The turning point in Reeves’s life was the arrival of Judge Isaac C. Parker, a two-term U.S. congressman from Missouri tasked with overseeing the federal district court in Western Arkansas. Its base was Fort Smith, Ark., a few miles from Reeves’ house. Judge Parker’s jurisdiction covered some 75,000 square miles, including the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). To police it, he ordered his marshal to hire 200 deputy marshals, though, according to a National Park Service historian to whom Burton spoke, there were never more than 40 to 50 deputies working at any given time. Bass Reeves was one of those men, and but for a couple of interruptions, he would serve for 32 years in a career that tracked—and in many ways enabled—the evolution of the Western frontier from territory to statehood.
Judge Parker presided from 1875 to 1896. His court was open six days a week, and of the 13,500 cases before him, 8,500 ended up as convictions, including 79 hangings (of 30 whites, 26 Indians and 23 blacks). Eighty-five percent of the crime in the district occurred in Indian Territory, Burton writes, and that is where Bass Reeves was an expert. In the Parker era, 65 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty, while in his entire career, Reeves, despite numerous attempts on his life, suffered only one shot to the knee.
But how, you might ask, did African Americans gain such a presence in the Indian Territory in the first place? The answer might surprise you. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society website, from the late 18th century on, Native Americans in the South, like whites, owned slaves. When the U.S. government “removed” the five nations to the west in the 1830s, they took their slaves with them, so that “[b]y the time the Civil War broke out more than eight thousand blacks were enslaved in Indian Territory.” In fact, one of the reasons the five tribes were called “civilized” was that they owned black slaves.
Enslaved people accounted for “14 percent of the population” of the Indian Territory, and it wasn’t until after the Civil War that emancipation arrived for some of the slaves. In fact, as late as 1885, the governor of the Chickasaw was still protesting demands that they free their black slaves. A key distinction in Indian Territory was between blacks who were native “Indian Freedmen” and those who moved in from the U.S. as “Stateside Negroes,” as Burton explains.
But it wasn’t just that Judge Parker needed Reeves as a go-between in the territory. As Burton quotes Reeves’s great-nephew, Paul L. Brady, a retired federal judge, as saying, Parker respected Reeves, and, in hiring him, signaled Reeves “ ‘would be in a position to serve as a deputy to show the lawful as well as the lawless that a black man was the equal of any other law enforcement officer on the frontier.’ ”
In his travels, Reeves rode with an “outfit” that commonly featured a posseman, guard and cook who manned the wagon (filled with prisoners on the return trip to Ft. Smith) while Reeves searched the perimeter on horseback. As Burton writes, Reeves’ favorite weapon was the Winchester rifle, but he also “wore [a pair of six shooters] butts forward for a cross handed draw,” wrote Charles W. Money in a Shawnee, Okla., newspaper. By the time he was done, Reeves estimated he’d made more than 3,000 arrests, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to haul 17 people at a time over great distances back to Judge Parker’s court, known throughout the territory as “Hell on the Border.”
“Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the Paris (Texas), Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves,” Burton quotes D.C. Gideon as relating in 1901. “Several ‘bad men’ have gone to their long home for refusing to halt when commanded to by Bass.” There were 14 known Reeves killings, Burton says, and probably more, since others may have gone underreported because of Reeves’ race.
But the gun was just one of deputy marshal Reeves’s tools. He also “was a master of disguise,” Charles Mooney wrote, and he would wend his way into his targets’ company dressed, for instance, as an indigent or a farmer before slapping the cuffs on. Reeves profited from outlaws (collecting fees and rewards), outmanned and outsmarted them.
As his daughter, Alice Spahn, recalled, in one case, Reeves even used his illiteracy to his advantage by tricking two Texas outlaws into reading a letter for him just long enough for Reeves to throttle one, draw his gun on the other and say, “ ‘Son of a bitch, now you’re under arrest.’ ” Reeves’s nickname: “The Invincible Marshal.” Of his strength, the granddaughter of one of Reeves’s arrestees, a white future lawman named Jonathan Steven Tilly, “said she heard that Bass was so tough he could spit on a brick and ‘bust it into! [sic],’ ” Burton writes.
The Outlaw Reeves Couldn’t Cuff: Jim Crow