July 1838 – January 12, 1910
Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas. He and his parents were owned by William S. Reeves, a farmer and state legislator. When Reeves was about eight years old, William moved his farm and family to Grayson County, Texas. Reeves and the other enslaved people made the move as well.
As was customary for many slave children, Reeves worked as a water boy until he was old enough to work in the fields. He did not receive an education and would remain illiterate for the rest of his life. At some point, Reeves was given to William’s son George to serve as his slave.
By his early 20s, Reeves stood 6’2”, was physically strong from fieldwork, and was regarded as being of good character. When George enlisted with the Confederacy during the Civil War, he took Reeves along to serve as his valet. It is believed that the two men exchanged words and then blows over a card game with Reeves getting the better of George. A slave striking their owner would be severely punished and most likely killed.
Following that event Reeves seized the opportunity to escape deep into what was then referred to as Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). However, it is also possible that there was no fight and Reeves ran away because he just wanted to be free.
He was first welcomed by the Cherokee but would end up living among various Native American tribes. Those experiences allowed Reeves to become a good horseman and tracker in addition to learning five Native American languages and how to live off of the land.
It was during this time that Reeves met and fell in love with Nellie Jennie, a woman of Black, White, and Native American ancestry. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, Reeves had fewer worries about being a fugitive. He married Nellie and the couple raised 11 children on land they purchased and farmed in Van Buren, Arkansas.
In addition to farming, Reeves also earned money by offering his knowledge of the area to local US marshals. He helped them navigate by serving as a scout, tracker, and interpreter. When the territory began preparations for statehood, Isaac Parker, a federal judge issued a call for law and order. James F. Fagan, the local U.S. Marshal was tasked with appointing 200 deputies. Reeves and his skills had come to the attention of Fagan and he was deputized. With this appointment, Reeves became one of the first Black deputy US Marshals and the first west of the Mississippi.
Reeves would spend the next 32 years as a lawman tracking down and capturing 3,000 fugitives alive and killing 14 in self-defense. A tall broad-shouldered man weighing in at 180 pounds, Reeves came to be recognized by his gray horse, black hat, and cross-draw twin Colt .45s. He was referred to as “The Indomitable Marshal” due to having been shot at but never hit on multiple occasions. Reeves was relentless when given a warrant for a wanted criminal. His willingness to brave danger, even when arresting multiple armed suspects garnered a great deal of respect.
There are countless stories of Reeves donning disguises and thinking quickly to outwit fugitives. Yet he was also held in high regard for his fairness and integrity. He even went so far as a two-week manhunt for one of his sons who had killed his wife. (Though this was likely due to a desire to capture his son and bring him in alive as others might have been more trigger-happy.)
Unfortunately, as more people began to move west into Indian Territory many brought the racist and prejudiced views they’d cultivated back east. Following his death, Judge Parker’s vacancy was filled with a former Confederate who picked and chose when the law should be enforced. Thus Reeves arrested some criminals who the judge then inexplicably set free.
In 1907, the state of Oklahoma had its internal law enforcement agencies assume responsibility for law and order. This eliminated the need for deputy marshals. Before the deputies, the Indian Territory was regarded as being one of the most dangerous places for lawmen. Yet, upon his retirement, Reeves was the last and longest-serving of the group. Reeves joined the Muskogee Police Department and spent the next two years as a patrolman in a low-income neighborhood.
Reeves was diagnosed with Bright’s disease (now referred to as nephritis) in 1909 and the illness forced him to retire. Bass Reeves died the following year on January 12, 1910, at the age of 71. His first wife, Nellie Jennie had died in 1896 but Reeves was survived by his second wife, Winnie Sumter, whom he had married in 1900. Given multiple shared similarities, it is believed that Reeves served as inspiration for the Lone Ranger though the character’s creators claim otherwise.
A fictionalized version of the story of Bass Reeves was recently depicted in Paramount+’s Lawmen: Bass Reeves.
- Admin. 2021. “Bass Reeves.” National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. July 12, 2021. https://nleomf.org/bass-reeves/.
- “Bass Reeves – Black Hero Marshal.” n.d. Legends of America. Accessed November 11, 2023. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-bassreeves/.
- Brown, Edward. 2023. “Bass Reeves: The Real Story.” Fort Worth. Visit Fort Worth. February 15, 2023. https://www.fortworth.com/blog/post/bass-reeves/.
- Burton, Art T. 2023. “Bass Reeves (1838–1910).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. October 23, 2023. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/bass-reeves-1747/.
- Buscemi, Alex. 2023. “Who Was Bass Reeves? The ‘real Lone Ranger’ behind the Upcoming Paramount+ Series.” Wide Open Country. WOMG. September 22, 2023. https://www.wideopencountry.com/bass-reeves/.
- “History Minute: Bass Reeves, the Original Lone Ranger.” 2023. Camden News. February 23, 2023. https://www.camdenarknews.com/news/2023/feb/23/history-minute-bass-reeves-the-original-lone/.
- Marcou, Dan. 2013. “Police History: Was U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves the Real Lone Ranger?” Police1. Lexipol. August 26, 2013. https://www.police1.com/police-heroes/articles/police-history-was-us-marshal-bass-reeves-the-real-lone-ranger-zpapufnIejg5PgTJ/.
- “Reeves, Bass.” n.d. Oklahoma Historical Society | OHS. Accessed November 11, 2023. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=RE020.
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