The Norman Transcript


May 3, 2007

Bass Reeves, the most feared U.S. Deputy Marshal

On the spring day of May 10, 1875, a six foot two inch, 200-pound former slave stood in front of Judge Isaac Parker at Fort Smith and was sworn in as a deputy U.S. Marshal. The man was Bass Reeves. He was destined to become the most feared lawman in Indian Territory. Following the Civil War, Indian Territory attracted outlaws because it was free of the “white man’s court.” The only court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory was the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge, however, was corrupt. President Ulysses S. Grant replaced the corrupt judge in 1875 with Judge Isaac Parker.

One of Judge Parker’s first acts was to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals to clean up Indian Territory. Because Indians distrusted white deputies, Judge Parker hired several black lawmen. Bass Reeves was the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.

Born a slave in 1838 at Paris, Texas, Reeves took the surname of his master, George Reeves, a farmer and politician. When he got into a fight with his master in the early 1860s, Bass Reeves fled north into Indian Territory and lived with Seminole and Creek Indians.

Reeves became a crack shot with a pistol. He also became so skilled with a rifle that he was barred from competitive turkey shoots. When the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed him as a slave, Reeves moved to Arkansas and homesteaded near Van Buren. Once he got his farm going, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas. They began raising a family. In time, they had ten children – five boys and five girls.

Reeves and his family farmed until 1875 when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge in Fort Smith. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. marshal. It was Fagan’s job to hire 200 deputy U.S. marshals. Fagan heard about Bass Reeves who knew Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. Fagan recruited Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal.

Text Only | Photo Reprints