The Indian Territory in the late 1800s was a dangerous place. Criminals were running rampant in the area that would later become the state of Oklahoma, and the town of Fort Smith, whose federal court covered over 75,000 square miles of land, was charged with reducing the lawlessness. President Ulysses Grant gave the duty to get things under control to Judge Isaac C. Parker in 1875.
Parker had the power to hire about 200 deputy U.S. marshals, but the court had no more than twenty to thirty marshals working at a time. Parker appointed US Marshal James F. Fagan over the 200 deputies that were to be hired. Fagan soon recruited a man who knew the territory and spoke many Native American languages. This new lawman would become legendary, and his name was Bass Reeves.
Reeves was a former Texas slave who was believed to have fought for the Union during the Civil War in the Indian Territory. Reeves was known for his incredible skill using a firearm, and he was also known for bringing in fugitives and criminals that other deputies couldn’t. Reeves became the first African-American US Marshal west of the Mississippi.
Reeves was never wounded but was involved in many shootouts. He became a master of disguise and would pose as a farmer, outlaw, or cowboy to find who he was after. He stated that he had arrested over 3,000 outlaws by 1901 and was targeted many times by those looking to kill him. He became the most feared lawman in the Indian Territory.
Bass Reeves was also illiterate, but this didn’t stop him from his duties. He would memorize arrest warrants, and it’s believed that he never arrested the wrong person. He did, however, know the languages of the various Indian tribes in the region.
Reeves was so dedicated to the honor of his work that he even arrested his own son, Bennie, when he was charged with murdering his wife. Reeves captured his son, who was later convicted and sent to prison in Leavenworth. Bennie Reeves was released 11 years later and said to have become a model citizen the rest of his life. Reeves also arrested the famous outlaw Belle Starr in 1883.
Reeves worked for 32 years as a US Marshal and then became a city policeman at the age of 67 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It was said that during his two years as an officer in Muskogee, Reeves never had a crime reported on his beat since his reputation from the Indian Territory had preceded him. It’s theorized that Bass Reeves was the influence for another famous character that would later be a movie icon, the Lone Ranger.
Sources: NPS, Legends of America, History.com, BlackPast.org
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