40), he was only allowed to serve as a medical doctor. Upon his return from South Africa, he entered politics in Scotland, but he lost his only race. In 1907, Conan Doyle became involved in a real criminal case in which he helped George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian heritage, beat an animal cruelty conviction by employing the observational technique that Sherlock Holmes used. The fallout from that case led to the establishment of the appeals system in Britain. Conan Doyle also wrote a science fiction novel The Lost World, published in 1912. It was so successful that he wrote four sequels.

8. MARGARET FULLER: MAY 23, 1810


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Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Margaret Fuller was a precocious child who learned several languages but was not welcome at college because of her sex. She became friends with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who admired her philosophical thinking. Fuller became a literary critic for the New-York Tribune and a well-known intellectual.

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as an essay in Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," in which Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African Americans.

Fuller went on to become a foreign correspondent and the first American female war correspondent, covering the Italian revolution. She also fell in love with an Italian man and had a child with him. On their return trip to the U.S. in 1850 aboard a merchant ship, a hurricane struck the ship near Fire Island, killing all three. Only Fuller's 20-month-old son was found.

9. SALLY RIDE: MAY 26, 1951

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In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player when she was a teenager. Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro, but Ride went to Stanford University instead. She earned both a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of science in physics in 1973, and a PhD in physics in 1978. Ride then immediately applied for NASA's astronaut program. She flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and '84, and was scheduled for a third, but that mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride devoted her life to encouraging students to study science—especially girls. She founded the organization Sally Ride Science for just that purpose, and wrote five children's books encouraging interest in science. Ride died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.

10. "WILD BILL" HICKOK: MAY 27, 1837


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James Butler Hickok was a farmer, soldier, stagecoach driver, spy, lawman, scout, sharpshooter, gambler, and Wild West showman. Many of those occupations came after "Wild Bill" Hickok gained publicity for killing three men in an 1861 shootout. The newspapers followed his exploits from that time on, often embellishing the details until Hickok was more of a legend than the adventurer he was. His various occupations took him to different parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head and killed him in 1876. The hand Hickok was holding at the time—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights—became known as the "dead man's hand."

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