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Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – 12 January 1910) was one of the first African Americans (possibly the first) to receive a commission as a Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River and one of the greatest frontier heroes in our nation's history.

Owned by a man named George Reeves, a farmer and politician, Bass took the surname of his owner, like other slaves of the time. Working alongside his parents, Reeves started out as a water boy until he was old enough to become a field hand.

Reeves was born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, and was given the surname of his owner, George Reeves, a farmer and politician. He moved to Paris, Texas with George Reeves. During the American Civil War, Bass parted company with George Reeves: "some say because Bass beat up George after a dispute in a card game. Others believe that Bass heard too much about the 'freeing of slaves' and simply ran away." Bass Reeves fled north into the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and lived with the Seminole and Creek Indians.

Reeves became a crack shot with a pistol. Later Reeves moved to Arkansas and homesteaded near Van Buren. Once he got his farm going, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas. They had ten children – five boys and five girls.

Reeves and his family farmed until 1875 when the legendary Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Judge Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, and directed him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan heard about Bass Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages, and recruited him as a deputy U.S. Marshal.

Reeves worked a total of thirty-two years as a Federal peace officer in the Indian Territory. He was one of Judge Parker's most valued deputies. He arrested some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never shot (despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions). He had to arrest his own son for murder.

Reeves was an expert with rifle and pistol. During his long career he developed superior detective skills. When he retired from Federal service in 1907, Reeves had arrested over 3,000 felons. Reeves admitted having to shoot and kill fourteen outlaws in defending his life while making arrests.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department.

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 had been his colleague and good friend, and was acquitted.

Reeves' health failed in 1910, and he died of Bright's disease on 12 January. He was the uncle of Paul L. Brady, the first African-American appointed a Federal Administrative Law Judge (in 1972).

Bass Reeves, a fictionalized film of his life and career was released by Ponderous Productions of San Antonio in 2010.

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