Bass Reeves – even the name sounds ominous. In the Old West during the 18930s, it was ominous. Bad guys didn’t want to cross him and those with warrants feared him. He could shoot, fight and track. That was the legend.
The facts? Well, unlike many legends, the real Bass Reeves measured up to his fame. He was a two-fisted fighter, a legendary tracker, and a deadeye at as much as 500 yards. He also spoke five languages and was raised by Native Americans, so he knew them and their culture.
Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. It appears plausible that Reeves was kept in bondage by William Steele Reeves’s son, Colonel George R. Reeves — a Texan sheriff, legislator, and one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.
When the American Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate Army, forcing Bass to go with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves escaped, but at some point during the Civil War, he gained his freedom. Bass stayed with Native American tribes and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolishment of slavery in 1865. As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren.
U.S. marshal James F. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Territory and could speak several Native languages. He recruited him as a deputy U. S. Marshal; beginning his 32-year service as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous fugitives of the time; he was never wounded despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate events.
In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves had on his record over 3,000 arrests of felons. He killed 14 outlaws in self-defense. In taking fugitives into custody, he made several accurate shots from as far away as ¼ mile.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before he became ill and retired. Reeves’ health began to fail further after retiring. He died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910.
Reeves was married twice and had eleven children. In 1864 he married Nellie Jennie (d. 1896) and after her death Winnie Sumter (1900–1910). His children were named Newland, Benjamin, George, Lula, Robert, Sally, Edgar, Bass Jr., Harriet, Homer and Alice.