Who was Bass Reeves?
Former slave, respected lawman
The magnificent, bronze statue of the great African-American deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to be dedicated May 26 in Pendergraft Park honors one of the Western frontier's greatest lawmen, and Fort Smith's historic ties to the U.S. Marshals Service.
In 1875, Reeves was among the first of 200 deputy U.S. marshals commissioned by federal Judge Isaac C. Parker to bring law and order to the wild and dangerous 75,000-square-mile jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas and Indian Territory. Many of those deputies were killed in the line of duty and are buried in Fort Smith.
Reeves, however, seemed indestructible in his fearless performance of his duties. He rode for the legendary "hanging judge" Parker during the judge's 21-year tenure from 1875 to 1896. After Parker's death in November 1896, Reeves continued working for the U.S. Marshals Service until Oklahoma became a state in 1907. During his 32-year career with the marshals service, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 lawbreakers, outlaws and murderers - including his son, who murdered his own wife.
Reeves himself stood trial for murder, having been accused by a criminal he had arrested, and was tried in Parker's court. Although Reeves was cleared of the murder charge and returned to service, he never recovered financially from the cost of his defense. But his sense of duty, justice and right and wrong never wavered.
He was born a slave around 1838 in Crawford County, Ark. He, his mother and sister were owned by Col. George R. Reeves. During the Civil War, while living in Texas with his owner, Bass Reeves escaped to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). He was accepted by the Creek and Seminole nations and lived with the tribes.
After the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, he returned to Arkansas and bought land in Van Buren, where he built a house for his wife and children and farmed and raised exceedingly fine horses.
Taller - at 6-foot-2 - than most men of his time, Reeves was a broad-shouldered, muscular, powerful man who weighed about 180 pounds and sat tall in the saddle. He was an expert horseman and tracker and a quick, dead-aim shot with pistols and rifles. But he preferred using clever disguises and tricks to capture criminals without gunfire, if possible. Territorial news accounts noted that, of the thousands of criminals Reeves arrested while a deputy marshal, he killed 14 men in self-defense.
Deputy marshals carried written arrest warrants (writs) for those they sought to take into custody. Because Reeves, like most slaves, had not been taught to read or write, he was allowed to memorize the names and charges on his writs and verbally state them when making an arrest. He never arrested the wrong person. He also was allowed to verbally make arrest and service reports to a court clerk who would transcribe them into court records.
Reeves was 69 when he retired from the Marshals Service in 1907. He was 72 and working as a Muskogee, Okla., Police Department officer when he died at home of Bright's disease on Jan. 12, 1910. Although hundreds attended his funeral and his death was widely reported at the time, his grave site in or near Muskogee can no longer be found.
But now, this legendary lawman's memory can be perpetuated by this majestic work of art, which is Arkansas' only historic equestrian statue. It will be seen daily by thousands of motorists who drive past it, tourists who visit it and everyone who attends an event at Pendergraft Park. The statue was designed and installed for Reeves to be riding west, "Into the Territories," from the nearby federal courthouse, just as he did countless times during the 21 years he rode for Judge Parker.
This statue was dreamed of and brought into existence through the five-year efforts of many people - especially Fort Smith history enthusiast and Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears and Craig Pair of Fort Smith, who headed the formation of the nonprofit Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative. The more than $300,000 needed to have the bronze statue created by Western sculptor Harold T. Holden and installed was raised from two raffles and hundreds of private donations. The donations ranged from pennies, dimes and nickels collected by schoolchildren to contributions of thousands of dollars from local individuals and businesses.
Thanks to all of those donors, this statue will serve as a permanent tribute to the intertwined histories of Fort Smith, the U.S. Marshals Service and deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, one of the most outstanding, feared and respected law officers in American history.
No professional or personal hardship or obstacle could deter Bass Reeves from upholding with his very life the legal system he was sworn to enforce - even when that system did not provide equal justice for all races, especially his own.
As U.S. Marshals Service historian Dave Turk has stated, "Bass Reeves was more than a brave man who transitioned from slave to policeman. He exemplified the best traits and deeds of character never depicted in the old cowboy movies. He was an African-American of strong character, of uncompromising duty and never overreached. He emulated the motto on our U.S. Marshals Service seal - Integrity, Justice, Service."
Read more about Bass Reeves
Three authors invited to be present at the statue unveiling have written books about Bass Reeves:
Black Badge, Deputy United States Marshal Bass Reeves from Slave to Heroic Lawman, by Paul L. Brady. Milligan Books, 2005
Black Gun, Silver Star, The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, by Art Burton. University of Nebraska Press, 2006
Bad News for Outlaws, The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Carolrhoda Books, 2009