Bass Reeves was born into slavery, escaped to freedom during the Civil War and became a legendary marshal. Was Bass Reeves the inspiration behind the cowboy hero The Lone Ranger?
Bass Reeves was born on a plantation near Van Buren Arkansas which was owned by state legislator, William Reeves. His parents were enslaved which meant, from the moment he was born, in July 1838, Bass was enslaved. In 1846, when Bass was eight years old, William Reeves relocated his household to Paris, Texas.
For generations there was a stereotype of “contented slaves” in the south. The belief that slave owners were nice people who treated their slaves with such kindness, no one would want to escape plantation life. This was a whitewashing of history to overlook the horror of chattel slavery.
Bass Reeves’ story is a reminder that no one was content being enslaved and some were lucky enough to survive when they were able to flee and find refuge away from slave states and territories. Bass would find and take that opportunity to be free, during the Civil War.
During the war, William Reeves son, George organized a cavalry regiment for Grayson County, Texas. Bass was forced into the Confederacy with George Reeves. This was a cruel and common practice during the Civil War. Enslaved men forced into Confederate gray to fight the Army that was fighting to free them.It was a lot to ask of a man who was constantly reminded that his life was in the hands of a white man who claimed ownership of him.
There are two accounts of the way Bass managed to escape George Reeves. The first is that Bass was able to flee the camp when George and the rest of the men in the regiment were sleeping.
The second involves the physical stature and strength of Bass Reeves. He was a large man, six feet two inches tall and weighed about 185 pounds. The story goes that one night George Reeves was playing cards with Bass and got angry when he lost. The men got into a fight and Bass was not a man George could take down without the aid of a weapon of some kind. Bass ended up knocking George out cold. As an enslaved man in Texas, hurting your master was grounds for execution, so Bass took the opportunity to run and save his life when he made it to Indian Territory.
Known today as Oklahoma, the territory was ruled by five Native tribes – the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw. The tribes had been removed from their ancestral homes in the southeast following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Bass remained in Indian Territory for the duration of the Civil War, living with and learning the customs and languages of the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminoles. When slavery was abolished, Bass Reeves returned to Van Buren, Arkansas and settled into life as a farmer with his wife Jennie and their children.
US Marshals from Fort Smith, Arkansas often called on Bass to serve as their guide and scout when they were headed into Indian Territory. His knowledge of the territory and his shooting skills made him an easy hire when the Marshal Service ramped up efforts to suppress crime in the chaotic West.
When Bass Reeves was hired as a deputy U.S. marshal, he became one of the first black deputy marshals west of the Mississippi River.
Bass Reeves did initially have a barrier to serving warrants when he caught up to criminals. He couldn’t read or write. But he had an amazing memory. Before he headed out to catch an outlaw, he would have someone read the warrant and he memorized it. When he caught the person he was looking for, he’d take the warrant out, hold it up and recite it line by line.
That incredible memory was one of his essential skills on the job. But the skill that made him a tough adversary for outlaws, was his shooting. Bass Reeves could be a quarter mile away from his target and kill him with one shot from his .44 Winchester rifle.
During his 32 years of service as a deputy marshal, Bass Reeves arrested more than 3,000 outlaws and killed an estimated 14 men. Reeves said those deaths were a last resort. He only shot to kill when his life was threatened.
Bass Reeves was known in the Marshal service as the Invincible Marshal because in all of his years of service, he was never shot or injured.
He did have some close calls. Reeves was featured in the Fort Smith Arkansas Times in March 1907 and explained that the closest he believed he had come to dying was in 1884. He was riding the Seminole Whiskey trail, pursuing 4 outlaws. Along the way, he was ambushed by three men who made him dismount his horse as they held guns on him. These men were dangerous outlaws and Reeves was familiar with their crimes, which included murder. Which is why he took them at their word when they told him he was about to die.
An always quick thinking Bass reached for the warrants he wanted to serve on the men and asked them what day it was. Said he needed to make a note of the date he arrested the men. They taunted him and reminded him they were the ones holding the guns on him. As they joked with one another about how ridiculous this marshal was, Bass Reeves had the split second he needed to whip out his six shooter. He shot one of the men dead, grabbed a gun from another man before he had the chance to kill Bass, and then shot the third man as he was about to shoot him.
Art Burton spent 20 years researching the life of Bass Reeves and the work of marshals across the Old West. Burton found that before Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, an estimated 114 deputy U.S. marshals died in the jurisdiction.
There was a complicated judicial system in Indian Territory which was split between the Federal court and tribal court. This is part of what made Indian Territory a desirable hide out for murderers, outlaws and bootleggers. They could lay low and often hide out for long periods of time. It’s estimated that of the 22,000 white people living in Indian Territory, between 15-17,000 were criminals.
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.An Oklahoma City City newspaper describing “Dead Line” in 1907
Bass Reeves used the art of disguise as he maneuvered his way through Indian Territory and tracked down outlaws. He often dressed as a preacher or a farmer to get close to the person he was pursuing, confirm their identity and then make the arrest.
The tales of his unique methods of tracking down and arresting outlaws were often featured in newspapers. He was described as a hero fighting for law and order. But in 1886, the tables turned on Bass Reeves when he found himself on the other side of the law. In January of that year Reeves was indicted for the first degree murder of William Leech. The indictment came almost two years after Leech had been shot and killed.
William Leech was a cook travelling with Bass Reeves and his posseman through Chickasaw nation in April 1884. The men had set up camp near the Canadian River and the posse men overheard Leech and Bass exchanging rather heated words about Leech’s cooking. As the men recalled, this was not out of the ordinary because Reeves often made jokes about what a horrible cook Leech was. It was their normal banter and joking around.
Later that day, Bass Reeves accidentally shot and killed William Leech. It was a horrible accident and nothing much was said about the shooting until January 1886 when Bass was notified of his indictment for Leech’s murder and arrested by a fellow marshal.
Bass stood trial for the murder of William Leech in October 1887. At trial, Bass Reeves testified that he and Leech had exchanged words about the cook’s lack of skills. He then explained the accidental shooting. Bass said a cartridge caught in his rifle as he was trying to dislodge the bullet. As he worked to remove it, the gun accidentally fired and the bullet struck William Leech in the neck. Bass immediately ordered his men to ride out and get a doctor, but Leech died before the doctor arrived.
The jury agreed that this had been a tragic accident and Bass Reeves was acquitted of murder.
The accidental shooting took a toll on Bass Reeves. It was tragic and shameful and he regretted it for the rest of his life. His family paid a price for it as well. Bass Reeves had to use his life savings to pay for his defense lawyer. With hardly any money left to his name, he had to move his family to a small house outside of Fort Smith after selling the home he considered to be his pride and joy in Van Buren.
By the spring of 1889, Bass Reeves went back to work with the marshal service.
The best example of his ability to outwit the outlaws he pursued was his infamous letter trick. Newspapers often wrote of Bass Reeves but those stories never featured sketches or photos of him. So outlaws knew the legend but many didn’t know what Bass Reeves looked like.
Once, when Bass was out on a trail, two Texans got the drop on him and held him at gunpoint. Bass recognized the men as the murderers he was trailing. The men said they knew he was Bass Reeves but he denied it and told them he was just a simple farmer who was afraid they were about to hurt him. The men kept saying they just knew he was Bass Reeves and they told him they were going to kill him. They ordered him off his horse and asked if he had a last request before he died.
He asked if one of the men would read aloud a letter his wife had written to him. They let him retrieve it and as one of the men moved toward Bass he held out the letter and displayed academy award winning acting skills. His hand was shaking so much the man had to grab Bass by the arm to try to hold him steady so he could take the letter.
The outlaw made the mistake many a man had made before. He took his eyes off Bass who was able to draw his gun and shoot one outlaw before the other surrendered.
Another poignant aspect of the mission Bass Reeves’ mission to preserve law and order was that he, a black man who had been born enslaved, would often pursue white men wanted for carrying out racial terror lynchings and racially motivated hate crimes.
Bass Reeves arrested five white men for the murder of black man Ed Chalmers and his white common law wife, May Headley. The Muskogee Phoenix wrote of the tragedy on March 28, 1898 noting that a black man and white woman being husband and wife grated on the nerves of some of their neighbors.
A small group gathered on a Saturday night during a rain storm and headed out to the Chalmers farm where they murdered May in cold blood, shooting her as she lay sleeping in bed. Ed caught the men in the act and returned fire before he was shot several times. Ed mortally wounded one of the men who would be found dead in town later that night.
What these white assailants did not know, was that after Ed Chalmers had not died in the house that night. He was in a bad way, struggling to breathe when the tragedy was discovered. But he was able to make a dying statement and named the men he had seen in the house.
Bass Reeves was dispatched to pursue the killers and days later, in conjunction with fellow deputies, five white men were arrested for the murders. A sixth white man, prominent land owner William “Cap” Lamon was arrested the same day. Bass Reeves took Lamon into custody in one of the landowner’s cotton fields. Lamon wielded his money and power and a good attorney to help him avoid jail time and was set free.
As Bass continued his work for the marshal service, he suffered loss at home when his wife Jennie passed away in 1896. Around the turn of the century he met and married his second wife Winner. Between Jennie and Winner, Bass Reeves would father 11 children.
In 1902, he faced the toughest manhunt of his life when an arrest warrant was issued for his son, Ben. In a fit of jealous rage, Ben Reeves had murdered his wife after he learned she had been unfaithful. Ben fled into Indian Territory so when the warrant was issued in Bass’s jurisdiction, other marshals offered to hunt for Ben. But Bass said the law was the law and he needed to be the one to bring Ben in.
Two weeks later, Bass took his son into custody. Ben Reeves was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth. Kansas. Years later he applied for and was granted a pardon due to his good behavior behind bars.
When Bass arrested his son in 1902, he was 64 years old and one of the most respected deputies in the marshal service. Many of the men he worked alongside in the Territory referred to him as the bravest man they had ever known.
Bass Reeves, who arrested thousands of outlaws while serving with such bravery in the marshal service, was rewarded for those 32 years of service by being forced out because he was black.
On November 16, 1907, Oklahoma became a state. The Oklahoma legislature quickly passed a bill enacting Jim Crow laws that separated white and Black people. Bass Reeves career as a law man had been one of freedom to pursue justice no matter what a person looked like but suddenly the color of the person pursuing outlaws mattered to the new state of Oklahoma. Bass Reeves and his fellow black deputies were forced into retirement.
Newspapers wrote of Bass Reeves’ retirement from the marshal service and noted he was 67 years old but looked like a man in his 40s. Bass still felt like a man in his 40s and didn’t want to give up law enforcement so he went to work as a police officer in the city of Muskogee, Oklahoma. He worked as a patrol officer for two years, until he time and his age began to catch up with him.
Bass became seriously ill in the fall of 1909 and on January 12th, 1910, Bass Reeves died as the result of a kidney disorder known as Bright’s disease. The death and funeral of Bass Reeves was national news with newspapers sharing his obituary and details of some of his infamous arrests. There were stories about the large number of people who showed up to pay their final respects when Bass was laid to rest. Hundreds of old friends – Black, White and Native – gathered in a cemetery in Muskogee, Oklahoma to say goodbye to the bravest man they had known.
A legendary cowboy hero whose life and incredible career may have been lost with the passage of time, if not for the dedication of historian Art Burton.
Burton spent 20 years researching Bass Reeves for his biography “Black Gun, Silver Star.” This was not easy work because the history of Black people in America in the era of Bass Reeves was rarely preserved. In fact, one Oklahoma historical society Burton contacted while researching Bass Reeves told him they were sorry they didn’t have information to share with him because they “didn’t keep the history of black people.”
Burton continued his research and little by little he found records and newspapers accounts of the life of Bass Reeves. Through his extensive research he is convinced that Bass Reeves was the hero cowboy who inspired the Lone Ranger.
Here are some highlights of Burton’s theory:
- Songs and stories of Bass Reeves were recorded by the people who knew him and respected him. They were passed down from generation to generation with white, Black and Native families sharing firsthand knowledge of Bass Reeves’s life including his special skills in tracking down and arresting outlaws.
- Remember the Lone Ranger’s calling card? He always left silver bullets. Bass Reeves had a calling card too. He gave silver dollars to people.
- The Lone Ranger was known for his mask, his disguise, which was a tactic Bass Reeves often used to track down and arrest criminals.
- The horse Bass Reeves loved to ride was a gray horse that appeared white. Which was quite similar to the Lone Ranger’s white horse “Silver.”
- Of the thousands of outlaws Bass Reeves arrested, many of them were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections where stories were shared of how criminals ended up there. Many would tell of this marshal who captured them in Indian Territory. The Lone Ranger was created and first introduced to the public in 1933, on Detroit’s WXYZ Radio.
As Art Burton has written, “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.”
Whether or not you believe Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, you can’t deny his place in history. His service to country and his unwavering belief in justice…and the duty to uphold the law.
The story goes that Bass was once asked by a family member why he did what he did, why he risked his life to chase down criminals.
Bass replied: “Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin’.”
Historic Border Character. Fort Smith Times. 3 March 1907.
Lawman Legend Bass Reeves: The Invincible Man Hunter. History Net. February 2007.
Bass Reeves, the most feared U.S. Deputy Marshal. The Norman Transcript. May 3, 2007.
The Lone Ranger Debuts on Detroit Radio. History.com. January 13, 2009.
Art T. Burton, “Reeves, Bass,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,
The fiercest federal lawman you never knew — and he was African American.The Washington Post. December 14, 2019.
Ben Reeves is Given Parole. Muskogee Times-Democrat. November 17, 1914.Burton, A.T. (2006). Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
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