Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bass Reeves & His Silver Star

"Hi-ho, Silver!"
It's the call of the Lone Ranger, a masked hero who, atop his trusty steed, Silver, and with the help of his trusted sidekick, Tonto, defeats murderers, rustlers, and other nefarious outlaws in order to make the Wild West "a decent place to live." (To hear the original Lone Ranger radio show, click here.)
Silhouette of a cowboy against a setting sun (web)

In real life, the West was just as dangerous but far less romantic. Covering hundreds of miles while following outlaws' trails for months at a time (usually with a cook, a deputy, and a wagon), the US Marshals working the Indian Territories (what is now Oklahoma) dealt with the roughest outlaws a lawless land could produce. And when a bad guy was captured, the job was far from over:

"It sounds like it would be a soft job to guard some prisoners who were chained to the wagon but it was really as dangerous as to capture them. Sometimes the prisoners had been surprised and caught without a fight but a marshal never knew exactly what would happen when he started after some men. After he got them in the wagon, the guards had to be careful or two or three of the friends of the prisoners would come up and throw guns on the [...] and release the prisoners."
from an interview with I.F. Williams, former deputy, c. 1937

One of the most well-known, well-respected, and most successful of the Wild West marshals was Bass Reeves. A former runaway slave from Texas, Reeves was the first African American US Marshal to be appointed West of the Mississippi River. Over the course of a 32-year career as a law officer, Reeves made over 3,000 arrests. Of those 3,000, only 14 resulted in a fatal shoot out with the deputy:

Bass Reeves (USMarshalsMuseum)
"One time ... Bass Reeves had the choice of some routine work or of capturing a black man who had killed a fellow for a bale of cotton. 'Let Sherman and Adams go to Muskogee and serve the papers,' he said as he did not want to get mixed up with white folks. 'I will go and get this man or bring his boots.' When he returned he had his man in the wagon. What happened [I asked.] 'He got in a log cabin and started firing at me, so I had to kill him, said the colored officer."
from the interview with I.F. Williams, former deputy, c. 1937

What distinguished Reeves from so many others was just how good he was at his job: He was smart, and although he could not read, he had an impeccable memory which allowed him to memorize the details of multiple warrants at one time. Generally, he would have someone read aloud a warrant to him so he could memorize it:

"He had an extraordinary ability to memorize long lists of criminals and their crimes and always brought back the right man – or woman, as the case may be."
US Marshals Museum

Belle Starr turned herself in instead of being tracked by friend, Reeves
Reeves was 6'2" tall and weighed about 180 pounds. He was a fast and accurate shot, both with pistols and rifles, and he was ambidextrous. Sometimes Reeves would take a deputy with him, but not always:

"He would sometimes make the arrests alone and bring the prisoners to the wagon in which they would be chained. I saw him one time when he had three prisoners who brought him a reward of $1,000.00."
from the interview with I.F. Williams, former deputy, c. 1937

In all of his long history, Bass Reeves was never wounded – although he was often vulnerable. The following story demonstrates his single-handed capture of two brothers notorious enough to bring a $5,000 reward. This is the story as told by Reeves' contemporary, Adam Grayson, in a 1937 interview:

"It is said that he pitched his camp about 28 miles from where he thought the notorious outlaws might be found. He established the camp at this distance so that he could take his time in making a plan of procedure for a capture without creating any suspicions and look over the lay of the surrounding land. ... He disguised himself as a tramp. From his outward appearance, he was a tramp but inwardly he was the fearless marshal with his duty ... With him, he had every aid that a US Marshal could need, handcuff [sic], six shooter and all with the steel breastplate while over this he wore very ragged clothes. He removed the heels off of an old pair of shoes, carried a cane and he wore a very floppy hat in which he had shot three bullet holes."

Reeves walked 28 miles before reaching the home the train robbers shared with their mother. He pretended to be a hungry tramp with the law on his trail. As proof, he showed the mother his hat with the three bullet holes in it. She believed his story, invited him in, and fed him. After dinner, Reeves was hoping her sons might still show up so he pretended to be tired and then...

"After night had fallen, Reeves thought he could hear a sharp whistle from the creek. The old woman went out and gave an answer. Then riders rode up where the mother talked to them for a long while but they all finally came into the house. All finally agreed to join forces and work together. While preparing to go to bed ... [Reeves] suggested that they all sleep in one room by saying that something might happen and if we are separated we couldn't be much protection to one another. ... As soon as these boys were asleep, Reeves left his bed and managed to handcuff the pair without waking [them] ... He waited until early morning before he woke them ... and said, 'Come on, boys, let's be going from here.' They realized that they were in the hands of the law. ... [He walked with the boys to his] camp 28 miles away, the mother followed him for three, cussing him and calling him all sorts of names."

Bass Reeves (front row, left) and US Marshals, c. 1900 (Univ. of OK, Western Collection)
Reeves' long history also included having to bring in one of his five sons for murder. Benjamin Reeves had found his wife cheating on him, repeatedly. The first time, he and his wife reconciled. The next time, he nearly whipped her lover to death and he did end up killing his wife. Benjamin Reeves ran off into Indian territory. None of Reeves' colleagues wanted to take the warrant so Reeves did it: He tracked his son into Indian territory and, several weeks later, brought Benjamin back to stand trial.

Another time, Reeves, himself, was accused of murdering his cook, William Leach, over an alleged dispute involving Reeves' dog and some hot grease (www.theoutlaws.com). Reeves' defense was that he was cleaning his gun, and when he tried to dislodge a bullet that was stuck in the chamber, the gun went off, accidentally wounding Leach in the neck. Leach died of the wound before a doctor could arrive. Reeves was arrested but was able to post $3,000 in bail. Although he was found innocent of murder, the expense of the trial is said to have taken the bulk of his life's savings.
"Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker

Bass Reeves was born in 1838. After escaping into free territory, he farmed for awhile and also worked as a scout with an extensive knowledge of several Indian languages including Seminole, Creek, and the languages of the other Five Civilized Tribes. According to one source, he held the rank of a Union Sergeant by the end of the Civil War (www.theoutlaws.com).

He was recruited as a US Marshal by Judge Isaac Parker of the Fort Smith Federal Court. Parker held court six days a week, tried over 13,000 cases and ordered the hanging of 160 felons. He was the original "Hanging Judge," and Reeves was his long-time colleague, responsible for some 75,000 square miles of the most dangerous territory in the country. Reeves was the only US Marshal to start when Parker took office and to work – to survive – until the territory of Oklahoma became the state of Oklahoma.
Bass Reeves' actual badge

Reeves died on January 12, 1910 in Muskogee, Oklahoma of Bright's Disease, or liver complications. In 2010, he was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Hall of Fame.

Let it fly! 
The Oklahoma state flag

sources used:
The Museum of Broadcast Communications
coax.net (The Legacy of Bass Reeves)

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