In three decades on the American frontier, Bass Reeves rounded up thousands of outlaws and secured his place in U.S. history.
In the second half of the 19th century in a lawless stretch of land in present-day Oklahoma known as Indian Territory, the name “Bass Reeves” struck terror into the heart of any criminal who was on the run. A deputy U.S. marshal with a quick trigger and a reputation for both doggedness and creativity in chasing down outlaws, Reeves was perhaps the greatest lawman of the Wild West. But Reeves — unlike most lawmen of his day — was Black.
Born a slave in Arkansas in 1838, Reeves led an astonishing life that reads like a breathless account of the thrill and danger of living in the Old West. When the Civil War broke out in 1860, Reeves was forced to accompany his enslaver, George Reeves, into battle. But doing so would prove serendipitous. One day, as George and Bass argued over a card game, they came to blows — and Reeves knocked George out cold.
Knowing that a slave could face death for such a thing, Reeves immediately fled and endeavoured into a whole new life. He spent the next decade working various jobs and learning the lay of the land in Indian Territory. Then, in 1875, he became a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
During his 32 years as a lawman, Reeves helped round up thousands of criminals. When other marshals were bringing in four or five outlaws at a time, Reeves was gathering a dozen or more. He killed about 15 of them but was never shot himself, and he always managed to come up with inventive ways to escape sticky situations.
Sometimes he disguised himself as a farmer, a cowboy, or a preacher. And once, while pretending to be a farmer, he purposely crashed his wagon into a tree stump hoping that some outlaws hiding in a log cabin nearby would emerge to help. They did — and Reeves arrested them.
Although one historian has argued that Reeves was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, the details of his story have largely faded into obscurity. As popular culture churned out movies and TV shows about white cowboys and sheriffs, the curled yellow pages of newsprint detailing Reeves’ exciting exploits lay forgotten in Oklahoma.
But in recent years, Reeves’ story has received a long-belated second look. A comprehensive biography written in 2006 brought many facts of his life back to light for the first time in more than a century. Reeves has since been featured in the 2019 HBO series Watchmen. And that same year, the film Hell on the Border brought Reeves’ life to the silver screen.
This is the under-appreciated story of Bass Reeves — whom one U.S. Deputy called “one of the bravest men this country has ever known.”
Go inside the little-known story of Bass Reeves, the “Invincible Marshal.”