Bass Reeves’ Children: Inside The Many Trials Of The Wild West Lawman’s Family

Published April 13, 2024
Updated April 15, 2024

Most of Bass Reeves' children followed quite different paths from their famous father — and some of them even got into serious trouble with the law.

Bass Reeves Children

Public DomainMost of Bass Reeves’ children followed quite a different path from their lawman father.

Bass Reeves lived a remarkable life. Born into slavery, he escaped to Indian Territory and became one of the most renowned lawmen of the Wild West — and possibly the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. His life was filled with drama, some of which stemmed from Bass Reeves’ children.

Reeves had a large family with at least 11 children. Their names were Alice Mae, Bass Jr., Benjamin, Edgar, Georgie, Harriet, Homer, Lula, Newland, Robert, and Sally.

But though Reeves was a lawman, some of his children had trouble with the law. In fact, Bass Reeves once had to arrest his own son for murder.

This is the little-known story of Bass Reeves’ children, from the daughter who died young, to the son who spent 12 years at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

How Many Children Did Bass Reeves Have?

By the time most of Bass Reeves’ children were born, the Old West lawman had already lived an incredible life. Born into slavery in 1838, he reportedly beat up his master during the Civil War and managed to escape to Indian Territory, a vast region west of the Mississippi reserved for Indigenous tribes.

Bass Reeves With Other Lawmen

Public DomainBass Reeves, far left, with other marshals. 1907.

There, in what is now Oklahoma, Reeves became a deputy U.S. marshal in 1875 and soon developed a reputation as a fierce, fair, and a formidable gunman. Reeves became known for being able to track down fugitives and for his ability to escape from tight spots. Before long, he became known as the “The Invincible Marshal.”

Along the way, Reeves also married his wife, Nellie Jennie, in 1864.

The first of Bass Reeves’ children with Jennie, a girl named Sally, had been born a few years earlier, in 1861. They had ten more children together between 1866 and 1888: Robert, the first of Bass Reeves’ children to be born into freedom after the Civil War; Harriet, Georgie, Newland, Edgar, Benjamin, Alice, Lula, Homer, and Bass Reeves Jr.

After Jennie died in 1896, Bass Reeves married a woman named Winnie Foreman Sumner in 1900. He also reportedly may have had another child, William, in 1877. William’s mother is unknown, according to his death certificate.

In 1910, Bass Reeves died of Bright’s disease — a kidney condition also known as nephritis — at the age of 71. He left behind a sterling reputation as a lawman who’d made more than 3,000 arrests, but only killed fugitives when he had no other choice. One newspaper printed an obituary of Reeves describing him as “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.”

Most of Bass Reeves’ children, however, would live very different lives.

The Fates Of Bass Reeves’ Children

Some of Bass Reeves’ children left only a scant trace in the historic record. Little is known about Bass Reeves Jr., Georgie, Homer, or Harriet. Lula died of epilepsy at the age of 17, Sally got married and had two children, and Alice Mae lived until 1966. But not much else is known about their lives.

On the other hand, some of Bass Reeves’ sons left behind more of a record — and not always in a good way.

Though his son Robert reportedly followed his father’s path into law enforcement, many of his brothers actually got into trouble with the law. Newland and Edgar both reportedly spent time at Arkansas Penitentiary, Newland for criminal assault, and Edgar for perjury. And Benjamin “Bennie” Reeves went to jail for murder.

In fact, his own father arrested him.

Benjamin Reeves Mugshot

National ArchivesBenjamin “Bennie” Reeves’ mugshot. Of all of Bass Reeves’ children, he spent the most time in prison.

The Arrest Of Bennie Reeves

In 1902, the National Archives reports that Benjamin Reeves paid a visit to his estranged wife, Castella Brown, who was staying with her cousin near Muskogee, Oklahoma. When Benjamin questioned her about an alleged infidelity, Brown readily confessed to the affair.

According to Benjamin, she added that she “thought more of his [the other man’s] little finger than she did of my whole body.”

Enraged, Benjamin Reeves attacked and killed her. “I lost all control,” he acknowledged, “and shot her.”

Then, he was arrested by his own father, Bass Reeves.

“Now Bennie, you are no more my son,” Bass allegedly said during the arrest, according to Art T. Burton’s book Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. “You committed a crime. And I have a warrant in my pocket for you… to bring you in dead or alive. And I’m going to take you in today, one way or another.”

Benjamin Reeves was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth Penitentiary. His relationship with his father was never the same. The National Archives reports that Benjamin kept in contact with his sisters and stepmother, but he and his father hardly spoke. Though Bass wrote Benjamin a letter in 1906, Benjamin did not respond.

By the time Benjamin was granted an early release from prison in 1914, Bass Reeves had died.

Other Descendants Of The Famous Lawman

Though Bass Reeves died in 1910, many of the famous lawman’s children had children of their own. As such, some of his descendants are still alive today.

Ryan Reaves

Andy Martin Jr / Alamy Stock PhotoBass Reeves’ children had children of their own — and one of his descendants is professional ice hockey player Ryan Reaves.

His great-nephew, Paul L. Brady, followed in Bass Reeves’ footsteps. Not only is he a civil rights advocate, but he also became the first Black federal administrative law judge in 1972. Brady also wrote about his famous ancestor in his book The Black Badge: Deputy United States Marshal Bass Reeves from Slave to Heroic Lawman.

Others took a slightly different path, but are cut from the same cloth as the 6’2″ Bass Reeves. His great-great-grandson, Willard Reaves, played for both the Canadian Football League and the NFL (Willard played for both the Washington Commanders and the Miami Dolphins). Willard’s son, Ryan Reaves, plays ice hockey in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s pretty cool,” Ryan Reaves told the Athletic, which reports that his family confirmed their connection to Bass Reeves through a DNA test. “It’s something to hang our hat on.”

In the end, the story of Bass Reeves and Bass Reeves’ children is an all-American one. Their family history is filled with triumph, tragedy, and everything in between.

After reading about Bass Reeves’ children, discover the forgotten stories of the Wild West’s Black cowboys. Or, delve into the devious lives of some of the Wild West’s most notorious outlaws.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Bass Reeves’ Children: Inside The Many Trials Of The Wild West Lawman’s Family.", April 13, 2024, Accessed June 21, 2024.