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Bass Reeves: New ‘Yellowstone’ show about a slave turned lawman

The latest television series from “Yellowstone” producer Taylor Sheridan brings the real history of frontier Marshal Bass Reeves to life.
yellowstone bass reeves
David Oyelowo onstage during the Paramount+ UK launch at Outernet London on June 20, 2022 Dave J Hogan / Contributor Getty Images

The latest television series from “Yellowstone” producer Taylor Sheridan brings the real history of frontier U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to life on Paramount+. Called “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” the series stars Executive Producer David Oyelowo as Reeves, along with Dennis Quaid, Barry Pepper and Donald Sutherland.

In the years following the Civil War, the Indian Territory (what we know as Oklahoma today) became the home of innumerable outlaws and gangs. Its chief law enforcement body was the Western District of Arkansas and by 1875, there was a new judge on the bench of that district: Isaac Parker.

Parker’s first plan overseeing the lawless district was to bring the murderers, bandits, and thieves that overran the Indian Territory to justice. He was notorious among the outlaws for harsh sentencing. The only thing that was liberal about Judge Parker was his use of the death penalty, which earned him the moniker “Hangin’Judge” Parker.

He did it by hiring 200 new U.S. Marshals to enforce U.S. law in the Western District. The most famous among those new Marshals was Bass Reeves, a towering Black farmer who had escaped slavery during the Civil War and made his home among the tribes of the Indian Territory until President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Reeves was born into slavery sometime in 1838. His last name came from the family of white slaveholders into which he was born and raised. The Reeves Family moved to Texas while Bass was a young boy, and when Texas joined the Confederacy, so did George Reeves, the family’s oldest son. Common practice meant George Reeves would likely be taking a slave on campaign with him. He chose Bass.

Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves.

Somewhere along the way, Bass Reeves escaped from George and the Confederate Army. One of the most common stories attributed to his escape is that George and Bass were playing cards when they got into a heated argument. The war of words turned into a battle of fists, and when the large slave beat his “master” down, he made a break for freedom.

It wasn’t just Reeves’ size that made him a good choice to be Marshal. The time he spent hiding out from Confederate slavers in the Indian Territory was put to good use. He learned to live off the land as the natives did. He learned to shoot with both a rifle and a pistol. He also learned his way around the territory the way the natives did. Upon becoming a free man, he moved to Arkansas and took up farming.

In 1875, a U.S. Marshal named James Fagan learned about Reeves and the time he’d spent in the Indian Territory awaiting the outcome of the Civil War. Fagan recruited Reeves for Judge Parker’s battle to bring the Indian Territory in line with U.S. Law. On May 10, 1875, the same day that Parker first sat on the bench, he swore Reeves in as a newly-minted U.S. Marshal.

Reeves would prove to be every bit as good as Fagan believed he would be. Over the next 32 years, Marshal Reeves would bring an estimated 3,000 outlaws back to Arkansas to be tried and sentenced in Parker’s court.

“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” is part of a new anthology series on Paramount+, meaning the next season of “Lawmen” will likely tell the story of a different Western lawman. But look for Bass Reeves’ story on the streaming platform starting Nov. 5, 2023.