Basse Reeves – The First Black Deputy Marshal West of the Mississippi
– The First Black Deputy Marshal West of the Mississippi
This is the story of one of the most extraordinary man ever to wear a star in the old West. His name was Basse Reeves and he was destined to become a man whose legend would last well into the twentieth century.
Basse was born a slave in July 1838. The place of this birth was Crawford County in the top northwest corner of Arkansas, which borders Oklahoma. His master was William Steele Reeves who was an Arkansas state legislator. Reeves was name after his owner, as was the custom, but got his first name Basse from his grandfather. The whole of Basses’ family were slaves of the Reeves family. Around 1846 William Reeves relocated his family and slaves to the town of Sherman, Grayson County in Texas. The American Civil War started on April 12, 1861 and the war was to have a profound impact on the life of Basse Reeves.
In 1863, when Basse was 25, his master’s son, George(1), enlisted in the Confederate Army and Basse was sent with him to be his body servant. At this time Basse was a very imposing young man standing 6’2” in an era when most men were around 5’10’. He had very good manners, a sharp sense humour and was considered to be very good looking. Sometime during this period of his life Basse had a serious disagreement with George that only ended when he finally made his escape from slavery. There are many theories about what happened between himself and George to bring about escape. One is that he was caught playing cards and was beaten. Another is that he beat up George after a card game. But whatever the reason he made good his escape(2) from slavery ending up in Oklahoma which was then called Indian Territory.
When Basse arrived in Indian Territory he made his home with the Seminole Indians who were one of what was then called The Five Civilised Tribes(3). His time spent with the Seminoles stood him in very good stead late on in life. He learned to speak several Indian languages, became a first class tracker and honed his shooting skills becoming a crack shot with both rifle and pistol. Although he claimed to be “only a fair shot” with a rifle he was barred on a regular basis from competitive turkey shoot. I’ll bet the turkeys were pleased! The U.S. Senate passed the 13th Amendment on April 8th 1864, which made Basse a free man as his master was fighting for the Confederacy. Later that year Basse moved back to Arkansas and set up a farm near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas with whom he had 10 children, five boys and five girls. The House Representatives ratified the 13th Amendment on January 31st, 1865 by a vote of 119 to 58. This amendment abolished slavery forever thus making Basse Reeves and his family legally free. He farmed successfully for 11 years until 1875 when his life change forever. He was 37 years old.
In May 10th 1885 Judge Isaac C. Parker was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1872 the Indian Territories were fast becoming the most lawless area in the west. Many thieves, outlaws and murderers were using the Territories as a hideout from the law. These men and women took refuge in the territory that up until then had no federal or state jurisdiction. Indians had their own police and courts but could not arrest or try white men.
One of Judge Parker’s first moves was to appoint James F. Fagan as the US Marshal for the territories and give him the task of recruiting US Deputy Marshals. Fagan went on to hire 200 Deputy Marshals of which Basse Reeves was one. Fagan knew about Basse Reeves including the fact that he spoke several of the Indian languages and had an extensive working knowledge of the geography of the Indian Territories. Basse was assigned to the Western District of Arkansas, which made him the first black Marshal west of the Mississippi. Basse began to ride the Indian Territory trail seeking out the bad guys and followed Judge Parker’s instructions to ’bring them in dead or alive!’(4)
Basse Reeves cut a very imposing figure riding a white stallion and sporting a large white hat. He was also a very dapper dresser and kept his boots polished to a high shine. He was not your average deputy! He carried two pistols on a cartridge belt with the butts facing forwards to facilitate his fast draw and had a Winchester rifle in the scabbard on his saddle. He carried two handguns, not so that he could fire with both hands as the movies depict, but rather so he did not have to go through the slow job of reloading in the middle of a gunfight. Most gunfighters made sure that their handguns and rifles used the same calibre of ammunition. However, Basse sometimes carried a shotgun in a scabbard on the left side of his saddle with a belt of cartridges slung over the pommel of his saddle. It was not only Basse Reeves who carried all this weaponry but also most of the dedicated Deputy Marshals patrolling the area against outlaws who would have been similarly armed. It was estimated that of the 22,000 whites living in Indian Territory almost 17,000 were criminals. These men were a very dangerous lot and in this era it was ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. As the saying went “No Sunday West of St. Louis. No God West of Fort Smith.”
Basse soon began earning a reputation for his courage and coolness whilst bringing in or killing many bandits. However, when the purpose served him, he was not above the use of disguises, sometimes appearing as a cowboy, farmer, gunslinger, tramp or outlaw. There are many tales of his captures and arrests all a mixture of bravery, courage and imagination. Like most of the deputies he took along a chuck wagon(5), a cook and a couple of Indian trackers and occasionally other deputies. Deputies and their men could be gone for many weeks at a time and travel up to 900 miles before returning home.
The stories of Basse tracking and arresting outlaws became almost legendary at that time in American history. On one occasion while tracking outlaws in the Red River Valley almost on the Texas border he received information that the two men were living at their mother’s ranch. He sent his posse men into camp about 25 miles from the ranch with strict instructions not to follow him. He then walked until he arrived at the small ranch arriving covered in dust and looking very shabby indeed. He was carrying an old cane and wearing a hat that had three bullet holes in it and had on very old worn-out shoes. He looked for all the world like an old down-and-out saddle tramp with a problem. A very suspicious elderly lady came out to meet him and after he asked for a drink of water he started to tell her a tale about the posse that had trailed him and shot the three holes in his hat. After a while he asked if was possible to have something to eat, so she invited him into the house, and while he was eating she told him about her two sons. She said that her sons were outlaws and suggested that the three might join together to form a gang. At this point in the conversation he feigned tiredness so she consented to let him stay a while longer and he pretended to doze off. As the sun was setting Basse heard a whistle coming from beyond the house. The old woman went outside and responded with an answering whistle and two riders came up to the house and talked at length with her. After a while the three of them came inside and she introduced her sons to Basse. Initially, the two boys were very suspicious but after discussing their various crimes, the trio agreed that it would be a good idea to join forces.
Bunking down in the same room, Basse left them to drift off to sleep and when they started to snore he handcuffed the pair without waking them. When early morning approached he woke the boys and marched them out through the door. For three miles their mother followed cursing and screaming at Basse. He marched the two outlaws 25 miles back to the camp where the posse men waited. Within days, the outlaws were delivered to the authorities and a $5,000 reward collected.
Basse Reeves was acquiring a solid reputation as one of the best and most fearless lawmen in the Indian Territories. He made headlines in the local and nation press. This article is from The Oklahoma newspaper in 1907: “Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the dead line,” and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track he took his own life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the dead line they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails. Basse was illiterate but part of his job was to write reports on his arrests and also to serve subpoenas to witnesses. He found a novel way around this by getting other people to write the reports for him then he would sign them with an “X”. He would also get people to read the subpoenas to him and would memorise all the names. He took great pride in the fact that he never once served a subpoena to the wrong person. In fact many courts especially asked that Reeves served their subpoenas because he was so reliable.
Basse was a Federal peace officer in the Indian Territory for 32 years and Judge Parker claimed that he was one of his most valued deputies. It was general knowledge that he had brought in over 3,000 felons, on one occasion bringing in 17 bad men together. He was also known to have killed 14 men defending his life. When his own son Bennie was indicted for murdering his wife most of the other deputies were reluctant to carry out the arrest. However, when Basse returned from the Indian Territories and heard the news he insisted that he would bring Bennie in to face the charges. Basse found and arrested Bennie and turned him over to the authorities. At his trial Bennie claimed infidelity as his defense but was found guilty and spent 20 years in Leavenworth Prison. After his release Bennie became a model citizen for the rest of his life.
At this time Basse had become very well know among the outlaws in the Indian Territories for his tracking skills and relentless pursuit of them. Although shot at many times, he never received a single scratch and went on to be called “The Indomitable Marshal.” The Oklahoma City Weekly Times reported, “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is.” It was also said of him “Place a warrant for arrest in his hands and no circumstance can cause him to deviate.”
This was never truer than the case where three men he was pursuing managed to get the drop on him and ordered him off his horse. The leader approached, gloating that the “Indomitable Marshal” was about to die. Showing no fear, Basse calmly took out his warrants and asked the men, “What is the date today?” The leader of the gang asked, “what the hell difference does that make?” Basse calmly explained that he needed to put the date of the arrest on the paperwork when he took the three of them in dead or alive and added “it’s your choice.” The three men laughed so loud at this answer that Basse used this distraction to grab the barrel of the leader’s gun. One of the other two men opened fire but missed Basse drew and shot him dead. He then killed the leader by crushing his skull with his pistol. The third man wisely gave himself up!
There are many, many other stories about Basse Reeves tracking and arresting outlaws and murders. One that is worth a quick mention mention is that Basse was the only lawman to apprehend the notorious woman outlaw Belle Star. After being apprehended and brought in by Basse she was tried for horse theft in 1883 and was given a nine-month sentence by Judge Isaac Parker. She spent her sentence in the Detroit House of Correction. Michigan. She proved to be a model prisoner but returned to her outlaw ways soon after her release. She was never again apprehended and died just two days short of her 41st birthday in 1889.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 it sadly instituted Jim Crow laws(6) that forced black marshals out of the service. Despite his wonderful record as a deputy marshal Basse was forced to take on the much lesser job of a police officer in the town of Muskogee, Oklahoma. He carried out the job of a police officer with the same dedication as he had always shown as a deputy marshal for a further two years. Basse Reeves was diagnosed with Bright’s disease (kidney failure) in 1909 and died on 12th January 1910 at the age of 72 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, but the exact location of his grave is unknown. Not a very fitting end for a man who was known as a giant in his lifetime. Basse Reeves, lawman extraordinary.
Was the film character of the Lone Ranger modelled on the life of Basse Reeves?
There is some strong evidence that Basse Reeves was the basis for the movie character “The Lone Ranger”. If you list the similarities between Basse and the “Lone Ranger” it proves interesting. Both have prodigious shooting skills with both handguns and rifles, both rode grey horses, and they both had a Native American helping them in the hunt for outlaws. It is also a fact that Reeves gave out silver coins, just as the Lone Ranger character gave out silver bullets. It is also of note that many of the outlaws and murders Basse brought in ended up serving their time in the Detroit Federal Prison. Detroit was were the Lone Ranger radio and television shows originated. The character of the “Lone Ranger” has been called ‘an enduring icon of American culture’. Might it not be better to apply that epithet to the real hero Basse Reeves rather than the fictional one?
(1) George Robinson Reeves was the fifth child of William and Nancy Totty Reeves. After the Reeves family relocated to Texas George met and married Jane Moore and the couple had twelve children. He joined the Confederate army in 1863 with the rank of Colonel and fought at the Battle of Chickamauga and in the Hundred Day Atlanta Campaign but managed to survive the war. He was bitten by a rabid dog and died of rabies on the 5th September 1882. Reeves County in Texas was named after him.
(2) Normally, it was difficult for slaves to make their escape as vengeful men usually hunted them down, for money, on horseback with specially trained packs of hound dogs. It was not good for slave-owners to let escapees get away as it would give the other slaves ideas of escape. When caught, slaves, both male and female would be severely punished. I think that Basse managed to escape because as the war was in progress the slave owners had other things to take their attention away from a runaway. Also, Basse was a very clever and resourceful young man, as his later life would prove.
(3) Oklahoma at this time was not a State but a territory where the Five Civilised Tribes: Creek; Choctaws; Cherokees; Seminoles; and Chickasaws were relocated. At the end of the Civil War many other tribes were also relocated into the area. It was called at that time The Indian Territory. It was opened to in 1890 to white settlers and was renamed Oklahoma and became a state. The name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw phrase okla humma, literally meaning red people.
(4) Federal Judge Isaac Parker was appointed to the bench in Fort Smith arriving on May 4th 1875. For the next twenty-one years Judge Parker presided over 13,000 cases and 79 offenders were hanged for their crimes, earning Parker the nickname of the “Hanging Judge”. Judge Parker became a firm defender of Indian rights and through his, and the 200 Deputy Marshals’ efforts, brought law and order to Indian Territory. Judge Parker’s instruction to his Deputy Marshals was “bring them in dead or alive”!
(5) Charles Goodnight a Texas rancher invented the chuck wagon in 1866 by taking an old Studebaker wagon, a very durable army-surplus wagon, and modifying it for use on the trail. He added a “chuck box” at the back of the wagon that had drawers and shelving for storage space and it had a hinged lid to provide a flat cooking area. There was a water barrel attached to the side of the wagon and it had a canvas strip under the wagon to carry firewood. The cookie was very often second only in authority to the trail boss. Well-fed men were happy men!
(6) Jim Crow Laws came into use after reconstruction was ended in 1877. In effect the ‘law’ took away many rights that were granted to black people by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Under these ‘new laws’ blacks could not be US marshals or deputies so Basse Reeves, despite having been recognised as the best deputy marshal of his time, was forced to stand down. The term ‘Jim Crow’ comes from a minstrel song that depicted Negros as stupid and lazy and soon became used as a racial slur. Jim Crow Laws were never ‘real’ laws but became ‘Black Code’ which marginalised and disadvantaged Black Americans. The ‘Jim Crow’ law was a way of enforcing racial segregation after the reconstruction period at the end of the Civil War. Starting in 1890 a “separate but equal“ status was enacted for black Americans. However for the black Americans the conditions were markedly inferior to that of white Americans and it took until 1965 to repeal these laws.