The Wild West of Yester-Year

Marshal Bass Reeves
By Rachel Kovaciny

During his 32-year career as a lawman, Deputy U. S. Marshal Bass Reeves arrested over three thousand people. Despite taking part in many shootouts, during which he killed fourteen people in the line of duty, no one ever wounded him. He’s possibly the inspiration for the most famous fictional Wild West lawman ever: the Lone Ranger. Oh, and Bass Reeves was also the first black deputy U. S. marshal to serve west of the Mississippi River.

Bass Reeves was born in Arkansas to an enslaved family owned by a state legislator, William Steele Reeves. When Bass Reeves was a boy, he and his family re-located to Texas. When the Civil War started, William Reeves’s son George joined the Confederate Army as a colonel and took Bass to war with him as a combination valet and bodyguard. Bass was over six feet tall, and good-looking. Somehow, Bass escaped and made his way to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek peoples. Bass learned their Native languages and customs, and lived with them until the Civil War ended in 1865. Then he moved to Arkansas and took up farming. At times, he worked as a guide for government officials who needed to travel into or through Indian Territory. While farming in Arkansas, Bass married Nellie Jennie, and they started a family which grew to include ten children, five girls and five boys. Their farm prospered. Reeves seemed well set on the path to living a quiet and successful life.

In 1875, President Grant appointed Isaac Parker as Federal Judge with jurisdiction over the Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma Territory. The territory had become notoriously lawless because lawbreakers of every sort took refuge there, shielded from the authorities either by other evildoers or the Native tribes. The President charged Judge Parker with cleaning up the territory. Parker did this by authorizing two hundred new Deputy U. S. Marshals (including Bass Reeves). Bass was almost overqualified for this job. Not only was he familiar with the Territory because he had lived there for several years, he could speak the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek languages. He had acquaintances among the different tribes, and they respected him. He was also a crack shot with a rifle and pistol. Others said he had almost superhuman strength and agility. Bass was illiterate, but didn’t let that stop him. For his entire career, he had someone else read aloud the writs and warrants issued for him to serve, memorized them, and served them. In his whole 32-year career, he never served the wrong papers to the wrong person.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass transferred from the U.S. Marshals to the police department of Muskogee. He was nearly seventy years old, but remained an active and formidable lawman until he became ill a few years later and retired. His wife, Nellie, had passed away a few years earlier. In 1900, Bass married a woman named Winnie Sumter, with whom he had one more child. Over the course of his career, Bass Reeves became one of the most famous lawmen west of the Mississippi River. During his lifetime, he was as respected and feared as the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickok. Reeves survived many assassination attempts by lawbreakers desperate to end his successful career as a deputy marshal. He died peacefully of Bright’s disease in 1910 at age 71.
Some think George W. Trendle and Fran Striker took inspiration from the career of Bass Reeves when they created The Lone Ranger radio show in 1933. It ran for 2,956 episodes and spawned a successful TV show and many films. It’s easy to see why. Bass Reeves’s incredible success at bringing in the men and women he went after, plus how he resorted to force only when necessary, and his friendship with Native Americans is quite similar to the Lone Ranger. Since Trendle and Striker never left a record of how they created the radio show or its characters, all we can do is speculate.