Does the name, Bass Reeves, ring a bell? If it doesn’t, it should. I set out to write a story on “the real Django,” Bass Reeves, the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s film, Django Unchained. But the more I researched, the more confused I became. An online search for information on Bass Reeves led to articles about both “the real Django” and “the real Lone Ranger!” Huh? Gather round the campfire because, today, I’m going to tell you about Bass Reeves, or, as I like to think of him, the Lone Django!
The Real Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves was born into slavery, in 1838. Some sources say he was born in Arkansas, while other list his place of birth as Paris, Texas. But no matter where he was born, all sources agree that both he and his enslaved family were living in Texas, by 1846.
His “master,” William S. Reeves, was a farmer and politician. Bass worked as a water boy by the time he was big enough to handle to task, and later he worked as a field laborer. It was grueling work, and he did it alongside his parents, who were also field hands. Bass, however, was not destined to remain in the fields. He was a mannerly fellow, and was known for having a good sense of humor. A guy like that stands out in a crowd, and William Reeves noticed Bass’s exceptional qualities. Mr. Reeves offered Bass to his son, George Reeves, as a personal companion and servant.
On the outset, Bass might have thought that becoming a personal companion sounded like a “promotion” from field work. And, under normal circumstances, that might have even been true. But the Civil War broke out and George Reeves enlisted with the Confederacy. Hmmm . . . Bass, the personal companion, accompanied George Reeves into battle. Fieldwork might have been looking pretty good to him, right about then.
At some point during the Civil War, Bass ran off from George Reeves. No one is sure what led up to Bass’s dash for freedom. Some folks say that Bass beat up George after a card game went awry. Others say he was prompted to leave after hearing stories about slaves being freed. I’d say that I don’t really blame him one bit, regardless of his motivation!
Bass was on the lam for quite a while when he landed in Oklahoma Territory. There he lived among the Creek and Seminole Indians. It might surprise you to learn that the Oklahoma Territory was a popular location for run away slaves and outlaws to hide at that time. While hiding out in Oklahoma, Bass learned how to ride, shoot and track, and he also became fluent in five Native American languages.
After the war, Bass became the first African American settler in Van Buren, Arkansas. There he married a lady named Nellie Jennie, he built an eight-room house, raised ten children and worked the land. But life had far more in store for Bass Reeves than a simple country life.
Lay Down the Law
Do you remember those outlaws that had settled in Indian Territory? They were still there. It was estimated that, of the 22,000 Caucasians living in Indian Territory, 17,000 of them were criminals! Tribal courts tried crimes committed by Native Americans, but the residents who were not citizens of the Indian nations had to be tried in Fort Smith, Arkansas or Paris, Texas, a good distance away.
When Isaac C. Parker was made a federal judge, he vowed to get tough on crime. He wasn’t known as the “Hanging Judge” for nothing! Judge Parker appointed a Confederate Army General, James Fagan, as a U.S. Marshal and told him to hire 200 deputies to clean up the territory.
Fagan knew of Bass Reeve’s ability to speak Native American languages and his knowledge of the area and culture. So in 1875, Bass was hired on as the first black Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. Judge Parker and his U.S. Marshals were based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but the deputies were charged with covering an area of more than 74,000 square miles. They rode for months on end, looking for wanted criminals to haul in to justice at Fort Smith or Paris.
Since Reeves had grown up as a slave, he had never learned to read and write, but it didn’t affect his job performance. He had an almost photographic memory and was able to remember long lists of criminals, along with their crimes and descriptions, and he was known for getting his man.
At a time when the average American man stood at about 5’7”, Reeves’s 6’2”, muscular frame made quite a statement! He was one “good guy” who wore a black hat and carried twin .45 Colt Peacemakers. Some folks say that outlaws would turn themselves in, rather than face an altercation with Bass Reeves! And this next part sounds to me like the stuff of which legends are made. . .instead of a silver bullet, Reeves’s calling card was a silver dollar.
During the 32 years he served as Deputy Marshal, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 people—once bringing in 17 men at one time. It is notable that Reeves’s arrests included men, women, whites, blacks and Native Americans. Of those arrests, one stands out from the rest. It was the arrest of Bennie Reeves, Bass’s own son. Bennie was arrested in 1902 for the murder of his wife, who was reportedly having an affair. Bennie was sentenced to life in Leavenworth, but was released after ten years, for good behavior.
The Lone Ranger Unchained
He developed quite a reputation among both law abiders and lawbreakers. In all of his years on the job, not a single bullet ever touched Reeves, though a contemporary said that he had, “his belt shot in two, a button shot off his coat, his hat brim shot off, and the bridle reins, which he held in his hands, cut by a bullet.” He earned his nickname, “The Invincible Marshal.”
Bass Reeves was the final Marshal from Judge Parker’s 200 hires to remain in that position until Oklahoma’s statehood, in 1907. An Oklahoma City newspaper paid tribute by writing:
“Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the dead line,” and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track he took his own life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the dead line they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails.”
Following his retirement as a Marshal, Reeves took a job with the Muskogee, Oklahoma Police Department. He held that position until his death in 1920, at the age of 81 or 82.
So, what do you think? Does it sound like Bass Reeves might have been “the real Django”? What about “the real Lone Ranger?” It’s not difficult to see how he might have been the inspiration for a Hollywood movie or two. But I think Bass Reeves deserves to be known by his own name. He was certainly a man of epic proportions, and the baddest lawman I never heard of!
Happy Trails, y’all!