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You mean my Uncle Bass Reeves?

You mean my Uncle Bass Reeves?

You mean my Uncle Bass Reeves?

A California man discovers that his ancestor is well-known in Fort Smith, Ark.

While William “Bill” Lewis was growing up in the 1950s watching westerns on TV, he noticed there weren’t any cowboys or lawmen in the shows who were black, like him. But his great-grandmother, Linnie Mae Boggs, assured little Bill that in real life there really were black cowboys and lawmen back in those days, and he was kin to one of them – a deputy U.S. marshal named Bass Reeves.

During a recent telephone interview, Bill said his Granny Boggs on his mother’s side grew up in Louisiana and Arkansas and lived to be 102. She told him many stories about his Uncle Bass and had some of his personal possessions that had been passed down in the family, including a family Bible, clothing and several of the guns he used while serving as a deputy marshal.

“Granny Boggs said her mother and father were freed slaves and I think she may have been part Indian. She had long black hair and not a gray hair in it when she died in 1965. She was the matriarch of our neighborhood in the low-rent apartment complex where I grew up in San Francisco,” Bill recalled. “On school days, all the kids in our neighborhood – black and white – would come to where she lived to do their homework and she would feed us. But she didn’t have a TV, so then we would go on to a Jewish lady’s house to watch westerns.”

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The stories Granny Boggs told Bill about his Uncle Bass, however, were as exciting as anything he had seen on TV. She told him how Bass and his sister and mother had been slaves belonging to a Col. Reeves, who took them to live on his plantation in Texas. The colonel took Bass into the Civil War as a servant and promised to eventually give him his freedom. But when the colonel went back on his word during a card game and told Bass he would never be free, Bass fought him, knocked him out, took the gold pocket watch that was special to him, and fled for his life into Indian country.

Although many variations of Bass’ life have been researched and written in recent times, according to Bill’s Granny Boggs, during Bass’ flight for freedom, he came across a battlefield where he found a Confederate soldier and a Union sergeant who had killed each other. Bass took a Spencer rifle from the sergeant and an 1860 Colt and some clothing from the Confederate. He then made it safely into Indian Territory where he stayed for many years, learning Indian ways and becoming a good tracker. He eventually became a deputy marshal for federal Judge Isaac C. Parker during the 21 years (1875-1896) Parker presided over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith.

Bass died in Muskogee, Okla., on Jan. 12, 1910, at 71. Some of the firearms he used as a deputy marshal and then as a police officer were passed down to the men on Bill’s mother’s side of the family. After his mom and dad divorced, Bill’s mother’s brother, Ralph Robinson, became like a father to him, he said. Once a month, his Uncle Ralph would bring out three big metal trunks of Bass’ belongings and show them to Bill and his own son, Ralph Jr.

“The biggest one had Bass’ guns in it and Uncle Ralph would clean them and let us look at them, but we weren’t allowed to touch them,” Bill explained. “Uncle Ralph said one day we would understand how important our Uncle Bass and his guns were. When we grew up, J.R. and I both fought in the Vietnam War. I was wounded, but I made it back and J.R. didn’t, so I inherited Bass’ guns.”

One of Bill’s favorites of the heirloom guns is a 1903 Colt .38 auto hammer model that Reeves carried in his pocket while he was a Muskogee police officer.

“That gun was on Uncle Bass’ night stand when he passed on in 1910, and when it was passed down to my Granny Boggs, she made a little holster for it and wore it under her apron. It was on her night stand when she passed away in her sleep in 1965.”

In 1973, Bill was among the first black policemen to work for the city of Richmond, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco.

“I’m 64 now and I’ve retired once, but they wouldn’t leave me alone until I came back, so I did and I’m still there,” he said.

“I still had my Uncle Bass’ guns, but I really didn’t know anything about all about how famous he had become until two or three years ago when a couple of my friends, who I was in fast-draw competitions with, started talking about what a great shot Bass Reeves was.

I said, ‘Bass Reeves? You mean my Uncle Bass Reeves?’ And they said, ‘What?’ and things just went on from there.”

“I think one of them said something about something going on in Arkansas about them putting up a statue in honor of him. I was so happy and proud of Bass. I never knew he was that well known.”

Bill learned of the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith and contacted its curator, Jessica Hougen. Bill explained he was a descendant of Bass Reeves and that he had decided he should donate these historic firearms to the museum.

Together, they were able to compile Bill’s lineage to Bass. Bass was married to Jennie, with whom he had 11 children. Their oldest, Sarah (Sallie) was born in approximately 1864. Sarah married Green Saunders. They were quite close with Sarah’s parents, even paying for Jennie’s funeral. They had a daughter, Linnie Mae. Linnie Mae married a man whose last name was Boggs and had a daughter, Barbara. Barbara married a man whose last name was Robinson. They had two children, Ralph and Beatrice. Beatrice was Bill’s mother.

“I have no brothers or sisters and I’m the last male of the Lewis family, and it bothers me I’m the last one,” he said. “I would love to meet relatives I’ve never known or met.”

One relative he would like to meet is a great-nephew of Bass’ and the first black U.S. administrative law judge, Paul Brady, who was the first descendant to donate one of Bass’ Colt pistols, bullets and deputy U.S. marshal badges to the museum.

Hougen, who has since moved to California to become the curator at another museum, remembers well her first call from Bill.

“A couple of people had told me that they had been in touch with another descendant of Bass Reeves’ who had ‘things,’ so it wasn’t a complete surprise when he called,” she said. “What was a surprise is what a humble and unassuming man he is. I was also surprised when, in the course of our first conversation, he shared that his intent was to donate the items to the Marshals Museum. Many people with items that belonged to people of historical importance are understandably reluctant to give them up, but Mr. Lewis sees the importance of sharing these things with the public, making them accessible to researchers and others who are interested in the story of Bass Reeves,” she said.

Bill said he has received a letter from gun manufacturer Colt verifying the firearms and where they came from. He also has receipts and other verifications for all five of the guns he donated to the m­­­useum.

One of the five is the 1903 Colt 38 auto hammer model that was carried by both Bass and Bill’s Granny Boggs.

His heirlooms, now in the collection of the U.S. Marshals Museum, are a Colt .45 Single Action Army Revolver, a Colt .38/.40 Single Action Army Revolver, a Winchester 1873 rifle, a Winchester 1892 rifle, a Spencer Repeating Rifle and a pocket watch, manufactured by Gozens Matthews & Thorpe.

This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online