Monday, May 28, 2012

Born a Slave, He Died a Lawman: Honoring Bass Reeves, the Greatest U.S. Marshal in United States History

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 crashMonarch 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."

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas in July 1838.  Bass took the last name "Reeves" from his owner, George Reeves, a farmer and local politician who also owned Bass Reeve's mother. Bass never learned to read or write and remained illiterate for his entire life. As a child, however, his mother would sit him in her lap and teach him the Scriptures. Bass trained his mind to memorize after hearing the spoken word, and he memorized many passages from the Bible as a boy after hearing his mother recite them. Bass Reeves was eventually taken to 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. 

Bass Reeves great-grand nephew, retired 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.

Bass Reeves career in law enforcement has not received the same acclaim as that of Marshals Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday, though it should. 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. Bass Reeves was outstanding as a lawman, but more importantly, he was a man of impeccable Christian character. I'll close with one additional anecdote of Reeve's life, told me by my new friend Art Burton, the Chicago historian and biographer of Bass Reeves"The criminals that Reeves brought back to Fort Smith would be a captive audience for Bass as he talked to them about the wayward effects of sin. He would quote passages from the Bible that he had memorized as a boy, in an effort to get these criminals to turn their lives around. Many of them complained to Judge Parker that he should not have sent a Reverend out to arrest them!"

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.


Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


I enjoyed yesterday's sermon! It was extremely encouraging given what just happened to our blog.

As far as I can tell, we have the EChurch posts preserved, and we will get them back up soon!

Happy Memorial Day!

R. L. Vaughn said...

A very interesting story, Wade. Thanks so much for posting it.

Bob Cleveland said...

***Where's the "Like" button?***

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


I know your dad and others reading here have enjoyed hearing your sermons through our EChurch@Wartburg posts.

We hope to be online again very soon. In the meantime, I feel badly that we did not post your sermon.

Here is a link to the worship videos and sermon for last weekend's EChurch.

EChurch@Wartburg 5.27.12

Blessings to all.

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...

Here is a link to EChurch@Wartburg that has hyperlinks.

EChurch@Wartburg 3.27.12

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks, Wanda, for the links! I can't change the date in the hyperlink, but I know that folks will know it is 5/27 instead of 3?27!

Appreciate your work!

Troy Rigel said...

Great post , this is a great story someone needs to make it into a movie.

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


Thought you'd like to know that Julie Anne Smith (the woman being sued by her former pastor for $500K) has posted our EChurch for those who might want to participate.

EChurch@Wartburg - 5.27.12

We have such wonderful blogging friends. :-)

Kathi said...

My kids and I are currently studying the late 1800's and I read them this story, along with John 3:16-21 as our devotion this morning. I can relate to Bass Reeves' mother. I have told my kids the same thing many times.

I have enjoyed reading your historical entries. Thank you so much for them!

On a side note, are you or Wanda able to tell us what has happened to the Wartburg Watch site? I don't like to assume, but my mind immediately wonders if someone has hacked it since I haven't been able to get on for many days now.

Wade Burleson said...


I have not yet definitively heard what happened to Wartburg Watch, but Wanda told me they are working hard to get it back up and running! Thanks for your comment!

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...

Kathi and Wade,

We can't say with any certainty what happened to our blog (The Wartburg Watch), but it was surreal seeing it go down bit by bit on Friday.

First, Dee couldn't make comments, then all the posts disappeared, then the categories went missing, then the blogroll vanished without a trace...

Wenatchee the Hatchet took a screen shot on Friday as it was going down. Wish I had thought to do it, but I assumed it was just a glitch. You can see it here.

Wartburg Watch sure has stripped down

Sorry for the inconvenience. We hope to be back up and running soon.


Your sermon has been very helpful this week. It certainly seemed prophetic.

Wade Burleson said...

Buffalo Soldier 9,

Thanks for the tip! I will check out the links!


Johnny D. said...

Wade, I enjoyed this very much. I was familiar with Bass as I spend a great deal of my spare time reading the history of the old West. Bass was a good man. I wish there were more of his type still around.

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


We are so pleased to be featuring your sermon honoring Bass Reeves on EChurch@Wartburg.

Thank you for this encouraging message.