This is the first article of a Four Part Series on Black Folks, who helped to tame the west. Today we take a look at U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves.
The subject matter and individual I’m writing about this Black History Month causes me to be reflective of my personal history. I remember when I was a nine, ten, eleven-year-old kid living in Milwaukee. Yes, it was that red brick apartment building located on thirteenth and Juneau that many have heard me lovingly refer too.
It reminds me of Saturday mornings spent watching ‘Tales of the Texas Rangers’, Lash LaRue, the Lone Ranger, and yes even Roy Rogers as well as other Cowboy television programs. We would eat breakfast, and hurry to the living room to watch my father’s, subsequently our favorite shows. I had a makeshift holster and belt. It was just a blue boy scout’s belt with the shiny brass buckle running through a leather holster that held my trusty six- shooter. I would tie that holster down to my right thigh with an old shoe string just like a real gunfighter.
Talk about imagination, I was full of daydreams during those years. My friends or cousins, whenever they came over, and I would go in our back yard to play. We would use the fifty-gallon oil drums sitting on A-frame stands as horses. We’d even throw rags and an old blanket over the barrel as saddles. It didn’t help, because after we finished playing and went back inside? My stepmother would smell the coal oil residue on my pants and me. I would get another warning about her having to wash those pants in with other clothes spoiling the pleasant aroma she was creating with detergent fresher of some type. I am not sure, but I think after a while she just washed my play pants with daddy’s work pants.
Back then (mid-fifties) all the cowboys seen on television, movies were white. My father always told me not to worry about it because there were black cowboys in the old west. Just because television program writers didn’t write about them, did not mean they didn’t exist. He’d tell me, I can be anything I want to be, just be the best at whatever I choose. So in my mind, it was my black face riding that horse chasing rustlers, bank robbers and fighting range wars. I would imagine me, family members, and other people I knew, would be just as comfortable in the old west as anybody. Of course, later on in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the public did see black faces appearing in cowboy, gangsters and all kinds of entertainment. It was readily known that Sammy Davis Jr was a fast draw expert in real life. He was seen as a frequent guest star in several of the cowboy television series. By that time, I’d hung up my gun and holster, turned to chasing girls instead of rustlers and the like.
One such real live lawman who roamed the old west while dishing out justice was U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves. Born as a child of slaves in Paris, Texas in 1838, he served as a water boy until old enough to become a field hand. He became his master’s body servant and personal companion at an even older age.
Bass reportedly ran away after beating up his master (George Reeves) after some type of dispute during a card game. He found a safe haven by living with the Seminole and Cherokee Indians where he developed his skills with the pistol and rifle. This is also where he became fluent in several Native American languages. He was finally freed in Abrahams Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation order of 1863.
Moving to and buying farmland in Van Buren Arkansas, while marrying Nellie Jennie a year later. He would go on to father ten children (five girls and 5 boys) from this union. Although the family lived happily on the farm, Bass restlessness and yearning for adventure was answered.
He was appointed as part of a 200 deputy crew by U.S. Marshall, James Fagan in 1875, because of his specific knowledge of the Indian Territory and his ability to speak their language. At the time, the area had become inundated with outlaws, thieves and murderers looking for an area that before had no federal or state jurisdiction. With a patrolling area covering 75,000 square miles, the deputies were instructed to bring in the perpetrators dead or alive.
At 38 years old, he was the first black U.S. Deputy Marshall to serve in that capacity west of the Mississippi River. Known as being courteous and impeccably dressed with his boots polished to a shine, he rode a large reddish stallion with a white-blazed faced. While marshaling in the Oklahoman Native American Territory, over his 32 years of service, he is credited with killing fourteen outlaws and having arrested 3,000 felony lawbreakers of all kind. At 6’2”, approximately 200 pounds, he was ambidextrous with a reputation for being quick, accurate and deadly with his two guns. He was just as skilled with a rifle. Maybe that is why in all those years he never suffered a gunshot wound; although his hat was shot off more than a few times. A big man with those kinds of skills had to be imposing enough to look at much less take on in a gunfight.
One of his most emotional and personal manhunts involved the apprehension of his son, Benny Reeves. The warrant charged his son with the murder of his young wife. The ultimate fair-minded Bass Reeves actually demanded the assignment as other deputies were reluctant to take the job because it was his son. In 1902, after a two-week trek into the badlands, he found and arrested his son. Returning him back to Muskogee, Oklahoma to face trial, he turned him over to Marshal Bennett. Benny was tried, convicted and served twenty years at Leavenworth for the crime. A citizen’s partition was instrumental in gaining his pardon and early release after which he spent the rest of his life without further incidents with the law.
By 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Reeves Deputy US Marshal Commission ended. He was 68 years old. He moved on to join the Muskogee Police Department until his health became a problem while attempting to carry out his duties. Bass Reeves died of Bright’s disease in 1910. There are several books and articles written and available today. His life and exploits as a US Deputy Marshall was the subject of a movie entitled Bass Reeves, released in 2010. James A. House played the leading character. He confided that when independent filmmaker and owner of the San Ponderous Productions contacted to play the part, he “didn’t even know who Bass Reeves was.”
Here was a man who could not read or write. He had to have others read his warrants to him before searching for various outlaws. He would memorize the details from that reading, including which warrant was for whom. When serving the document, he never failed to pick out the correct warrant belonging to a specific outlaw. It is amazing to me, how our people always found a way to adjust and make progress on whatever job they had to do. That is an important legacy they left us, the ability to improvise. To this day, we use those skills in our everyday lives. Deputy Marshall Reeves goes down in US history as one of the greatest frontier heroes this country has ever known. And once again, my father proved to be right. There were black folk roaming the Wild West. Look for Part II next week.
Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,
Codis Hampton II
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