The U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith has an impressive collection of guns and documents related to famed Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. Almost a year out from a planned opening of the new $60 million museum, it's the lawman's family tree the curator wants most.
Dave Kennedy, curator of collections and exhibits, said recently the museum is still in search of Bass Reeves's descendants.
At this point, with a downtown Fort Smith statue of Reeves erected in 2012, along with several True West Magazine stories and a 1992 induction in the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, it would be peculiar if someone asks “Who’s Bass Reeves?”
The question, however, opens up an opportunity to talk about one of the best stories around: Born into slavery in Crawford County; escaped servitude during the Civil War; possibly fought for the Union with the Keetoowah Cherokees; survived dozens of gunfights riding for Judge Isaac C. Parker as one of the first black U.S. deputy marshals west of the Mississippi; acquitted of murder for the death of his cook; arrested his son, Benjamin, for shooting his wife, Castella, in a jealous rage. These are just a few of the incredible stories of a man who hunted down men nobody else could capture.
After serving as a valiant marshals deputy, Reeves worked as a policeman in Muskogee for two years, 1907-1909. He died in 1910. Kennedy pointed to"racist sentiment on the part of incoming state officials," as well as the Congressional delegation and the incoming U.S. marshal when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 as reasons Reeves lost his job with the Marshals Service. Other reasons, Kennedy adds, included Reeves' age.
Thought to have been born in the summer of 1838, by the year 1880, Bass and Jennie Reeves had eight children: Sally, Robert, Harriet, Georgia, Alice, Newland, Edgar and Lula. All were two years in age apart. In 1887, Reeves had to sell his home and farm in the Catcher Community near Van Buren to pay for his first-degree murder defense with attorneys William H.H. Clayton, formerly the U.S. Attorney in Judge Parker’s court, and William M. Cravens. The Reeves family moved to North Twelfth Street, Park Place, in 1889.
As noted in Art Burton’s 2006 book, “Black Gun, Silver Star,” Reeves has been known to historians for quite some time and was even mentioned in Larry McMurtry’s 1997 novel “Zeke and Ned.” But Reeves is left out of the picture in S.W. Harmon’s 1898 book “Hell on the Border." However, as early as 1901 writer D.C. Gideon detailed Reeves in his book “Indian Territory.”
“Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the Paris (Texas), Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee,” Gideon writes. “His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired only after years of practice. Several ‘bad’ men have gone to their long home for refusing to halt when commanded to by Bass.”
Tom Wing, history professor with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, feels that Reeves was so well respected by local lawmen that he was offered a “light duty” job with the Muskogee Police Department.
As noted by the U.S. Park Service in a history of Bass Reeves, Judge Parker “believed that black men would make great officers of the law in the Indian Territory, due to shared mistrust that existed between Indians and blacks toward the white man.” That entry also notes that racial tensions were particularly high at the time and “caused whites to feel anger toward a black man who had the power to arrest them.”
Until just a few years ago, it was more likely that only readers steeped in the lore of the west or Parker’s court knew much about the deep-voiced man who sang softly before going into a gunfight. Reeves was also known to love racing his sorrell horse, and would go to extremes to serve writs. Once, he walked 28 miles dressed as a beggar and fooled two men and their momma into letting him stay the night. The men with a $5,000 bounty on their heads woke up in handcuffs.
In "Black Gun, Silver Star," Burton recounts some stories from Adam Grayson, a former resident of Indian Territory, saying that Reeves tore up at least one warrant for a prisoner who outraced his sorrell steed.
Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission and a member of the U.S. Marshals Museum’s board of directors, said Burton told Reeves’ story at a Fort Smith National Historic Site Descendant's Day event in the early 2000s and helped Reeves receive the notoriety for his bravery and incredible career as a lawman. The U.S. Marshals Service also started doing these events in 2012 in conjunction with the Cherokee Nation.
Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears, now retired, is credited with leading an effort to prominently enshrine the folk hero in bronze. After five years and several hundred thousand dollars in fundraising, Spears and his committee saw the unveiling of the large bronze "Bass Reeves Legacy Monument" by H. Holden at Ross Pendergraft Park in downtown Fort Smith in May 2012.
Spears said Bill Black presented the idea for a Bass Reeves statue after Spears' effort for a statue of President Zachary Taylor did not get traction. Spears is now leading an effort to erect a bronze statue of Judge Parker downtown.
Many U.S. Marshals who rode for Parker have received fame over the years: Paden Tolbert bringing in Ned Christie, for example. And "The Three Guardsmen" was a name given to a group who became legendary in their pursuit of many outlaws of the late 19th century: Deputy U.S. Marshals Bill Tilghman (1854–1924), Chris Madsen (1851–1944), and Heck Thomas (1850–1912).
"But they didn't stay there for 30 years," Spears said of the trio with Parker's Court. "I think Bass Reeves' claim to fame is his persistence, and he bounced back after the murder trial."
Spears also agreed with the National Park Service notes that point out that although Reeves is often credited with as many as 3,000 arrests and as many as 20 outlaws killed in the name of the law, the numbers “have to be used with historical caution." Kennedy said they have only been able to verify five people were killed by Reeves, including his cook, which was most likely an accident.
“Bass Reeves was born a slave, but died a respected lawman, having served in the Indian Territory (and later Oklahoma), Arkansas and Texas,” the National Park Service states. “His career stretched from the U.S. Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas in 1875 until two years after Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907.”
Barton quotes many sources in his book, and many times Reeves is credited with bringing in about a dozen prisoners or more at a time from the Indian Territory to the District Courthouse in Fort Smith.
The “Court Notes” of the July 31, 1885, Fort Smith Weekly Elevator for example states “Deputy Bass Reeves came in same evening with eleven prisoners, as follows: Thomas Post, one Walaska, and Wm. Gibson, assault with intent to kill; Arthur Copiah, Abe Lincoln, Miss Adeline Grayson and Sally Copiah, alias Long Sally, introducing whiskey in Indian country; J.F. Adams, Jake Island, Andy Alton and one Smith, larceny.”
The legend of Bass Reeves will only continue to grow as more discover his story.
Other Black Guns
The Fort Smith National Historic Site has a room dedicated to the history of black lawmen and local military units.
"We may never know exactly how many black men served as Deputy U.S. Marshals," a placard at the Historic Site reads. "There is no indication of race on federal records. Their names are listed side by side with other Deputy U.S. Marshals. All face the same hardships and dangers."
The known black deputy U.S. marshals, however, are listed as Rufus Cannon, Bill Colbert, Bynum Colbert, Cyrus Dennis, Wiley Escoe, Neely Factor, Robert Fortune, John Garrett, Edward D. Jefferson, Grant Johnson, John Joss, Robert Love, Zeke Miller, Crowder Nicks (Nix), Charles Pettit, Bass Reeves, Ed Robinson, Dick Roebuck, Isaac Rogers, Jim Ruth, Dick Shaver, Morgan Tucker, Lee Thompson, Eugene Walker and Henry Whitehead.
The U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, which is in the process of constructing a building on the Arkansas River in Fort Smith for a national museum, has among its collection of artifacts a Spencer rifle Reeves took from a Civil War battlefield and two pistols Reeves purchased later during his career. The Three Rivers Museum in Muskogee also has several artifacts from Reeves' career as a lawman.
More U.S. marshals died in service while hunting down fugitives in the Western District of Arkansas than any other place. Eighty-two of the U.S.deputy marshals are buried at Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith. It's not known exactly where Bass Reeves is buried, but in the 1990s the Oklahombres organization placed a small marker bearing Reeves' name in the Old Agency Cemetery in Muskogee.s
From 1920-1970, Kennedy explains, the name Bass Reeves, as well as those of Grant Foreman and Robert Fortune were forgotten outside the circle of family and local history.