As I watched H. working on the Reeve's monument I couldn't help but recall the incredible and colorful life of this evangelical Christian who was once a slave but became the most famous U.S. Deputy Marshal in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He was the first black lawman west of the Mississippi River, appointed just a dozen years after he had been freed from slavery by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Bass was sworn in as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in 1875 by Judge Isaac Parker ("The Hanging Judge) in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Most people over forty years of age have seen the movie True Grit, starring John Wayne, but few realize that Wayne's role was that of a Deputy Marshall in Indian Territory, one of "Parker's Men." Bass Reeves was the real "True Grit."
Reeves served thirty-two years as a United States Marshall, and rode horseback approximately 75,000 miles throughout the twin territories, Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory. During his tenure, Marshal Reeves arrested and transported to Fort Smith over 3,000 fugitives, some of whom included the most wanted and colorful outlaws in the United States. In 1907 the twin territories became the state of Oklahoma, and Federal Deputy Marshalls gave way to county sheriffs and municipal police departments in Oklahoma. Bass Reeves retired from the Marshal's service and became a police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he died exactly 100 years ago, January 12, 1910.
Bass Reeves career in law enforcement has not received the same acclaim as that of Marshals Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday. Reeves stood 6'2" and weighed 180 pounds. He was ambidextrous, able to shoot a pistol or rifle accurately with his right or left hand. Settlers in Indian Territory said Reeves could take two men with his bare hands, but always was a gentleman unless provoked. Some of the stories of how Deputy Marshall Reeves apprehended criminals defy reason. He brought fugitives by the hundreds into the Fort Smith federal prison to stand trial before Judge Parker. His peers revered him, and criminals feared him. The noted female outlaw Belle Starr turned herself in at Fort Smith when she found out Reeves had the warrant for her arrest. In 1902, Reeves arrested his own son, Bennie, for domestic murder in Muskogee after the other Deputy Marshals in the area refused to serve the warrant out of respect for Bass.
Rather than writing a detailed history of Bass Reeves for this post, I thought I would point out just one detail of his life that related to his Christian faith. Reeve's great nephew, Federal Judge Paul Brady had this to say about Marshal Reeves and why he took up a career in law enforcement with Judge Isaac Parker:
They developed a very close working relationship. In spite of the widely diverse backgrounds, one a slave, one a former congressman, one educated, one who was not. Bass had no semblance of any formal education. They developed a very deep respect for each other. I think that perhaps this was based upon their overriding sense of duty and responsibility that they had learned from their Christian backgrounds and Christian teachings. They were both very versed in the scriptures from their early learning, and Judge Parker convinced Bass to join him in helping to establish the rule of law over the rule of men, and to bring law where there had never been any law before. Parker reminded Bass, that he would be in a position to serve as a deputy to show the lawful as well as the lawless that a black man was the equal of any other law enforcement officer on the frontier.
Bass Reeves reminds us that we would be unwise to stereotype Christians. A Christian is one with faith in Jesus Christ, but some Christians can be really tough hombres when need be.
In His Grace,