Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was an American law enforcement officer. He was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory.During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed 14 people in self-defense.
Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. Bass Reeves may have been kept in bondage by William Steele Reeves’s son, Colonel George R. Reeves, who was a sheriff and legislator in Texas, and a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.
When the American Civil War began, George Reeves, Bass’ enslaver, joined the Confederate Army, taking Bass with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves left his enslaver, but at some point during the Civil War, he gained his freedom. One account recalls how Bass Reeves and George Reeves had an altercation over a card game. Bass severely beat his enslaver, and fled to the Indian Territory where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass stayed in the Indian Territories and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.
As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas, with whom he had 11 children.
Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. He recruited him as a deputy; Reeves was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River. Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Indian Territory. He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas, for a short while. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory.
Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and became one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.
In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves claimed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He is said to have shot and killed 14 outlaws to defend his life.
Once, he had to arrest his own son for murder. One of his sons, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Deputy Marshal Reeves was disturbed and shaken by the incident, but allegedly demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released, and reportedly lived the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before he became ill and retired.
Personal life and final years
Reeves was himself once charged with murdering a posse cook. At his trial before Judge Parker, Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend. Reeves was acquitted.
Reeves’s health began to fail further after retiring. He died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910.
He was a great-uncle of Paul L. Brady, who became the first black man appointed as a federal administrative law judge in 1972.
Reeves’ great-great-great-grandson is National Hockey League player Ryan Reaves.