This Memorial weekend was very special for me. In fact, I can't remember having a more meaningful Memorial Day. I drove 230 miles from my home in Enid to historic Fort Smith, Arkansas for the dedication of the Bass Reeves Monument. My friend and world-renowned sculptor Harold T. Holden was the artist for the $300,000, twenty-five foot tall life monument. Two years ago H. (as friends call Harold) suffered from a terminal lung disease. He faced certain and imminent death. H., his wife Edna Mae, and I gathered in his studio and prayed that God would graciously allow H. to live so H. could continue to tell the stories of important men and women through his sculptings. Harold Holden eventually received a lung transplant and did not just survive, he has since thrived. The Bass Reeves Monument is H. Holden's twenty-second life size memorial, a body of work which includes the Will Roger's Statue in front of Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport; the We Will Remember bronze commemorating the ten Oklahoma State University basketball players and coaches who died in a January 27, 2001 plane crash; Monarch at Rest at the Oklahoma History Center; and eighteen other stunning memorials. The Bass Reeves Monument is a superb piece of art. Crossing the Arkansas River bridge as you enter Fort Smith from the west, Bass Reeves will greet all visitors to the historic city. Less than half a mile from the Bass Reeves Monument will be the spectacular $50 million dollar US Marshals Museum. On this Memorial Day 2012, I would like to remember the man that the former director of the United States Marshals calls "the greatest lawman in United States history."
Paris, Texas by his owner, George Reeves. However, during the Civil War, Bass ran away and fled north into the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) where he lived among the Seminole and Creek Indians. Reeves learned how to handled a rifle and became a crack shot with a pistol during his time among the civilized Indians. He also became fluent in their native languages. After the Civil War, Reeves moved back to Arkansas as a free man, was reunited with his mother, and began to farm near Van Buren. He married a woman he had known in Texas, Nellie Jennie. Bass and Nellie would eventually have ten children, five boys and five girls. In 1875 the legendary Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory, with headquarters for the judicial district in Fort Smith. Judge Parker, also known as "The Hanging Judge," appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, and directed him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan knew of Bass Reeves and his expert markanship. He also knew that Bass was very familiar with Indian Territory and could speak several native Indian languages. Fagan recruited Reeves as a deputy U.S. Marshal. Bass Reeves was sworn in Fort Smith, Arkansas before Judge Parker, becoming the first black US Federal Marshal west of the Mississippi.
Federal Judge Paul Brady (pictured with me and Harold Holden), told me the story of how Reeves mother came to the courthouse for his swearing in. She took hold of him by the arm before he took the oath of allegience and told him, "Bass, you remember God out there in Indian Territory. Though you may have a badge and a gun, you are not God. He is the just Judge of the world, and don't you take over his job. Bring'em in alive and turn them over for their proper punishment." "Yes ma," said the thirty-two-year-old Reeves. He would go on to serve over three decades as a United States Marshal. He rode horseback approximately 75,000 miles throughout Indian Territory. During his tenure, Marshal Reeves arrested and transported to Fort Smith over 3,000 fugitives, some of whom were the most wanted and colorful outlaws in the United States. In 1907 the Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma, and Federal Deputy Marshals 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 on January 12, 1910.
Next time you cross the Arkansas River and enter Fort Smith, or in the years to come when you stop at the US Federal Marshal Museum, take a moment and pull over into Pendergraft Park and take a look around. The old fort is still standing. Judge Isaac Parker's coutroom remains. The statue of Bass Reeves sits near the highway. We all can learn a great deal from his life, his character and his legacy as the best lawman in the history of the United States.