Search This Blog

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Lawman History Forgot - Elizabeth Clements

THE LAWMAN HISTORY FORGOT  -  Elizabeth Clements

The horror of fighting in the Civil War had a traumatic effect on many of the men and not just from the loss of a limb or an eye but also left haunting mental images of awful butchery. Some came home to a rundown property or found their land confiscated for unpaid taxes. Many couldn’t find jobs and in desperation some men turned to stealing and raiding to survive. When pursued by the law, the desperadoes often eluded capture by escaping into the Indian Territory. Lawlessness ran rampant, creating a need for law and order.

We’ve heard of some of the more famous lawmen that populated the Wild West, such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Sheriff Pat Garett and Wild Bill Hickock. But there is another lawman I had never heard of until I started researching the history of deputy marshals for my book, Beneath A Horse Thief Moon.

I came across the story of one deputy marshal with an amazing career. Bass Reeve was born in January 1838 on a plantation owned by Arkansas state legislator, William Steele Reeves. Bass was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington, but being a slave, he had the surname of his master. After a move to Texas, Bass was owned by George Reeves, who took Bass with him into the Civil War at age 23, probably because Bass was good with horses and guns. It is unclear what exactly transpired between Bass and his new owner that made him run off into the Indian Territory to live with the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass not only learned their language, but he also became very familiar with the land, which was to benefit him immensely in the near future.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery at the end of the war in 1865, making Bass a freed man. Bass took his young family to Arkansas where he farmed for a few years until he was hired as a deputy U.S. marshal to serve in the Indian Territory because he could speak several Indian languages and had extensive knowledge of the area.
The Indian Territory had become increasingly dangerous with outlaws who could not—or would not adjust to a normal, honest way of life after having killed and plundered during the war. One court and one judge were insufficient to cover this large area where outlaws had claimed over 225 lives. Isaac Parker, (later known as the Hanging Judge because he’d had 70 men hung for their crimes) was appointed as a federal judge for the Indian Territory. Judge Parker knew needed fearless men with integrity who knew how to shoot.

Bass Reeves had integrity, courage, good instincts and knew the territory well, so despite being black and illiterate, he was hired and became the first black deputy west of the Mississippi. Although Bass couldn’t read nor write, he was blessed with an incredible memory and an uncanny ability to recognize names by the shape of the letters. In the 32 years of his career as a marshal, he never made a single mistake by capturing the wrong outlaw or in his reports. He could flip through a wad of writs and recognize names and go after those outlaws. Due to his incredible memory, his reports were always on time and in perfect order (possibly he dictated them).

Bass Reeve was a tall man, preferred to dress well, sported a big, bushy mustache and rode a white horse. He worked well undercover, too, using a disguise as needed, to fool men who didn’t expect a black man to be a lawman. In one case, he tracked down two brothers who holed up with their mother. Before approaching the cabin, Bass removed his badge, shot a hole through his hat and changed into worn clothing so that he looked more believable as a drifter seeking work. The woman took him in and fed him supper. After everyone was asleep, Bass took out his handcuffs and arrested the brothers. Luckily, he was not shot by the enraged mother of the outlaws when he rode away with her sons.

Over the years as his reputation grew, Bass incurred jealousy from some lawmen who resented that Bass was a famous black man who always managed to bring in his man. Thus, he was framed for a murder which he did not commit. According to tribal law in the Indian Territory, black marshals were always to be accompanied by a Native American. One day when the posse was bringing several fugitives to Fort Smith for trial, Bass was repairing his jammed rifle when it went off and he accidentally shot the cook.
Bass was arrested and was thrown in with other prisoners in the fetid jail beneath the courthouse. The dungeon was a dirt floor and had no bathroom facilities except for a communal bucket. The stench, especially in the summer, was so bad that sawdust was tamped between the floorboards to block the odor leaking into the courtroom above. Bass sold off everything he owned to pay for his bail and a lawyer. The trial was not going well in his favor until the wife of one of the fugitives bravely testified what had actually happened and all charges against Bass were dropped.

Many people assumed that would be the end of his marshal days, but no, Bass went right back to hunting fugitives and outlaws. After all, he had a wife and 11 children to support and there was no cushion, such as life insurance, if one got killed in the line of duty. In the span of his career, Bass Reeves arrested over 3,000 outlaws, killed only 14 men and he himself was never wounded. However, he did play possum in one instance while tracking a vicious, sadistic killer called Bob Dossier.
Bass and his partner were tracking Bob Dossier through some rough, wooded territory. Shots were exchanged. Dossier shot at Bass, who fell and lay still. Feeling victorious that he would now be known for having killed the famous lawman, Bass Reeves, Dossier approached. Bass waited patiently for the outlaw to get closer, then twisted and fired, killing him.

Despite his career as a lawman, Bass was known to be a deeply religious man and only killed in self-defense. He also proved his integrity when he arrested his son, Benjamin. With Bass away for weeks at a time, his children perhaps didn’t have the fatherly guidance a son needed. Ben had been jailed for beating his cheating wife. When Bass gave his son fatherly advice, Ben took matters into his own hands upon release and ended up killing his wife—not quite what Bass had suggested with his advice. None of the marshals wanted to bring in Ben, but when Bass recognized the name “Reeves” on the warrant, he said he would bring him in, and he did. Ben was sentenced to 11 years in the penitentiary; he was pardoned after 8 years and led a straight life after that as a barber.

Reeves served as a deputy U.S. marshal until 1893 in the Western District of Arkansas, which included responsibility for the Indian Territory. He was then transferred to Paris, Texas for a few years, then transferred again in 1897 to serve at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory. His career as a deputy marshal came to an end when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and an act was passed that banned black men from being deputy marshals. Thus, for a short time, at the age of 68, Bass became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He retired in 1907 and died in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1910 at the age of 71.

But the story doesn’t end there about the man that history kinda forgot. Years later, in Detroit in 1933, there was a radio station next to a correction facility—the Detroit House of Correction, where prisoners were brought from Fort Smith. Stories were told to the prison guards about a black lawman of the old west. Is it just coincidence that there were several parallels between Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger? Bass rode a white horse; had worn disguises at times; had a Native American as a sidekick (by tribal law a black deputy marshal had to be accompanied); Bass had integrity and fought for justice and always got his man. Bass was known to give silver dollars to people, not silver bullets. Legend also had it that if Bass Reeves were to spit on a brick, the brick would break—which indicates Bass was a tough lawman. Bass never set out to be a legend— he just defended the law because he felt where there’s law, there’s freedom.
So the next time you catch a rerun of the Lone Ranger tv series or an old classic movie, perhaps you’ll smile and think of Bass Reeves.

In my western trilogy that began with Beneath A Horse Thief Moon, I wanted to know more about deputy U.S. marshals. Thus, when I came across the tidbit about a marshal who could neither read nor write yet kept excellent records, I was so relieved that this was believable for my secondary character, Mike Sutton, who got his own story in Beneath A Fugitive Moon. Here is an excerpt:

 Jolene gazed at him, struck suddenly by his manner. He wasn’t defiant, or angry. His red face was of embarrassment. There was more to this. The teacher in her had to find out. “Mike, if you had trouble with the form, why didn’t you say so? I’d have helped you.”
            He jerked around and went to the window, shoulders slumped, staring out into the darkness.
            What’s wrong with him? Something’s not right here. “If you’re afraid of your penmanship, I’ll fill it out for you.”
            “I’m not interested in goin’ to university, let alone bein’ a doctor.”
            His voice didn’t have the ring of truth to it. Yet, she was convinced he was hiding something. But what? Her gaze fell back on the paper and she stared at the words as if they could supply the answer. And then they did.
            Stunned, she replayed the scene in her mind. He’d picked up the paper, barely glanced at it and handed it to her. He hadn’t turned the page around, so he had to have been reading it upside down before handing it to her.
            Suddenly another image popped into her mind. Back at the house in town, when he’d been recuperating. She’d brought him the newspaper. He’d held it upside down. She’d even teased him about it and he’d blushed to the roots of his hair. After that he’d told her not to bother bringing him any newspapers. He didn’t like to read.
            Didn’t...or couldn’t? And then it hit her and all the jigsaw pieces fell into place. Mike was illiterate. Land sakes, that was nothing to be ashamed of. The majority of the population couldn’t read or write. That’s why she took her teaching so seriously.
            She glanced at Mike’s stiff, proud back and was swamped with emotions so powerful it made her stomach ache. Tears burned her eyes. She had to swallow hard past the lump forming in her throat. She walked to him. Tentatively, she touched him on his arm. He didn’t respond.
            “Mike, please turn around and look at me.” His shoulder muscles bunched. Slowly, he turned toward her, glanced at her eyes and quickly away. She was devastated by the anguish on his face. “Mike, I’m your friend. I never meant to hurt you or embarrass you.”

Beneath A Horse Thief Moon
Beneath A Fugitive Moon
Hot Western Nights Anthology


  1. Love it! I am absolutely glued to Watchmen on HBO at the moment, and it begins with a young African-American boy, back in 1921, watching a silent movie in which Bass Reeves is the hero. (And then the Tulsa Massacre happens and his life is changed forever.) I'd never heard of Reeves before, so I'm delighted to read more about him.

    1. Thank you, Cate. I have recorded and saved the entire Gunslinger series on my tv and also have a whole set of books featuring various aspects of the old West, including gunslingers. I now will have to look for the Watchman and watch it. I'm relieved I'm not the only one who didn't know about Bass and it was only luck that brought him to my attention.What an amazing man.Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I'm such a fan of Bass Reeves and think he's vastly under-recognized. Great to see some of the fallout of his constant absence on his personal life too. Thanks for posting this.

    1. I agree, Christine, that Bass is vastly under-recognized by people who live further away. That's why I mentioned him in the notes in my book. There are some wonderful docu-series on people of the old West and thus my PVR is quickly filling up with "keepers". Thanks for stopping by.

  3. This was so interesting. I knew of Bass Reeves but not many of these details. He had 11 kids. Wow! Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth.

    1. So glad you enjoyed my blog, Kristy. I was quite impressed with Bass and all he accomplished. Yes, with 11 kids, the man could not afford to stop working

  4. Glad you wrote about Bass. I've known of him for years and just assumed everyone else had. Silly me.

    Nicely done. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. You're always so supportive. I'm so glad I ran across him in my research. There's a wonderful Gunslingers series that I recorded a couple of years ago on my tv and "protected" it. I wanted my hero to be illiterate but didn't think it would be believable to have him being a marshal....then voila! I found Bass and you know the rest of the story.

  5. I knew Bass Reeves was the model for the Lone Ranger, but didn't know any of the details of his life. This post was truly interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I watched the Lone Ranger on tv but that was so long ago, and even if Bass had been mentioned somewhere, even in the credits, I wouldn't have known. I knew a lot of men were illiterate in the day, signing their name with an "x" so it was gratifying to learn that even lawmen could be illiterate, thus making my fictional character believable, too. Thanks for stopping by, Caroline, and so glad you found my article interesting.

  6. What an impressive list of accomplishments Bass had: learning several Indian languages, bringing in 3,000 criminals, and, sadly, having to bring in his own son.
    Until you mentioned the Lone Ranger, I would not have thought about the similarities between Bass and the Lone Ranger.
    Great post, Elizabeth. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Yes, an amazing man and an amazing career. Thank you, Sarah, for stopping by. You are always so supportive.

  7. I left finishing my blog far too late and with my eyes giving me trouble, I missed that I'd left off the "s" in Reeves even though I'd proofread it at least 2-3 times. Eyes play funny tricks on one, as I skimmed right over that typo. But I didn't finish what I started when I mentioned that radio station in Detroit because I stopped to look up the proper spelling of the author of the Lone Ranger, then got sidetracked and never finished my comment. Here is more information, copy/pasted from Wikipedia: The Lone Ranger is a fictional masked former Texas Ranger who fought outlaws in the American Old West with his Native American friend, Tonto. The character has been called an enduring icon of American culture.[7]

    He first appeared in 1933 in a radio show conceived either by WXYZ (Detroit) radio station owner George W. Trendle,[3][4][5] or by Fran Striker,[8] the show's writer.[9][10] The radio series proved to be a hit and spawned a series of books (largely written by Striker), an equally popular television show that ran from 1949 to 1957, comic books, and several movies. The title character was played on the radio show by George Seaton, Earle Graser, and Brace Beemer.[8] Clayton Moore portrayed the Lone Ranger on television, although during a contract dispute, Moore was replaced temporarily by John Hart, who wore a different style of mask. On the radio, Tonto was played by, among others, John Todd and Roland Parker; and in the television series, by Jay Silverheels, who was a Mohawk from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada.

  8. OMG, I literally just read this: there is a Bass Reeves movie coming out! starring David Gyasi as Reeves, called Hell on the Border, limited theatrical run and available on demand December 13!! Talk about synchronicity!

    1. That is fabulous news, Cate, and kinda serendipitous since I chose to write about his life this week. I will post your note on my wall. I look forward to watching the movie. Thanks so much. I'm glad I checked back here to respond to any new posts. Have a wonderful day.

  9. Bass Reeves is one of my favorite real-life Old West 'legends'.