The American Old West was a fertile cauldron for myth and legend, producing such fantastical figures as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. But while many folk heroes of the era may have been embellished-unto-fable, or completely dreamt up, the legendary Wild West figure Bass Reeves was absolutely real, even if his exploits sound like tall tales.
Reeves was one of the most remarkable figures of the Old West, serving as a deputy U.S. Marshal from 1875 to 1907, mostly in and around the regrettable Indian Territory, which once made up much of what is now Oklahoma.
Born into slavery, Reeves escaped from the slave owner George Reeves at some point during the Civil War, supposedly knocking out his so-called “master” in a dispute over cards. Bass then fled into Indian Territory where, despite never having had the opportunity to learn to read, he learned the land and languages of the Cherokee, Seminole, and major tribes that had been forced to relocate to the region. After the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery, Reeves was finally able to settle down at an Arkansas farm and start a family. He and his wife Nellie would have almost a dozen kids while working their peaceful homestead, but for Bass, the legend was just beginning.
In 1875, Reeves was called upon to help clean up the Indian Territory. U.S. Marshal James Fagan had been tasked with rounding up a couple hundred deputies to reign in the Territories, which had become a haven for outlaws. Reeves was not only a crack shot and an imposing physical presence at over six feet tall, but his knowledge of the Territories and its people made him an ideal candidate for the position. There was also the fact that he was a black man, which was valuable in an area where white men were rightfully treated with suspicion. Fagan took advantage of this fact by hiring a number of black men as deputies.
During his tenure as a lawman, Reeves quickly attained legendary status. According to a biography put together by the National Park Service, Reeves was said to have superhuman strength. He could neither read nor write, but he was able to memorize each warrant after it was read to him, and he never brought in the wrong man.
As feared as he was fearless, Reeves earned the nickname the “Invincible Marshal” thanks to stories of dramatic close calls where a bullet knocked the hat off his head, or cut the reins to his horse. He also had a habit of dressing up in disguises to get close to his targets. His illiteracy even became part of his legend. One of the most evocative tales of Reeves’ exploits was the time he used a “letter trick” to save his life, and get his man (well, men).
As recounted in Art Burton’s biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, one day Reeves was running down a pair of Texan murderers when they got the drop on him (or so it seemed). Reeves encountered the two men on the road, and they asked him if he was Bass Reeves. Reeves said that he was not, and the outlaws pulled their guns on him, forcing him to ride with them until they encountered someone who knew him.
After continuing along for some time, the Texans got tired of holding Reeves hostage, and they ordered him off of his horse so that they could kill him. Like something out of a Western movie, they asked Reeve if he had any last words, to which he replied that he had a letter from his wife that he wanted the killers to read to him. All off of their horses, Reeves handed them the letter with shaking hands. It was a great act.
As the men took their eyes off of Reeves, the marshal drew his gun on the outlaw holding the letter, and the other killer dropped his gun in surprise. Reeves brought them both in. A cunning trick, Reeves is said to have made use of this same letter ruse a number of times through the years.
His career was marked with more such tales of dramatic daring, shootouts, and near-death escapades, where he brought down entire gangs, and in one particularly tragic instance, even had to bring in his own son. In 1901, Reeves claimed that he had arrested 3,000 fugitives, and that was five years before he retired.
When Reeves did finally hang up his Marshal badge, it was said that he’d never been hit by an outlaw’s bullet. He died from nephritis in 1910, proving all too human in the end.
Burton has even speculated that Reeves was the original inspiration for The Lone Ranger. But the legend of Bass Reeves himself might be the most incredible of all, because it’s true.