By Joe Darby
So, Putin has his tanks rolling. I anticipated that in a column I wrote a few weeks ago. The Democrats and Republicans are still at each other’s throats, instead of coming together in this time of true crisis. I have written about the animosities between right and left more recently.
So this week, let’s forget about current events for now and take a look into the past, at an Old West lawman you may never have heard of, although he can rank right up there with the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett.
His name was Bass Reeves and he was one tough hombre. And smart, too. And, oh, he was an African American, an ex-slave to be exact. So, in the spirit of this being Black History Month, let’s talk a little bit about this little known hero.
Bass was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. The family that “owned” Bass moved to Texas and the son of the family, George Reeves, took Bass to war with him when the Civil War broke out. At some point during the war, Bass fled to freedom and lived among the Creeks, Cherokee and Seminoles in what was then called Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
After the war, when slavery was abolished, he moved back to Texas and met the love of his life, Nellie Jennie. They later moved to Van Buren, Ark., where Bass farmed and fathered 11 children. His good reputation and his knowledge of Indian languages and tracking skills helped him get an appointment as a deputy US marshal, operating out of Fort Smith and reporting to the famed “hanging judge,” Isaac Parker. Although there is some dispute among historians, Bass is believed by some to be the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.
He and his fellow deputies had to cover 75,000 square miles of land in the Indian Territories, which was rough country indeed, where the lack of major settlements allowed lawlessness to prevail. So it was a place that many fugitives fled, thinking they could remain free from the law. And that’s where the deputy marshals came in, because one of the main tasks of that job is tracking down bad guys who are wanted.
To show you just how tough it was, 114 deputy marshals were reported to have been killed in the line of duty in Indian Territory. It was known to be as dangerous a place as such towns as Dodge City and Tombstone. Outlaws would often leave their own “wanted” posters nailed to trees, calling for the death of certain marshals. Bass was frequently featured on such posters.
That’s because he was effective. One of his tactics was to pose as a drifter or a roving cowboy. — and there were a lot more black cowboys than we realize. When the subjects of his arrest warrants thought he was more or less harmless, he would identify himself, draw down on the bad guys and bring them back to Fort Smith to face justice.
One time he was posing as a down-and-out fellow in a beat-up wagon and managed to get one of the vehicle’s wheels hung up. When he approached a nearby cabin, where four wanted men were holding out, he asked them for help. When they came outside, he got the drop on them and arrested all four. Another time he posed as an illiterate and asked a bad guy to read something for him. When the outlaw was busy concentrating on the note, Bass pulled his revolver and made the arrest.
Sometimes violence was necessary, of course. Once he came across three brothers wanted for a long string of crimes and, being wary, they pulled their weapons on Bass. He boldly showed them his arrest warrants and told them to surrender. The brothers laughed, but while they were laughing, Bass whipped out his six gun and shot two dead and grabbed the gun of the third.
On at least one occasion, Bass’ temper got the best of him. He was arguing with his black cook, William Leech, when Leech grabbed Bass’ puppy and poured hot fat down the dog’s throat. Bass, enraged, as many would have been, shot Leech to death, which many would not have done. He was later put on trial, but was acquitted and resumed working as a marshal.
Bass shot a number of men in the line of duty and was a justly feared lawman by the outlaws. He worked well into his senior years, not retiring until he was 68, then took a job with the Muskogee, Okla, police department. He died in bed at the age of 71 in 1910. In his career he arrested 3,000 fugitives, killed 15 men but was never shot himself. One tough hombre, like I said.
There’s a movie about him, titled “Hell on the Border,” which you may be able to find on TV. And he was featured in a recent episode of “Around the World in 80 Days” on the PBS network. The information for this column is drawn from the book, “Lawmen of the Wild West,” by Terry C. Treadwell.