Bass Reeves: Baddest Marshal in the Old West, Original 'Lone Ranger'

By: Dave Roos  | 

Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves was a Black deputy marshal in the 1800s, a frontier hero and the possible inspiration for "The Lone Ranger." Wikipedia/HowStuffWorks

He stood 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88 meters), weighed 180 pounds (82 kilograms) and could reportedly whoop two men at a time with his bare hands. He was as quick on the draw as he was deadly accurate with his Winchester rifle, capable of taking down a running target at a quarter-mile (402 meters). He wore a thick handlebar mustache and spit-shined boots unless he was in one of his clever disguises. In the storied American West of the late 19th-century, where duty-bound lawmen pursued murderous outlaws for high-priced bounties, none deserved their fame as much as Bass Reeves.

Born into slavery in 1838, Bass escaped to Indian Territory during the Civil War and emerged as a skilled marksman and tracker who could speak multiple Native American languages. Reeves was hired as a deputy U.S. marshal, one of several Black and Native American lawmen to patrol the hardscrabble territory on behalf of the Federal government. It was a notoriously hazardous profession — at least 114 deputy U.S. marshals were killed on duty in Indian Territory before it became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

But Bass Reeves was no ordinary officer of the law. Over his three-decade career, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 individuals, survived countless skirmishes with armed outlaws, and killed at least 14 men while defending his life and others'. He was, in a word, a hero.

"Bass Reeves was the greatest frontier hero in American history," says Art T. Burton, former history professor and author of "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves." "He walked into the valley of death every day for 32 years. He helped people regardless of their race, their religion or their background his entire life."

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From Fugitive Slave to Lawman

Not much is known about Bass's early life other than that he was born in Arkansas into an enslaved family owned by Arkansas state legislator William Reeves and then his son George Reeves. The family was moved to Texas where George Reeves organized and led a cavalry regiment for the Confederacy. Bass served alongside Colonel Reeves in the Civil War as his body servant and the two men formed a close bond. But that bond was broken when they got to arguing over a card game and Bass punched the colonel out cold.

"For a slave to hit his master in Texas was punishable by death," says Burton, "So Bass didn't wait around to see what the consequences might be."

He spent the next few years living among the Creek, Cherokee and Seminole tribes, learning their languages, studying their hunting and tracking techniques, and according to some accounts, fighting for the Union in guerilla regiments.

After the war, Reeves returned to Arkansas a free man, married his wife Jennie, and started working as a scout for federal lawmen patrolling the neighboring Indian Territory. In 1875, a new judge took over the Fort Smith federal courthouse in Arkansas and called for the hiring of 200 more deputy U.S. marshals to chase down lawbreakers who escaped into the territories. Bass Reeves was one of them. While Bass wasn't the first Black deputy U.S. marshal, he was easily the most famous.

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The Life of a Deputy U.S. Marshal

As a Black man with a badge in the Reconstruction-era South, Bass had arresting authority over whites, American Indians and fellow freedmen. He even arrested some white men for lynchings. If a member of an Indian tribe committed a crime against another Native American, those were handled by tribal police and tribal courts, but Reeves and his fellow deputy U.S. marshals handled all other crimes committed in Indian Territory.

"Things like murder, attempted murder, rape, and theft of horses and cattle," says Burton. "The illegal trade of whiskey was a very big problem for the deputy U.S. marshals."

Like other formerly enslaved people, Reeves was never taught to read or write, but he developed the uncanny ability to memorize a pile of arrest warrants and associate each crime with the "shape" of an individual name. The system worked. While other deputies would return to Fort Smith with three or four captured fugitives, he routinely delivered a dozen or more wanted men.

An 1882 notice in The Fort Smith Elevator reported that "Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves came in on Monday with sixteen prisoners," including men wanted for attempted murder and arson.

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The Best Bass Stories

The tales of Bass Reeves' bravery and cunning are legendary and legion, and Burton chronicled some of his favorites in "Black Gun, Silver Star."

There was the time when Reeves was in pursuit of a band of outlaw brothers laying low at their mother's house in Chickasaw territory. Reeves had a whole posse with him, but he knew they'd be spotted miles away. So, Reeves disguised himself as a tramp with holes in his shoes, a big floppy hat and a cane. He walked 28 miles (45 kilometers) across the parched plains and arrived on the mother's porch begging for some food and water.

When her sons came home, the mother introduced Reeves like an old friend and the group started scheming up a crime they could all pull together. The outlaw brothers awoke the next day handcuffed to their beds and Reeves marched them all the way back to his camp on foot.

"Momma was hot," laughs Burton. "I think she followed Bass for about 10 miles [16 kilometers] cursing at him."

Then there was the time that Bass was ambushed by the three Brunter brothers, each wanted for multiple counts of horse theft, robbery and unsolved murders. The brothers told Reeves to drop his weapons, but he played it cool and calmly asked the men for the day's date. When asked why, Reeves said so he could mark it down on their arrest warrants when he brought them to court.

The Brunter brothers almost fell over laughing, thinking the outgunned lawman was out of his mind. But Reeves seized the opportunity to whip out his Colt revolver, shoot two of the men dead and grab the muzzle of the third brother's revolver before beating him over the head with it.

One of Burton's favorite Bass Reeves stories was the time that Reeves was called in by his fellow deputy U.S. marshals to help smoke out a stubborn fugitive. After an hourslong shootout, the outlaw made a run for it.

"The rest of the posse started shooting at him as he's running across the field but they were missing," says Burton. "Then Deputy U.S. Marshal Bud Ledbetter hollered, 'Get him, Bass!' And Bass said coolly and calmly, 'I will break his neck.' Bass took his Winchester rifle at a quarter of a mile and broke this man's neck."

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The Inspiration for the Lone Ranger?

In his book, Burton makes the bold yet believable claim that Bass Reeves was the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger, a masked hero first created for radio in the 1930s before becoming a movie and TV star.

"Bass is the closest thing to the Lone Ranger to exist in reality," says Burton. "The Lone Ranger handed out silver bullets. Bass handed out silver dollars. Bass worked with an Indian sidekick and rode a white horse. Bass worked in disguise throughout his career. The Lone Ranger's last name is Reid, which is very close to Reeves."

Also like the Lone Ranger, Reeves was known for his strong moral compass and dedication to justice. When Reeves' own son was wanted for the murder of his wife, he solemnly requested the warrant and brought his boy in for trial. Reeves also arrested the preacher who baptized him. In need of money, the congregation had convinced the preacher to run bootleg whiskey, but Reeves wouldn't have it.

Burton believes that Detroit might provide the connection between Bass and the Lone Ranger. The original radio program was created at a Detroit radio station in 1933 and most of the outlaws that Bass arrested in the 1880s and 1890s were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections to serve out their sentences. Did the writers of the white Lone Ranger take inspiration from local legends of a morally upright Black lawman who patrolled the Wild West? Burton thinks so, although he admits there is no conclusive proof.

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The End of a Legendary Life

By the time Bass Reeves retired from his long career as a Federal lawman, he was famous throughout Indian Territory. There were folk songs written about his heroics and he could nab a fugitive by the power of his reputation alone. The story goes that Belle Starr, an outlaw known as "the female Jesse James," turned herself in at Fort Smith when she heard that Bass had her warrant.

Despite being hunted by aggrieved outlaws for most of his life, Reeves died of natural causes at age of 72. One obituary published in The Daily Ardmoreite wrote: "No history of frontier days in Indian Territory would be complete with no mention of Bass Reeves and no tale of the old days of 'Hell on the Border' could be told without the old deputy marshal as a prominent character."

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