Bass Reeves was a Paris, Texas-born slave who become one of the toughest men of the frontier in history. Owned by farmer and politician George Reeves, Bass worked as water boy and later as his owners’ personal servant. In 1860, Reeves took the distraction of the Civil War as an opportunity to escape and live among the Indians. Rumor spread that Bass fled after he had physically beat George during a card game.
The escaped slave built a family and life in Crawford County, TX. Reeves had learned to become a sharpshooter during his time with the Seminole and Creek Tribes. In 1875, the Sheriff appointed Reeves as commissioned deputy U.S. marshal, making him one of the first black federal lawmen west of the Mississippi. Reeves stood 6’2″ and was known to be the toughest Marshal around. In one instance, he brought 19 men to jail at one time. The number of Reeves’ fugitives grew into the thousands. Some even turned themselves’ in when they got word of the deputy assigned to bring them in.
A recent Disney production of “The Lone Ranger” starring Arnie Hammer and Johnny Depp, gave way to the assumption that the Lone Ranger’s character, which was created in Detroit in 1933, was based upon the life and likeness of Bass Reeves, an unsung hero of the West.
Ironically, both Reeves and the Lone Ranger wore masks, Reeves mostly because he was a black man in a powerful position of authority during the slave era. Both men left tokens of silver with those they encountered; Reeves left a silver dollar, the Ranger, a silver bullet. When Bass Reeves caught his criminals, he sent them to the Detroit correctional facility, the same place that George Trendle and Fran Striker created the character.
The Indians taught Reeves the art of disguise during his training. He was taught to crouch in the saddle to appear smaller than he actually was.
Reeves became a vigilante, covering 75,000 square miles of territory. Although he couldn’t read or write, he was an expert at his job. When assigned to an outlaw, he would have someone read him the warrants and memorize its contents. He knew which warrant was which when he had to prove his capture. He would use disguises and aliases to capture his men, dressing as a cowboy, farmer, gunslinger, and even an outlaw. Bass carried two Colt pistols, butt-forward for a fast draw.
Of the countless arrests by Bass Reeves, his most memorable capture was of his own son, who was accused of murder. In 1907, Bass Reeves worked as a city policeman in Muskogee County, Oklahoma.
In 1910, Bass Reeves died of Brights Disease. His grave is unknown, though a bronze statue of him that stands 23 feet in height was erected in Fort Smith, Arkansas in May 2012.