Bass Reeves: Legendary Deputy Marshal of Oklahoma

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“A group of Muskogee police officers with Bass Reeves at left in the front row. Author collection.”

February is Black History Month, and Crime Capsule is proud to join the chorus of voices celebrating African-American history and culture. We’ve profiled exceptional lawmen and women before, but as the first of several articles highlighting the contributions of African-Americans to our country’s law enforcement and judicial systems, today we wanted to introduce you to one of the baddest brothers around—someone who would take even famed criminal-catchers John Shaft and Axel Foley to school.

Meet Bass Reeves.

Hailed as one of the most accomplished lawmen of his generation, Reeves came from humble beginnings in the mid-1800s. While not much is known about his early life, in her book Oklahoma Originals: Early Heroes, Heroines, Villains & Vixens author Jonita Mullins records that he escaped from slavery in Texas and settled for a time among the Creek Nation of Oklahoma before emancipation. At the time, much of Oklahoma was still reserved for separate Native American nations—as Mullins details, the Indian Territory (as it was called) was well out of reach of federal law enforcement. Following the Civil War but before statehood, different nations had different visions of justice, and restitution was almost unheard-of, especially from nations back to the Fed.

In other words, a perfect place for criminals to hide.

And yet—a perfect place for a certain skilled tracker and scout who was fluent in the Muscogee language (did we mention how bad this brother was?) to come and find them. When in 1875 a federal court gained jurisdiction over the territory, the famous “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker recruited over 200 men as deputy federal marshals. Prominent among this new cohort, Reeves became, historians believe, the first Black deputy marshal to take the oath west of the Mississippi River.

 ““Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries. Photo appears in Robert Barr Smith & Laurence J. Yadon, Oklahoma Scoundrels: History’s Most Notorious Outlaws, Bandits & Gangsters.”

““Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries. Photo appears in Robert Barr Smith & Laurence J. Yadon, Oklahoma Scoundrels: History’s Most Notorious Outlaws, Bandits & Gangsters.

Nor did he waste any time. According to Mullins, “Reeves quickly established his reputation as a fearless lawman whose quick draw saved his life on many occasions. Known for his courteous manners and strict sense of duty, the marshal spent thirty-two years in the service and was responsible for nearly three thousand arrests.”

Oklahoma Originals.

It’s an oft-forgotten fact that in the history of temperance movements, the Indian Territory in the Oklahoma region was legally dry for decades in the 1800s—well before the Volstead Act. Unsurprisingly, those unsavory folks who savored illegal hooch had enjoyed a profitable trade in the region. Mullins tells us that moonshiners and bootleggers quickly became one of Reeves’ main targets, partnering with other famous lawmen such as Floyd Wilson and Bud Ledbetter to bust up stills and arrest as many smugglers as he could.

 “On Statehood Day, the US law enforcement staff of Indian Territory took this photo at the federal courthouse. In the center, with the wide hat, is US Deputy Marshal James “Bud” Ledbetter … The African American deputy on the far left is the legendary Bass Reeves, who is considered to be the most important African American lawman of his generation. Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society. From Roger Bell, Images of America: Muskogee.
“On Statehood Day, the US law enforcement staff of Indian Territory took this photo at the federal courthouse. In the center, with the wide hat, is US Deputy Marshal James “Bud” Ledbetter … The African American deputy on the far left is the legendary Bass Reeves, who is considered to be the most important African American lawman of his generation. Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society. From Roger Bell, Images of America: Muskogee.

When the Sooner State became a State in 1907, Reeves transitioned out of his role as a deputy marshal and joined the Muskogee Police Department, where he remained until the end of his days. Reeves died in 1910, after decades in law enforcement, still at the top of his game, leaving behind a legacy that includes a yearly gathering of historians known as the Bass Reeves Western History Conference. But before you go, to celebrate one of our country’s finest, put this fact in your pipe and smoke it: “Even at age sixty-nine,” Mullins writes, “Reeves’ reputation as a lawman was so intimidating that crime was nonexistent on his police beat.”

That’s right—nonexistent.

Any questions, Mr. Shaft? Mr. Foley, will you take your seat? For school is now in session.

Oklahoma Originals.

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