Black giant in the saddle Lawman: Bass Reeves' became a legend of the Old West by catching and gunning down black, brown, red and white desperadoes in 32 years as a deputy U.S. marshal.

February 09, 1997|By Cecil Johnson

ROLL OVER, Wyatt Earp, and tell Bat Masterson the news.

Of all the men who wore a badge and wielded six-gun and rifle against the forces of lawlessness in the Old West, not one stood as tall in the saddle as Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves.

A burly black man -- who chased, apprehended and gunned down black, red, brown and white desperadoes in the Indian territories from 1875 to 1907 -- Reeves was bigger in real life than Marshal Dillon was in fiction. Newspaper accounts of his exploits during those wild and rambunctious days frequently referred to him as "the invincible Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves."

In his book about outlaws and lawmen in the Indian territories, "Black, Red, and Deadly," Art Burton assesses Reeves as "the outstanding peace officer of his era . . . a phenomenon."

During his years as a deputy marshal, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 people. He killed 14 men in shootouts, some of which -- such as his second dangerous encounter with the killer Jim Webb -- were more hair-raising than any ever presented on the silver screen.

Reeves had previously captured Webb by pretending to be a traveling cowboy seeking a meal. Catching Webb off guard, he grabbed the outlaw and choked him into submission with one hand while outdrawing and gunning down his partner with the other.

Webb stayed in jail only a year. Some of his friends pulled strings and got him out on bail. Webb fled. Reeves caught up with Webb in Woodford, Okla., at Bywaters Store. Webb saw him coming, dove through the window and ran for his horse.

Reeves eased his horse into a trot and took out after Webb, who wheeled and began pumping lead at Reeves with his lever-action Winchester. One shot chipped the horn of Reeves' saddle; another took a button off the marshal's coat; another round cut the reins out of Reeves' hands.

With the reins cut, Reeves lost control of his horse and dove for the ground. When the marshal rolled to his feet, a bullet tore a hole in his hat. Reeves then fired his Winchester twice.

As Webb lay dying, he made this statement:

"Give me your hand, Bass. You are a brave, brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present, and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed 11 men, four of them in the Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the 12th."

Reeves' skill with a gun was legendary. Someone said he could draw one of his two Colt six-shooters quick as a "Methodist preacher reaching for a platter of fried chicken during Sunday dinner at the deacon's house."

Born a slave in July 1840 in Paris, Texas, Reeves grew up on the farm of Col. George Reeves of Grayson County. He grew tall and strong and became adept at using firearms, which led his owner to pick him for his traveling companion and body servant.

In that capacity, Reeves may have gone off to war on the Confederate side with his master. But at some point the two came to a parting of the ways. According to one report, Reeves beat up his master and fled to the Indian territories. Other reports placed Reeves as a sergeant in the Union army.

At any rate, Reeves perfected his skills with arms during the Civil War years and went into law enforcement shortly thereafter. In 1875 he was one of several African-American deputy marshals appointed to work in the Indian Nations by Judge Isaac Parker, the famous hanging judge of the federal court in Fort Smith, Ark.

Reeves died at age 70 on Jan. 12, 1910, three years after leaving the federal service in 1907, when Oklahoma became a state and imposed Jim Crow laws.

Cecil Johnson is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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