Bass Reeves: Lawman, gunslinger, trail-blazer. From the shackles of slavery to the US Marshals Service, Reeves lived a life of conflict, excitement, and heartbreak. Many claim this infamous lawman’s exploits were the inspiration behind the Lone Ranger. This is one gunslinger who won’t soon be forgotten, so dive in and discover the action-packed life of Bass Reeves.
1. He Was Born Into Slavery
Bass Reeves was born in Crawford County, Arkansas in 1838. William Steele Reeves, a prominent citizen and politician, enslaved his family. William’s son, Colonel George Reeves, was Bass’s legal owner. George also happened to be the town’s sheriff. Such a dark beginning really sets the stage for the twisted tale of law and violence that followed.
2. He Rose Up Against His Enemy
As a black man living in the south in the 19th century, records about Reeves are spotty at best—but the stories paint a picture of a formidable man. Legend has it that Reeves ended up getting into a serious confrontation with his master over a card game in 1861. When the altercation turned physical, Reeves released a well-deserved beatdown on the Colonel.
After that, Reeves had little choice but to flee his bondage and ride off into the sunset in search of a life as a free man.
3. He Escaped Slavery
Whatever the precise details of his flight, certain facts are crystal clear: Between 1861 and 1862, as the country was in the throes of the Civil War (take a wild guess as to which side Colonel George Reeves was on), Reeves escaped from his enslavement and became a free man of his own accord. After casting off the shackles, Bass embarked on a truly remarkable journey.
4. He Found Kindred Spirits
After escaping his masters, Reeves traveled to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, as it was known then. When he arrived, various Indigenous peoples, including the Cherokee, Seminoles, and Creeks, took him in. They sheltered him from lawmen who sought to return him to slavery. Reeves lived in the protection of his new communities and learned their languages for the next several years. But eventually, it came time for Bass Reeves to set out on his own.
5. Karma Came For His Master
A little dose of karma eventually came down upon the Colonel. A fitting end to a horrible man, George Reeves contracted rabies and passed in 1882. It’s probably fair to say that Bass himself wasn’t too broken up when he heard the news. It looked like his luck was finally beginning to turn—and more good fortune was on the horizon.
6. He Had Unusual Allies
Bass claimed that he fought in the Civil War—for the South! To be fair, it was back when George Reeves still owned him, so he didn’t have much of a choice. He said he took part in the Battle of Pea Ridge, the Battle of Missionary Ridge, and the Battle of Chickamauga. However, Bass Reeves certainly liked to tell a tall tale, and his descendants have since said that these claims were false.
7. He Worked As A Guide
While he lived with the local Indigenous tribes, Bass became a guide for government officials who traveled through the Indian Territory. His expertise in local languages and culture made him perfectly suited to the job. This was his first taste of work with the US government in an official capacity. It must have made a lasting impression.
8. He Was Freed
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. Reeves was finally able to move around the country freely. When the amendment passed, he moved to Arkansas and became a small-time farmer. For the next ten years, he lived a quiet life on his country farm. It was probably a pleasant change—but it was not to last.
9. He Was Productive
A year after moving to Arkansas, Reeves fell in love. He married a woman named Nellie Jennie, and they must have been really into each other. They ended up having a whopping ten children—five boys and five girls. This large family was a huge help when it came to chores, and the farm became quite profitable over the years. But, no matter how well the farm did, Bass Reeves was never meant to be a farmer.
10. He Got The Job
In 1875, everything changed for Reeves. A hard-headed judge named Isaac Parker ordered a US Marshal to find 200 deputies in Indian Territory. Reeves had a reputation as an expert in Indigenous languages with an intimate knowledge of the land. The marshal tracked him down and made him an offer—and so began a whirlwind tale of adventure, courage, and cold-blooded lawmaking.
11. He Was A First
Reeves’ deputization made history. He became the first black man to work as a deputy west of the Mississippi River. The talented marksman and guide quickly started making a name for himself. Bass Reeves made it impossible for anyone to overlook him as he embarked on a three-decade stint as a deputy lawman under one of the most cutthroat judges in the West.
12. He Looked The Part
Reeves was over six feet tall and sported a thick black handlebar mustache. He also rode the Oklahoma range on a massive white stallion. He was apparently well dressed, with spit-polished boots and a striking, wide-brimmed hat on his head. Despite his instantly-recognizable look, rumor has it that the lawman had a few other tricks up his sleeve.
13. He Was A Master Of Disguise
The new deputy must have been an unmistakable figure in the Old West. Fortunately, he had another useful skill. Apparently, the six-foot lawman was a talented actor and took on a variety of aliases and disguises as he prowled outlaw country. At times, he dressed himself as a local farmer. At others, he took on the guise of an outlaw. Anything that could get him closer to his quarry.
14. He Had An Excellent Memory
Because Reeves spent his early years in enslavement, even as an adult man, he couldn’t read. This didn’t hold him back in the slightest. Instead, he always asked somebody to read him the contents of the warrants that the Marshals presented to him. He would then memorize their details before striking out to pursue his target. He still always got his man—and when they asked him to produce his warrants, he always pulled out the right one.
15. He Was Ambidextrous
It seems that Reeves’ talents were without end. He was an excellent shooter, but he took this talent to the next level: The lawman was completely ambidextrous. He proved this ability time and time again by holstering Colts on both sides. By all accounts, he drew quickly and never missed his mark when the time came. As it turns out, the time to draw seemed to come up a lot.
16. He Had A Nemesis
Reeves made a name for himself early in his career when he struck out after the famous outlaw Bob Dozier. Dozier was a cattle-rustler and stagecoach bandit with a seriously bad reputation. When Dozier heard that Reeves was after him, he sent out word that Reeves was placing his own life in his hands. Neither man backed down.
They were an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and there was only one way this was going to go down.
17. He Got Into A Scuffle
Law and order in the Wild West was not a pretty thing. Reeves eventually tracked Dozier down to a hideout in Cherokee territory. He only had one man with him, but Bass Reeves didn’t need much help. When they neared Dozier’s hideout, things turned ugly. Dozier shot first, firing at them from a stand of trees. He thought he’d hit his mark and he burst out in laughter. It was the last thing he ever did.
Reeves and his companion avoided the first flurry of bullets, and the sound of the laughter pinpointed Dozier’s location. Reeves returned fire, striking Dozier in the neck, ending him instantly.
18. He Ran Into Trouble With The Law
There was a fine line between lawmen and outlaws in the Old West, and sometimes, men crossed it. Reeves was one of those men. The deputy lawman found himself on the wrong side of the law in 1887. Typically, local posses accompanied Reeves on his expeditions and stakeouts. One day, a posse cook caught a bullet from Reeves’ trusty Colt while the lawman was cleaning it.
The cook didn’t survive and Reeves went on trial for murder. Fortunately, though, he had some connections.
19. He Got Lucky
When Reeves faced trial, he was lucky enough to know the right people. The man overseeing the case was Judge Isaac Parker, who was technically Reeves’ boss. Reeves had sent a lot of men into Parker’s chamber, most of whom had done terrible things. It should be no surprise, then, that Parker had a soft spot for Reeves. Judge Parker ruled on the situation and acquitted Reeves of all charges.
20. He Was Too Good
Reeves earned his reputation. The lawman was such a good shot that nobody wanted to face him in competition. He was so good, in fact, that he was regularly banned from participating in competitive turkey shoots, a popular pastime in the West. I’m not sure he was too worried about it, though. Reeves had plenty of shooting to do without the turkeys.
21. He Was A Serious Rider
Even with air conditioning, rest stops, gas station snacks, and aux cords, an 800-mile road trip is a serious undertaking. Picture this on horseback, with a leather saddle and stiff boots. Well, as a deputy in Indian Territory, Bass Reeves rode his horse from Fort Smith to Fort Reno—a distance of 800 miles—on more than one occasion.
22. He Made Good Money
Reeves worked hard. His expeditions often lasted for several months and involved riding through rough terrain, living wherever he could find lodging, and risking his life taking on the toughest outlaws in the west. Fortunately, it was a lucrative business. The going rate was more than $1,000 for bounties. A man could make a lot of money at it—and Reeves was one of the best in the biz.
23. He Took Down An Entire Gang
Reeves would take on any job, no matter how dangerous, so it didn’t surprise anyone when he took on an arrest warrant for Tom Story. Story was the leader of a feared gang of horse thieves who operated under the highly original name of The Tom Story Gang. As usual, Reeves confronted Story directly. When Reeves drew his warrant, Story drew his Colt—big mistake.
Reeves was quicker and dropped the outlaw. The rest of the gang disappeared, and no one ever heard from them again. Probably a smart decision.
24. He Worked For A Harsh Man
Reeves was one tough lawman, but apparently, his boss was even tougher. Judge Isaac Parker was an unbelievably harsh man. So harsh, in fact, that he was given the nickname “The Hanging Judge.” The reason for this nickname isn’t difficult to riddle out. In the Old West, it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad.
25. He Never Drew First
Despite his brutal methods, Reeves was an honorable man to his core. Since birth, he had witnessed the deepest and darkest parts of humanity. Over a thirty-year career, he faced some of the most feared men in America. He knew that every chase was potentially his last. However, the ranger never drew his weapon first. Instead, he always tried to take everyone in alive. They didn’t always give him that option.
26. He Had Blood On His Hands
Despite never drawing first, Reeves ended up in a lot of shootouts. Over his long career as a lawman, the mustachioed slinger racked up a body count of 14 men. Apparently, each one tried to end Reeves’ life before he resorted to force. It’s no wonder he had such a tough reputation among outlaws and lawmen alike.
27. He Earned Respect
Reeves’ reputation quickly spread across the West. Though there were over 200 deputies to choose from in Indian Territory, marshals, judges, and district courts constantly turned to Bass Reeves because they knew that he would deliver results. Moreso, they knew that he would get the job done cleanly and fairly.
28. He Had No Fear
Despite running up against hardened crooks, the 200-pound, six-foot slinger apparently never wavered. In fact, the Oklahoma City Weekly Times Journal once reported that “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is.” This claim was backed up with hard evidence, as we’ll soon discover.
29. He Tracked Down A Dangerous Man
One of the most infamous men in Indian Territory went by the name Greenleaf. Over an 18 year stint, Greenleaf reputedly had seven bodies on his hands—and he showed no sign of backing down. Finally, it came time to bring him down. Unsurprisingly, Reeves took the task without complaint. After tracking the notorious outlaw, Reeves captured him without much of a struggle.
Greenleaf terrorized the area for years, but to Reeves, he was just another bounty.
30. He Lost Someone
Sadly, Reeves’ beloved wife, Nellie Jennie, passed in Fort Smith in 1896. Reeves was 58 years old at the time. Nellie was the mother of all 10 of his children. The tough man was definitely no stranger to loss in his life, but this was different. Her passing absolutely devastated him. Fortunately, he managed to find love again several years later.
31. He Married Again
For four years, the lawman mourned the passing of his beloved Nellie. Then, Reeves met a woman named Winnie Sumter and fell in love all over again. In 1900, at 62 years old, Reeves married for a second time. In a happy subplot to an often harrowing tale, the two stayed together for the rest of their lives. They also had another child together.
32. He Had A Bounty On His Head
As a ranger, Reeves was usually the hunter. Eventually, his work earned him a place as the hunted. According to an Oklahoma news article in 1907, outlaws in the West had a habit of posting cards on their turf with warnings to certain deputies. Over his career, Reeves made a lot of enemies. In total, he found at least twelve cards posted promising his demise.
33. He Had A Lot Of Close Calls
Reeves was in a dangerous profession and, unsurprisingly, had a lot of close calls. On one occasion, the ranger was facing off with an outlaw who drew on him. Before Reeves could respond, the gunman shot his belt in half. Other times, bullets took his hat from his head, buttons from his coat, and the reigns from his hands.
Just one close call like that would be enough for us to hang up our hats for good, but to Reeves, it was just another part of the job.
34. He Was Polite
Though he had a hard reputation, Reeves was, by all accounts, a mild-mannered and polite man. From judges to supervising marshals, nobody took issue with Reeves…except, of course, for outlaws. In fact, his personality was so warm that it comes up in countless contemporary sources detailing his many adventures and arrests.
35. He Walked A Fine Line
As a black man tasked with law enforcement in unceded, Indigenous territory, Reeves was in a precarious situation. Not too many years before, he was the target of law enforcement officials himself. Abolitionists in the Indian Territory harbored him until it was safe to move. For this reason, Reeves found unusual support from the inhabitants of the land he patrolled during his career.
36. He Was Phased Out
As the years passed, the American government seized more and more territory. Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Unfortunately for Reeves, this brought change to the face of law enforcement. Police departments and state agencies took over, meaning that marshals and deputies lost their authority. Reeves found himself forced out. However, he didn’t retire just yet.
37. He Captured 3,000 Men
Reeves must not have slept. It’s clear at this point that the deputy tracked down and captured a huge number of outlaws. The actual number might shock you, however. Over the course of his career, which began when he was in his fifties, mind you, Reeves brought in a tremendous 3,000 felons.
38. He Was Never Hurt
Other than a few scrapes and bruises, Reeves made it through his career entirely unscathed. Despite taking down over 3,000 outlaws and getting into dozens of dust-ups, the rough and tumble lawman never fell victim to any serious injuries. Given the 30-odd years he spent as a ranger, this is quite a remarkable achievement.
39. He Made A Career Change
Reeves couldn’t stay on as a ranger forever. He hung up the stirrups at 68 years old…so that he could become another kind of officer. In 1907, Reeves joined up with the Muskogee law enforcement office in Oklahoma, where he worked for two years. It was pretty tame compared to his old beat, but at 68, that was probably for the best.
40. He Was Forced To Retire
In 1909, the tough lawman finally came across an enemy that he couldn’t best: Bright’s Disease. This chronic kidney affliction managed to do what no man in the West was able to do and forced Reeves to stop working. He retired at 70 years old and lived out his remaining time in some much-needed peace. In 1910, he made his final salute.
41. He Left A Mark
Bass Reeves, the gunslinging lawman, left a serious legacy behind. His likeness has appeared in at least seven television series, four films, a play, two board games, and at least six books. To top it off, a bridge was named in his honor, a statue was erected in Oklahoma, and the lawman was inducted into the cowboy hall of fame in Texas.
42. He Has Famous Descendants
There must be something in the family genes, because a number of Reeves’ descendants have left serious marks of their own. For example, his grand-nephew, Paul L. Brady, a prominent civil rights activist, became the first black administrative law judge in 1972. Ryan Reaves, a professional hockey player from Winnipeg, is Bass’s great-great-great-grandson.
43. He Became An Icon
According to Art Burton, a well-respected historian, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, a fictional Texas Ranger who has become one of the most recognizable cultural icons in American history. The Lone Ranger has appeared in thousands of radio episodes, hundreds of television episodes, hundreds of comic books, six films, and dozens of novels.
44. He Went Undercover
On one occasion, Reeves went deep undercover. He tracked two outlaws to their mother’s house in the Red River Valley. He just needed a way in—so he came up with a devious plan. Reeves disguised himself as a tramp, with old clothes and a cane. Then, he knocked on the door and asked for a place to rest. He got close to the two sons, told tall tales of thievery, and waited.
When the men fell asleep, he burst into their room and threw them each in handcuffs.
45. Someone Chased Him
Though he successfully caught the outlaws, Reeves did not escape from his infiltration unscathed. He captured the two gang members in the Red River Valley, but it wasn’t exactly simple: The boys’ mother chased him for three miles, cursing his name the whole time! Evidently, she felt duped and betrayed by the heavily armed deputy. Talk about motherly love!
46. His Son Was Trouble
Reeves’ son, Benjamin Reeves, strayed from the family tree and ran into serious trouble with the law. One day, Benjamin’s wife suddenly passed under extremely suspicious circumstances. It did not seem accidental. Young Bennie quickly became a suspect, and soon enough, he was charged with murder. Heartbroken, this is when Bass Reeves took matters into his own hands.
47. He Took Matters Into His Own Hands
Reeves did one thing, and he did it very well: He tracked down outlaws on the lam. According to the letter of the law, it didn’t matter who they were. So, when Reeves learned that his son was a wanted man, the lawman demanded the warrant. It sat on his desk for two days while he decided what to do. His son likely wasn’t happy with his decision.
48. He Hunted Down His Son
The details of his son’s doings were unpleasant. His wife had an affair. Word of the relationship somehow got out. Bennie was jealous, angry, and violent. It didn’t take a genius to get to the bottom of this one. Most marshals were afraid to take the case—no one wanted to track down the son of the infamous Bass Reeves. Eventually, Reeves decided he had to fulfill his obligation personally. He hunted his son down and clapped him in irons.
49. His Son Turned His Life Around
Bass dragged his son into the courtroom himself, and the judge convicted him. He handed down a hefty sentence: Life in prison. For the next 11 years, Bennie Reeves sat in Fort Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. But there’s one last twist in this story: Bennie received a pardon in 1914. After his release, he apparently turned his life around and lived out the rest of his life without offense.
50. He Committed Arson
Reeves’ methods of enforcement were somewhat unorthodox. In 1890, he received an arrest warrant for an infamous Cherokee outlaw named Ned Christie. As usual, Reeves struck out with a posse. Apparently, Christie didn’t make things easy, and he escaped. Reeves was furious—and he had to take his anger out on something.
Reeves and his posse burned Christie’s home to the ground.