Wednesday, January 06, 2010

100 Years Since the Death of U.S. Deputy Bass Reeves: The Real True Grit

On Christmas Eve I had the privilege of visiting with, and praying for, my friend Harold T. Holden in his sculpting studio north of Enid. H., as Harold is known by his family and friends, is a a nationally acclaimed sculptor. When I arrived at his studio, I found H. hard at work on his latest project, a bronze of Bass Reeves. The Bass Reeve's Legacy Initiative selected H. to create a monument commemorating U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (1838-1910). The monument will be placed in Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas, not far from the soon to be built $50 million Federal U.S. Marshal Museum The statue will be Arkansas' first equestrian bronze.

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,

Wade Burleson


Pastor Bobby T said...


You are an incredible writer. You need to make sure you keep at this writing thing and write more books. Anything to put your God given gift and ability out there for others to read and to help those who do read your stuff. This column/post was fascinating and captivating. Thanks for taking time to share ... and God Bless You,
Bobby T

Unknown said...


Thanks for your kind words. Writing is a fun hobby for me. I have a historical book on Averell's wild ride in mind for 2011 (the sesquiscentennial), and hope to be able to get it done!



Darrell said...

I really enjoy this type of historical writing. Have you ever read up on Sherriff Tilman from Oklahoma? There is a park in Chandler, Oklahoma that was his ranch back in the day. He was murdered on duty but helped bring law to the central oilfields country.


Steve said...

Oh, Lord, that we would have a Deputy Reeves and a Judge Parker to handle certain miscreants at play in the banks of Wall Street.
Roll Tide

Gene S said...

Deputy Reeves and Judge Parker--what a combination! Would that Judge Pressler and Paige Patterson were half as honest when they took down our beloved SBC.

Wade, you and I must have both had the influence of a truth telling/living person in our lives so we know the difference between truth and fantasy. My dad was that person for me.

Although he came from a little rural, ignorant, fundamentalist church outside Athens, GA, he was determined to educate his mind to go along with his sincere calling to ministry. Despite the little old ladies telling him, "Claude, they will ruin you," he hitch hiked from there to Macon and Mercer. He arrived with .10 in his pockets and peeled potatoes and cut hair to get through.

After that he went to Andover-Newton in Boston because it had a better academic standing than Southern at the time--now it CERTAINLY does. Associated with Harvard these days they share professors and Library facilities. In that day, as in ours it is often called "Liberal" since it exposes students to all sides of issues bibilical and theological.

When he returned to his beloved South as a single minister without the backing of Southern references He was not outright called a "liberal," but the professor backing a competing candidate for that deep south FBC just asked, "Can you really trust someone not graduated from Southern?" It was tough and he had to start his working days with a school teaching job at Bowman, GA. Soon he went to Pendleton, SC, then to Liberty, SC / FBC, where I was born.

Like you, daddy always saw through the surface pretense to the core of politics and distortion on any issue. He was a giant, in my eyes, who always said, "Think for yourself and know what you are talking about!"

I wonder if Paige Patterson was like the Deputy when he was riding his horse as the first SEBTS Sandy Creek Revival series was started at SEBTS?

I also wonder what he said when his horse dumped him in front of the Chapel--was it "Hallilujah" or "What the Hell!"

Anyway, if we had had an honest Judge and Deputy would they have put out all the invective labels on fellow members of the SBC? Would PP have had students with tape recorders hidden in the SEBTS classrooms to report to him within the hour an edited version of what my good professors supposedly said. Then PP was calling the President's office within the hour to tell him what was supposedly said! It wasn't pretty and I know it was distorted.

Keep up the good work, Wade, and good luck on your book!

Wade Burleson said...


Know of Tilman, but very little! Will keep open a look into his life as well!

Thanks for the heads up!


Joe Blackmon said...

Gene just can't accept that the liberals were called liberal because they were, well, liberal and the the CR was a great move of God regardless of how flawed anyone associated with it may be.

See, Gene doesn't want to admit how unbiblical and anti-Christian moderate/mainstream Baptist theology is. For instance, in the Summer 1984 copy of The Review and Expositor (Vol. LXXXI, No. 3) published by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville there was an article written by John I. Durham who was, at that time, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Southeastern Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina titled "The King as 'Messiah' in the Psalms.".
In the article, the oh so well educated Dr. Durham said "Few biblical concepts have fallen prey to this tendency [the tendency of 'discrediting of an ancient idea by imputing to it a meaning it did not have in its own plane of existence any more frequently than has the Old Testament concept of messiah, particularly in its occurrences in the Psalms...To deal with the most frequent misunderstanding first, the one connected with the 'width' of the concept of messiah in the Psalms, we must first note that messiah in the Psalms refers always and only to the ruling king, the 'Davidic' king who was Yahweh's appointed and so anointed messiah representative. These references are not intended as predictions of Jesus who is the Christ (Cristos, which also means anointed), though they have very often been taken as such, beginning as early as the New Testament period." In other words, Mr. Durham says that when the New Testament writers say that the Psalms are referring to Jesus they are WRONG. Further, he says that any such intepretations are based on "ignorance, prejudice, eisegesis, undisciplined piety, and over-used imagination, and so are wrong and unjustifiable reasons." In other words, if you believe that the Psalms are talking about Jesus when they mention the Messiah, you're stupid.

Now, that is the sort of theological nonsense that was RAMPANT in the seminaries and the mission field prior to the CR.

Of course, Wade has no problem with such interpretations, no matter how obviously unbiblical they are, and would welcome those folks in his church, cooperate with them in missions work, and wants to the the SBC go back to that kind of false doctrine.

The fact is, "Dr" Durham has every right to believe that if he wants to. He just has no right to believe that and call himself a Christian. Thankfully, those of his theological ilk are all but marginalized in the SBC. They didn't get NEARLY as bad as they deserved in the CR.

These FACTS are things that Gene doesn't want to deal with.

Corrie said...

Great post, Wade!

Gene S said...


We have already discussed this!! Is your mind totally failing?

You did, however, to this moment--fail to go ahead and give us a refutation of the argument with your great knowledge of OT studies and the Hebrew language.

Dr. Durham was presenting a highly technical and well-researched article in a professional magazine which was read mostly by seminary graduates and scholars in some of the most respected theological schools in this country.

Joe--you have a wonderful opportunity to be read by the average Baptist, some of whom are quite biblically and theologically well educated. We will understand what you try to say dispite your most elaborate .25 words.

We are ready to hear your treatise which you have neglected to render thus far in our discussions. It must be great because this is a continuation of your previous blog statements. You must know much we do not know!

You have just not laid the brilliance on us yet---and we are dying to hear it!

Joe Blackmon said...


Christians recognize that when the New Testament writers say that the Psalms were talking about Christ when it said Messiah that the New Testament writers ALWAYS got it right because they were inspired by God to write what they wrote.

It doesn't matter WHO Durham was writing for or in what he was published. That article is not a Christian viewpoint. I don't have to refute anything--the New Testament writers did that.

Gene S said...

Nothing really said, Joe--

Joe 0 Gene 2

Joe Blackmon said...

Two. That's interesting because that number is quite relevant. There are two things that are VERY telling.

1) The fact that Gene will take sides with someone who said the NT writers had no idea what they were talking about over the men who were inspired by God to write the NT. Wow.

2) The fact that Wade will not refute the position that Durham takes in his article with a clear statement of "The man is wrong" clearly shows what Wade's true theological stripe is.

Gene S said...

Joe---another empty epithet!!!

Joe 0
Gene 3 said...

Mr. Blackmon,

I've not read "Durham's article" so your statement Wade will not refute the position that Durham takes in his article with a clear statement of "The man is wrong" clearly shows what Wade's true theological stripe is" is as untrue as it is uninformed.



Joe Blackmon said...


Yeah, that's a pretty convenient excuse "I'd have to read the whole article to give an opinion on it". I didn't read the whole article and wouldn't need to. There is no context whatsoever that would make what he said accpetable for a Christian to say. However, in your version of the SBC, such theological garbage would be welcome. After all, we can't go telling someone they're wrong about something--well, unless they're a complimentarian, that is.

Gene S said...

Joe--that makes 4 empty responses!

Now you have a BS / MS / PhD and the first 2 along with your added 4th do not stand for "Science."

Have you had enough--or do you want to continue climbing the monkey tree to show us more of your lovely derrier?

Mark Burleson said...

Good story.

I've always kind of wondered why the U.S. Marshall's memorial failed in OKC. It was right next to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.,-97.483706&num=1&t=h&sll=35.486449,-97.458093&sspn=0.018172,0.032015&hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=35.537919,-97.483771&spn=0.002776,0.004764&z=18&iwloc=near

dr. james willingham said...

Wade: I truly enjoyed your article on Bass Reeves as a Deputy US Marshall for so many years. I studied Black History as a part of the requirements for the Bachelor's under one of the great Black Historians, Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene and graduated from a Black University, Lincoln in Mo. In my studies for the M.A. in American Social & Intellectual History (Morehead State Univ. , Ky.), I also studied Black History, under a Black Professor, Dr. Broadus Jackson (later Chairman of the Dept., so I understand)who recommended me for a job at South Carolina State College. At that institution I taught American History as an Instructor for two years and attended the Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia, for one semester part-time and Columbia Univ. in NY where I was recruited by a professor to do a my Ph.D. in the field. The Professor was Dr. James P. Shenton who recruited me, when he heard that I knew of a great body of Primary Sources on the Blacks (now African Americans) that no one had ever tapped (the Baptist Church Records). However, a son was born that fall, 1971, and I was unable to return. Then at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary I did my Project for the Doctor of Ministry on the subject, Christian Love and Race Relations. Your article on Bass Reeves (I had read a few items on him some years ago)is well written. I commend you. You made reference to Belle Starr surrendering, when she heard that he had a warrant for her arrest. My grandfather's brother was present in Little Rock, when they hung her, so I understand.

The Old West always fascinated me as my great grandfather, Jenks Willingham, was a cowboy and a gunman who went up and down the Chisum (Chisholm) Trail five or six times, knew Billy the Kid and Jesse James, and would go up to visit his relative Cape Willingham, the Marshall of Tascosa, Texas. Louis L'Amour made reference to Cape in several of his novels (I had about 80 of them at one time) and then had the audacity to die the very weekend I learned about my great grandfather going to visit Cape. Just when I wanted to write him a letter about Cape and my ancestor. Such is life.

I want to say that I knew Dr. John I Durham and had him for one course, but my memory is beginning to fade. I do remember that I was going to take his course on Exodus and participate in a debate on Mosaic Authorship, but I dropped it to write a 50 page term paper for a Greek Honors course under the Dean, Raymond Bryan Brown. Dr. Durham would not allow me to take part in the debate then. I told someone to tell him he was chicken. If anyone has read Dr. Oswald T. Allis' work, The Five Books of Moses, they will appreciate where I would be coming from on the issue.

While I did not care for the skeptical approach to the written word of God (our Lord Himself called it the word of God!!!), having been an atheist before my conversion, evil is not limited to unbelievers as you, Wade, can testify. I found that Conservatives can do one in just as well as the Moderates can. And what is sad is that they do folks from their own parties in. Pardon the prepositional endings. Winston Churchill said, "That is something up with which I will not put."