Art of the Month

The story of Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was an American law enforcement official, historically noted as the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory During his long career, he had on his record more than 3,000 arrests of dangerous fugitives, and shot and killed 14 of them in self-defense.

Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington. Reeves and his family were owned by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. It appears plausible that Reeves was kept in bondage by William Steele Reeves’s son, Colonel George R. Reeves — a Texan sheriff, legislator, and one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.

When the American Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate Army, forcing Bass to go with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves escaped, but at some point during the Civil War, he gained his freedom. One account recalls how Bass Reeves and George Reeves had an altercation over a card game. Bass severely beat George, and fled to the Indian Territory where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass stayed with these Native American tribes and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolishment of slavery in 1865.

As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren.

This piece reflects on how Reeves remained in slavery even after the war was over. Yet he became a law enforcement officer once he was freed.


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