Interview: Badmen of All Colors Feared Bass Reeves

By Sierra Adare and Tasiwoopa api
10/8/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Burton tells of one tough lawman.

Bass Reeves was arguably the most outstanding peace officer in wild and dangerous Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and one of the best in the entire Old West. In 1992 he became the first black man inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Art Burton, a history professor at South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., had a lot to do with that induction by speaking up on behalf of Reeves, whose accomplishments have been overlooked too often by the press and historians. Now Burton gives Reeves the biography he deserves in Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (University of Nebraska Press, 2006, $24.95).

The 348-page book was clearly a labor of love for Burton, who included a long chapter on Reeves in his 1991 book Black, Red, and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territories. Burton followed that up with the 1999 book Black, Buckskin, and Blue: African-American Scouts and Soldiers on the Western Frontier. Of all the black contributors to frontier justice and stability, however, none has interested him more than Deputy U.S. Marshal Reeves, who overcame numerous obstacles to post an enviable record during more than 30 years as a lawman. Burton recently talked to Wild West about his work.

Wild West: In Chapter 1 you suggest that Bass Reeves might have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

Burton: This came about after I had finished my first book and I noticed the similarities between Reeves and the fictional character. Reeves would work in disguise throughout his career just like the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger gave out silver bullets; Reeves gave out silver dollars. To the white homesteaders, Reeves’ face was like a black mask. They didn’t remember his name but referred to him as the black marshal. In the original cartoons and movie serials, the Lone Ranger wore a black mask that covered his whole face. Federal deputies were mandated by law in Indian Territory to take at least one posseman with them whenever they went into the field. Often these possemen who accompanied Reeves were native Americans, similar to the Tonto character in the fictional series. The Lone Ranger program began on the radio in Detroit in 1933. Many of Bass Reeves’ prisoners were convicted and sent to the Detroit House of Corrections in the late 19th century. I couldn’t prove conclusively that Reeves was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, but he is the closest person in real life to compare to the fictional hero.

WW: Along with Bass Reeves there were quite a few other black deputy U.S. marshals.

Burton: Black deputy U.S. marshals were utilized because there was a population of African Americans who had lived with the Southeast Indians prior to removal to Indian Territory. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles all had African slaves. At the end of the Civil War, the Five Civilized Tribes signed a document known as the 1866 Treaty, which gave former slaves full and equal citizenship in the five nations. These former slaves became known as Indian freedmen and played a critical role in Indian Territory up to statehood in 1907. At statehood, the Indian freedmen were denied their citizenship by all the tribes except the Seminoles, who had two black bands, the Dorsar Barkus and Caesar Bruner bands. The Creek Indians had the highest percentage of African blood of all the five nations. Prior to removal, the Creek Nation, besides African slaves, had free blacks and intermarried blacks living among its people. Some of the Creeks who held Africans in bondage themselves had African ancestry. The Seminoles claimed their blacks as slaves to protect them from slave catchers, but never practiced chattel slavery. The black Seminoles were always free and able to bear arms prior to the Civil War. Indian Territory after the Civil War was a very dangerous place due to the high number of outlaws who used the territory as a hiding place and squatting as illegal residents. There were not many large towns, and many locations to hide. Indian Territory had no extradition treaties with surrounding states. For outlaws who resisted arrest, there was a minor fine to be paid. On the other hand, Judge Isaac C. Parker was known to hand out harsh penalties for infractions committed in the territory. The most troublesome crime was selling illegal whiskey, which could net a good profit. Whiskey was off limits in the territory due to the harmful effect it had on native Americans, both physical and mental. The criminals were willing to hide out as fugitives and had no qualms about shooting it out with the federal or Indian policemen in the territory. Blood was spilled in the war between law and outlaw for more than 40 years and continued after statehood up through prohibition in Oklahoma.

WW: Why is what happened in Indian Territory important?

Burton: It starts with the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s and impacts the original inhabitants of the United States in a major way. Indian Territory went through major political and physical strife throughout its existence. The American Civil War had more impact in Indian Territory than anywhere else in the country. There was a higher loss of life, livestock and property on a percentage basis than anywhere else. During the war, there was complete guerrilla warfare carried out by both sides, a scorched earth military policy. On the Confederate side you had William Quantrill and Stand Waite, and on the Union side you had the Cherokee Pin Indians and Kansas jayhawkers. The Indians in the end lost everything the U.S. government promised them. Later, when oil was found, many Indians and freedmen were cheated out of their land in all manner of unscrupulous dealings. This is part of U.S. history that all Americans should be aware of to some extent.

WW: You go into great detail about the arrest and conviction of James Jones, chief of the Indian Police at the Wichita Agency at Anadarko, for the murder of two white men. What was Bass Reeves’ involvement?

Burton: Reeves was working as a posseman with Deputy U.S. Marshal Jacob Ayers when Chief Jones was arrested. Reeves gave testimony on what he observed and commented that Jones’ gun had been fired. Reeves held the law as utmost and would testify or arrest lawmen that had gone beyond the legal line. This incident would not be the last time that Reeves arrested lawmen accused of breaking the law; more of these incidents are included in the book.

WW: You mention almost in passing that Reeves was a church deacon.

Burton: Oral stories mention Reeves as being a deacon in the church, but I couldn’t verify this with any documentation. I do mention in the book that late in life he arrested the minister who baptized him for selling illegal whiskey. According to a newspaper article, he was baptized late in life, which leads me to believe he was not a deacon in a church. Reeves would preach to his prisoners about the wages of sin and having to pay for crimes committed. Newspaper stories indicate that more than a few prisoners complained once they got to Fort Smith, Ark., about being preached to during their trip to court by Reeves. Oral stories have been mentioned where Reeves and Judge Isaac Parker would quote scripture on occasion. I don’t know the extent of Reeves’ religious fervor at this time, but we can measure his respect for the law.

WW: He was not afraid to arrest a white man for lynching.

Burton: I find it odd that during a time in American history when the oppression of African Americans was almost constant, you had a black man who had the courage to do so. After the end of Reconstruction the black community was attacked politically, physically and emotionally by segments of the white community. Lynchings were a regular occurrence in the country to keep the black community traumatized and in line. Most lynching in Indian Territory was done to cattle and horse thieves. It did not become overtly racial until after statehood. Indian Territory was probably the most racially mixed and diverse area in the country, principally due to it being a federal protectorate. The territory did not have Jim Crow laws until Oklahoma statehood in 1907, when it became the first state to segregate the phone booth. It was not common in the late 19th century to find black men with arrest powers over white people in the United States. Indian Territory was unique in this regard.

WW: Even toward the end of Reeves’ tenure as a deputy marshal, he continued to arrest white people who broke the law.

Burton: Reeves never backed away from his duties if he was ordered to arrest a white felon. As the territory moved toward statehood after the turn of the century and racial tensions increased, Reeves focused more of his efforts on blacks and Indians. But he arrested whites if the occasion called for it up until around 1905.

WW: What was Reeves’ relationship with Belle Star?

Burton: Starr met Reeves after she moved into the territory in the 1880s and I am sure his reputation preceded their acquaintance. Starr said she liked Reeves because he was not crooked like some of the deputies, and you could trust his word. Reeves met and knew many of the settlers; he was a well-known celebrity in the territory during his lifetime.

WW: You mention that Reeves spent little time with his first family. Was this solely because of his job?

Burton: Reeves’ job mandated for him to be away from his family, sometimes months at a time. He did own a nice piece of property in Van Buren, Ark., with monies obtained from his law enforcement work. Why he left his family in the early 1890s and worked out of the East Texas Federal District at Paris, Texas, I do not know at this time. Quite possibly his murder trial [for killing his cook], which depleted his savings, had created a family rift. After moving to Texas, one of his sons moved into Judge Isaac Parker’s home and worked as a handyman, but several of his other boys got in trouble with the law. Jennie, Reeves’ first wife, died in 1896 at Fort Smith; her son-in-law paid for the funeral.

WW: Was Reeves sincerely appreciated by others?

Burton: I believe the attention paid Reeves by his superiors and co-workers was sincere. They admired his dependability, courage and dedication to duty for such a long time. This was very unusual for a lawman of that era or even today.

WW: What about by the press?

Burton: He never received the attention by the print media that was due him during his life. Racism was running rampant at the time Reeves died, and for him to get the amount of good press he did at death is amazing. In looking at the research over the past 20 years, I believe without a doubt that Reeves was one of the greatest frontier heroes produced in the United States. Reeves’ accomplishments should be put into song, film, history books, fiction books and children’s books. Fort Smith, Ark., is planning to erect a statue of Reeves in a city park, in honor of his accomplishments as a peace officer.

WW: What’s your next project?

Burton: I am working on a biography of Crawford Goldsby, aka Cherokee Bill, the most notorious and infamous outlaw of Indian Territory.

 

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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