Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910) was an American law enforcement officer. He was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory.[a] During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed 14 people 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 enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves
When the American Civil War began, George Reeves, Bass’ enslaver, joined the Confederate Army, taking Bass with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves left his enslaver, 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 his enslaver, and fled to the Indian Territory where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass stayed in the Indian Territories and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.
Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and became one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career.
As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas, with whom he had 11 children. Reeves’ health began to fail further after retiring. He died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910. Bass had a great-uncle Paul L. Brady, who became the first black man appointed as a federal administrative law judge in 1972. His great-great-great-grandson is National Hockey League player Ryan Reaves.
Watch the Movie on Hulu called Hell on the Border about the life of Bass Reeves.