While making a quick trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas—and I do mean quick—to connect with a family member, I stopped by the Fort Smith historical site long enough to snap a few pictures while sitting in the car. Some were of a bronze statue near the grounds of old Fort Smith. Since I didn’t get out to read the placard, I was left with the question: Who is the statue depicting and what is his history?
The statue was in honor of the great African-American deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves who is believed to be the first black U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.
Bass Reeves 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 horses.
Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. He recruited him as one of his deputies, making Reeves the first black deputy west of the Mississippi River. Reeves was initially assigned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which also had responsibility for the Indian Territory. He served there until 1893, when he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas for a short while, then in 1897 to the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory.
Reeves served for 32 years as one of the most feared lawman in the Indian Territory. Even though he was an African-American and illiterate, he brought in more outlaws from eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas than anyone else. He was able to memorize the warrants for every suspect he was to arrest and bring to trial. At 6-foot-2, 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.
One of his sons, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Deputy Marshal Reeves was disturbed and shaken by the incident but allegedly demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released and living the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen
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.
To honor Bass Reeves, in 2007, the bridge for U.S. Route 62 crossing the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge. On 16 May 2012, the bronze statue of Reeves by sculptor Harold Holden I saw in the park was cast at a foundry in Norman, Oklahoma and then moved to its permanent location at Pendergraft Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
ABOUT THE ZINA ABBOTT:
Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Her novelette, A Christmas Promise, and the five novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine, A Resurrected Heart, Her Independent Spirit, Haunted by Love and her latest, Bridgeport Holiday Brides, were published by Prairie Rose Publications.