Black Hero Marshal
Born to slave parents in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, Bass Reeves would become the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River and one of the greatest frontier heroes in our nation’s history.
Owned by a man named William Reeves, a farmer and politician, Bass took the surname of his owner, like other slaves of the time. His first name came from his grandfather, Basse Washington
Working alongside his parents, Reeves started out as a water boy until he was old enough to become a field hand. In about 1846, William Reeves moved his operations, family, and slaves to Grayson County, Texas.
Bass was a tall young man, at 6’2”, with good manners and a sense of humor. George Reeves, William’s son, later made him his valet, bodyguard, and personal companion. When the Civil War broke out, Texas sided with the Confederacy and George Reeves went into battle, taking Bass with him.
It was during these years of the Civil War that Bass parted company from Reeves, some say because Bass beat up George after a dispute in a card game. Others believe that Bass heard too much about the “freeing of slaves” and simply ran away. In any event, Bass fled to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) where he took refuge with the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Indians, learning their customs, languages, and tracking skills. Here, he also honed his firearm skills, becoming very quick and accurate with a pistol. Though Reeves claimed to be “only fair” with a rifle, he was barred on a regular basis from competitive turkey shoots.
“Freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and no longer a fugitive, Reeves left Indian Territory and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a successful farmer and rancher. A year later, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas and immediately began to have a family. Raising 10 children on their homestead — five girls and five boys, the family lived happily on the farm. During this time, oral history states that Reeves sometimes served as a scout and guide for U.S. Deputy Marshals going into Indian Territory on business for the Van Buren Federal Court, which had jurisdiction over Indian Territory.