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Bass Reeves: Legendary African-American Lawman and Lone Ranger

I am a freelance writer with a degree in Journalism and Communications. I enjoy researching history and sharing unique stories.

Bass Reeves with his Native American partner

Bass Reeves with his Native American partner

Who Was Bass Reeves?

Bass Reeves was a well-known African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal who worked in the Oklahoma and the Arkansas Territories starting in 1875. Other deputy marshals marveled at the skills and abilities he used when in relentless pursuit of criminals. Reeves was shot at many times during his work, but he was never hit by a single bullet.

Many newspapers followed Reeves as he worked. One reporter wrote that when an arrest warrant was placed in the hands of U.S. Deputy Marshal Reeves, there was no set of circumstances that would make him stop pursuing that criminal. It only ended when the criminal was apprehended.

Early Years

Bass Reeves was born as a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. His master was the Confederate Colonel George Reeves.

During the Civil war, Reeves accompanied Colonel Reeves as he went to fight. Once Reeves heard about the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln, he told Colonel Reeves he was a free man. Colonel Reeves did not agree and the two fought. Colonel Reeves was severely beaten.

Reeves escaped and ended up in the Oklahoma Territory. This is where he became good friends with the Cherokee Indian tribe. During his time with them, Reeves learned how to shoot, ride, and track—as well as fluently speak five Native American languages. These skills helped him become a legendary U.S. Deputy Marshal.

Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves

The Indomitable Marshal

Reeves was sent to bring in three men who had broken the law. When he thought he had caught up with them, the three criminals were able to get the drop on Reeves. They told him to get off his horse. Reeves was known as the Indomitable Marshal. This is how the leader referred to him when he told Reeves he was about to die.

Reeves calmly took out the warrants he had for their arrest and asked the men to tell him the date. When they asked why, Reeves told them he had to write the date of their arrest on the warrants.

He then told them he could take them in dead or alive—it was their choice. When the three men started laughing, Reeves seized the moment and grabbed the leader's gun. One of the men shot at him and Reeves fired back, killing him. He then took his gun and bashed in the skull of the leader. The third man surrendered.

This story comes from a reporter's eyewitness account that appeared in The Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal.

Master of Disguise

Bass Reeves also had a reputation for using brilliant disguises. Once when he was after two criminals, he discovered they were staying in a secluded cabin. In this situation, it would not be safe to approach the cabin as a U.S. Deputy Marshal.

Reeves took his hat and shot three holes into it. He dressed in worn and tattered clothing and tucked a few sets of handcuffs in a bag. Tying up his horse out of sight, Reeves walked up to the cabin and acted as if he was scared and exhausted. Standing outside, he started talking to the two criminals inside the cabin. He told them he had barely escaped U.S. Marshals and showed them his hat with the bullet holes to prove his story.

The two men invited Reeves into the cabin and made an offer for him to participate in a robbery they were planning. They trusted Reeves completely, and after an evening of eating and drinking, they fell asleep. During the night, Reeves handcuffed both of them. In the morning, he told the two men he let them sleep during the night. He wanted them to be rested for the long journey back to Fort Smith—and jail.

Reeves's gun and U.S. Marshal badge

Reeves's gun and U.S. Marshal badge

Possible Inspiration for the Lone Ranger

One of the key parts of the Lone Ranger legend was how he would hand out silver bullets. Reeves was known for handing out silver coins as part of his personal trademark.

His goal in doing this was to get in good favor with people wherever he was working. People from many towns recognized Reeves. They viewed him and his silver coins as good luck, and getting rid of a criminal causing them trouble. Reeves also had a Native American who was his close companion and partner. During the time they worked together, the two of them apprehended thousands of criminals.

Long Career

Bass Reeves worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in the Indian Territories for 32 years. The judge who was in charge of the Indian Territories considered Reeves one of his most valued deputies, if not the most valued.

Some of the worst criminals of this time were hunted down and apprehended by Reeves. During his career, he was never wounded—though he came close on two occasions. On one occasion, his belt was shot off, and on the other his hat was shot off.

At the end of his career, in 1907, a newspaper reporter wrote that Reeves had brought in over 3,000 felons alive and 20 dead. Reeves wanted to make certain that the record was correct. He stated that he had also been forced to kill 14 men in self-defense.

Death and Legacy

Reeves's health started to fail when he was 70. On January 12, 1910, he died of Bright's disease in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was 71 years old. The bridge spanning the Arkansas River between Fort Gibson and Muskogee, Oklahoma, has been named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge. Reeves was also inducted into the Texas Trail of fame in 2013.

Statue of Bass Reeves

Statue of Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves Statue

On May 26, 2012, over a thousand people gathered at Ross Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for the unveiling of the statue of U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. The monument was made in Norman, Oklahoma. The statue made a 200-mile journey on a flatbed trailer with a large police escort. The monument is made of bronze and stands approximately 25 feet tall. The base is made from the cobblestone from a downtown street.

Book about Bass Reeves by Gary Paulson

Book about Bass Reeves by Gary Paulson

Books That Tell the Story

  • The Legend of Bass Reeves, by Gary Paulsen, January 8, 2008
  • Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, Art T. Burton, April 1, 2008
  • Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, August 1, 2009
  • Frontier Justice: Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, by Charles Ray, February 2, 2014


  • Bass Reeves, released by Ponderous Productions, 2010
  • Bass Reeves, released by producers Marlon Ladd and Jacqueline Edwards, 2017
  • Lawman, released by Matthew Gentile Productions, 2017

Documentary About Bass Reeves


  • History:
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© 2019 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on March 07, 2019:

Randall, Thanks. You need to read toward the end of the article. More than one movie has been done about Bass Reeves and a few books have been written about him. He is a fascinating story.

RANDALL BELCHER on March 06, 2019:

Love it,never knew about this great figure in American History.He needs a movie based on his life.Never knew he inspired the Lone Ranger.Sad he did not get the light he deserves.Like other African Americans in history.

Readmikenow (author) on January 19, 2019:

FlourishAnyway, thanks. It is a great story.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 18, 2019:

I had no idea who he was. Thank you for profiling him. I hope this hub really gains traction during Black History Month to help show the variety of African Americans who have contributed to our country.

Readmikenow (author) on January 15, 2019:

Liz, thanks. I found this to be a rather fascinating story.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 15, 2019:

This was all new to me. You give a great account of Bass Reeves.

Readmikenow (author) on January 15, 2019:

Bill, thanks! I found this a very fascinating yet little known part of American history.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 15, 2019:

Hi Mike. Fascinating story. I was not familiar with Bass Reeves, but what an interesting life. I will have to look for the books and movie. Great hub.