Bass Reeves was one of the first African American Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River. Born into slavery in 1838, he escaped from his owner during the Civil War and found refuge in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma.) The Native Americans often took in African Americans, because they considered them to be as mistreated by whites as the Natives themselves. While he lived in Indian Territory, Reeves learned the land, tracking skills, Indian languages, and other knowledge and skills that served him well as a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
After the war ended and the slaves were freed, Reeves moved to Van Buren, Arkansas, with his wife and children and bought a small farm. His tracking skills and knowledge of Indian Territory were well known in the area, and he was often recruited to help local Deputy Marshals track outlaws. In 1875, he was officially commissioned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal under Judge Isaac C. Parker, who, during his career became known as the “Hanging Judge” for the number of people he sentenced to death. Judge Parker and his Marshals were based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the District headquarters for the Western District of Arkansas, and deputies patrolled an area covering more than 74,000 square miles.
Growing up a slave, Reeves never learned to read and write, but that did not affect his ability to bring in outlaws. He had an extraordinary ability to memorize long lists of criminals and their crimes and always brought back the right man-or woman, as the case may be. Because he was physically imposing at 6’2, 180 lbs, many outlaws chose to give up rather than pick a fight of any kind with him. Reeves reportedly arrested more than 3,000 people during his 32 year career as a Deputy Marshal- men and women, whites, blacks, and Native Americans. His most difficult arrest was of his own son, Bennie, in 1902, who was arrested for the murder of his wife when he found out she had an affair. Bennie was tried and sentenced to life in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, but was released after ten years for good behavior.
Reeves transferred to the federal court in Paris, Texas, Eastern District of Texas in 1893, and then to the Muskogee Federal Court in 1897. In 1907, when Oklahoma became the 46th state in the Union, and Indian Territory ceased to exist, he lost his job as a deputy marshal. At age 69 he took a job with the Muskogee Police Department where he served for two years. He died in January 1910 from an ailment then called Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Although it is recorded that hundreds of people of all races attended his funeral, there is no record of where he was buried.