|Former slave and U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves|
History is ingrained in our consciousness at early ages in elementary school. Some are more deeply impressed than others.
So, when I come across history that I was not taught in younger years, when I hear of men or women who today are famous, and I recognize those names from when I was a boy, it’s easy to place those names in a corner of the brain that says, “yep, know who that is.”
The Old West is a fascinating place to visit historically, but as you read and find out things, they tend to lose their luster. People have embellished the exploits of famous gunfighters and lawmen from our time after the Civil War to 1900, to the point of immortality.
Unfortunately, most of those famous names were very flawed, and had their names made and embellished by hucksters selling dime novels to the public.
We’ve all heard the names like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, Clay Allison, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin and on and on.
But, be honest with yourself.
I don’t remember the name Bass Reeves from my history books, do you?
I thought, maybe I was sick the day we talked about him in social studies. Or, we never saw his name or story at all.
Oh, maybe in today’s history books, but certainly not in my day.
So, when I heard the name on a History Channel special, and that Reeves was a true American lawman and hero, it kind of slapped me in the face.
OK, why hadn’t I heard of his exploits?
Well, if truth be told, how many dime novels from our nation’s Old West era were going to be sold to white people back East about a former slave, a black man who truly was a hero, without all the dime novel embellishments?
Zero, nada, zilch.
Reeves was born in 1838 to slave parents in Crawford County, Ark., owned by farmer and politician William Reeves.
Slave owner Reeves liked the tall young man with good manners and a sense of humor, and William’s son George took Bass along with him when the Civil War broke out, siding with the Confederacy.
The two parted company after George beat Bass up in a card game dispute, and Bass — the slave — fled to the Oklahoma and Indian Territory. He took refuge with Seminole and Creek Indians, and learned firearms and shooting skills, being very quick and accurate with a pistol.
Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and no longer a fugitive slave, he bought and settled on land near Van Buren, Ark., married a Texas woman and eventually had 10 children.
When famous Federal Judge Isaac Parker was appointed to his position at Fort Smith, in a district that covered the vast and lawless area of present-day Oklahoma, Bass Reeves was hired because of his ability to speak several Indian dialects and knowledge of Indian Territory — and became a U.S. deputy marshal.
Tasked with cleaning up Indian Territory of hundreds of lawless men and desperadoes, Reeves worked along with other noted white lawmen like Heck Thomas, Bill Tilghman and Bud Ledbetter. Reeves would cover a circuitous route from Fort Smith that included stops at Fort Reno, Fort Sill and Anadarko — a round trip of more than 800 miles.
Being a former slave, Bass Reeves could neither read nor write, but made an imposing figure at 6 foot, 2 inches tall astride a white horse. He quickly earned a reputation for bringing back his man, either dead or alive.
He was said to have been extremely adept at disguises and aliases, appearing over his law enforcement career as a cowboy, a farmer, a gunslinger or outlaw himself.
He carried two Colt pistols butt first for a fast cross draw, and was ambidextrous.
He would be gone for months at a time, bringing back scores of outlaws over his years as a U.S. marshal.
One of the high points of his career was arresting notorious outlaw Bob Dozier, a cattle rustler and horse thief, bank and stage coach robber, also noted for murdering people.
Many lawmen over the years had unsuccessfully tried to arrest Dozier.
After several months on his trail, Bass Reeves tracked Dozier to the Cherokee Hills, and after refusing to surrender, Reeves killed Dozier in a gunfight in 1878.
His toughest duty as a lawmen came when one of his own sons was charged with the murder of his wife. Reeves accepted the challenge, tracked his son down and brought him back to serve time in Leavenworth Prison.
Famous among his peers as the consummate lawman — yet not so famous to average Americans — Bass Reeves died in 1910, and sadly was buried in an unknown, unmarked grave near Muskogee.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.