The real-world exploits of this U.S. Marshal sound like the stuff of legend, up there with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Except most of what you’ll hear about Bass Reeves is real. He escaped slavery in Texas by beating up his owner’s son. Then he lived among the natives in the Indian Territory of what is today Oklahoma. He memorized arrest warrants and always brought in the right criminal.
Bass Reeves was exactly what the Wild West needed.
While he could neither read nor write, Reeves knew the Indian Territory. He escaped there after beating up his master’s son in a dispute over a card game. The need to survive led him to the tribes of the Cherokee, Seminoles, and Creek Indians, whom he befriended and lived with until the end of the Civil War made him a free man. While he was illiterate, his mind was like a steel trap, and his heart was as brave as they come. When U.S. Marshal James Fagan was tasked with cleaning up the Indian Territory of its felons and outlaws, his first hire was Bass Reeves.
Reeves was now the first black lawman west of the Mississippi River and was perfectly suited for duty in the Indian Territory, speaking their language and knowing the terrain. For 32 years, Reeves would bring in the most dangerous of criminals without ever being wounded in action, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.
At the end of his long, illustrious career, Reeves claimed to have arrested more than 3,000 felons and shot at least 14 outlaws dead during shootouts – he even had to arrest his own son for murder. Even though he claimed he’d never been hit by an outlaw’s bullet, there were times where they got the drop on the lawman. His favorite trick, one he used many times, was a letter ruse. When his quarry got the better of him, he would ask his captors to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Once the outlaws took the letter, Reeves used the distraction to draw his weapon and disarm or take down the bad guys.
His exploits were soon famous, and he earned the nickname “The Invincible Marshal” for all the times he’d escaped the jaws of death. Only at age 71 did death come for Bass Reeves – not in the form of an outlaw’s bullet, but rather kidney disease, in 1910.