Bass Reeves: How The Legendary Federal Marshall Exposes Inaccuracies About Race in the American West

BassReevesWhen people think about common myths in the West, they think about Jesse James, Jim Bridger, Wyatt Earp, Lewis and Clark, and many others. Most of the famous western historical figures are male, and caucasian- few ethnic characters or females are well documented or revered. Arthur T. Burton, who has done extensive research on legendary federal deputy marshall Bass Reeves, in his book Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves, he recalls “One of the first responses I received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma after inquiring about Reeves was, “I am sorry, we didn’t keep black people’s history.” Many prevailing myths of the west include it to be a white, only male society cut off from the rest of the country. Yet, African Americans, Native Americans, women and many other groups were influential in the shaping of the west. Some are even included in its myths.
Bass Reeves was a black federal deputy told to be of mythic proportions in post-Civil War era Oklahoma territory in the late 1800’s told early 1900’s. But besides his work as a lawman, Reeves serves to show modern audiences that the American West was not an exclusively white territory. Reeves and his exploits paint a diverse, dynamic picture of the West that contrasts with popular belief. Through descriptions of his own success and his dealings with other westerners of various cultures and ethnicities, Reeves can show much of what life was actually like during that time period.
Reeves was said to have ran off for “Indian country” after a card game dispute with his master after knocking him out. After living with the Native Americans in Oklahoma until the Emancipation Proclamation became effective, Reeve’s became a lawman at thirty eight. Reeves was also said to have arrested 3,000 criminals in the Oklahoma territory and killed 14 men in gunfights.Despite not being well known, Reeves has many tales that certainly embellish his accomplishments. Others are harder to give a verdict on whether they are true. More important than the tall tales however, is the recent research of Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton. His information sheds some truth into Reeve’s character, career, and past.
Some of the most ludicrous myths surrounding Bass Reeves is that he was never hit in gunfights with outlaws, but on multiple occasions had his hat and belt shot off. however in reading Black Gun, Silver Star Reeves is described in a newspaper article from the early 1900’s, January 2nd (no year given as “…now over 70 years old and walks with a cane. A bullet in his leg, received while in the government service give him considerable trouble.” So one of the myths about Reeves was able to be debunked; it seems that through this 1800’s newspaper it can be understood that Reeves was at least shot once- which is still respectable by a man who reportedly arrested 3,000 warranted criminals.
One of the legends in popular culture Bass Reeves is believed to have inspired is the Lone Ranger. It is ironic to consider that a black marshall inspired a fictional Texas Ranger’s story. Reeves was known to ride a “grey or white horse” a white horse” and gave out “silver dollars” as a calling card. He is described by Burton as “paying with silver dollars” for provisions from frontier families. This is not unlike the white stallion that was ridden and silver bullets the Lone Ranger gave out as his calling card. The mask the Lone Ranger wears can also be seen in the disguises Reeves used to capture criminals. Burton states that “We can, however, say unequivocally that Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble fictional Lone Ranger on the American Western frontier of the 19th century. It is worth noting that only the Lone Ranger is remembered in popular culture, despite Reeves being real and being an exemplary marshall.
The recent Quentin Tarantino movie Django Unchained revolves around a sharp-shooting ex slave who becomes a bounty hunter after being freed. This story draws similar parallels to Reeves’ life: he was an ex slave, he was known to be an extraordinary shot, and escaped from slavery. It is possible that Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger add their own modern twist to Western mythology, indirectly exposing more people to Reeve’s incredible story and a multicultural American west.
Reeves was known to disguise himself in the pursuit of criminals. Reeves once dressed as a tramp wearing old clothes and a floppy hat with three bullet holes. Reeves is said to have disguised himself this way to walk 28 miles up to the door of a cabin he suspected two outlaws were hiding out. Without any context, this myth could not be proven true or false and is just another story from the Oklahoma frontier.
A described previously, many of the most famous outlaws and other characters known in western legend happen to be white, due to exclusion of minorities in historical narratives. This has lead to a false popular belief of an all white west. From the accounts of Reeves’ arrest records this is not historically accurate whatsoever. Reeves was known to collect bounties indiscriminately, bringing in black, white, indian, black Freedmen (blacks belonging to the Cherokee nation) and hispanic outlaws, who show how multicultural the west was a place.
Showing testament to Reeves and his uniquely flexible positions as a marshall is a case where he, “…an African American peace officer bringing justice to parties accused of lynching a black man in the 19th century.” Many of the testaments and descriptions given to him by his white colleagues are devoid of racism, focusing on his accomplishments, demeanor and skill with firearms and tracking.
On of the great testaments to Reeves is that he was respected as a black man in a time when they were not equal citizens of the United States. It seems he was a great lawman, a fearsome shooter, and an advocate for indscriminitory justice in the west. Reeves untold legacy reveals how much of history can be reshaped to be told in a different light. Most importantly, Reeves untold story shows how cultures can shape their own history through discrimination and racism and how America’s past is probably not as accurate as popular narratives may portray. As an African American, Reeves gives a more accurate ,alternative view into what western America was like during the 19th century and early 20th century.

1Arthur T. Black Gun, Silver Star; The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves. Lincoln,: U of Nebraska, 2006. Print.

2”Bass Reeves, The Most Feared U.S. Marshall.” Norman Transcript. Norman Transcript 3 May 2007. 11 November 2015. Web.

3″Reeves, Bass | Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.” Reeves, Bass | Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

4Burton, Arthur T. Black Gun, Silver Star; The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves. Lincoln,: U of Nebraska, 2006. Print.

5Williams, Nudie E. “REEVES, BASS.” WILLIAMS, NUDIE E. Texas State Historical Association, 15 June 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.


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