Bass Reeves was the first black commissioned United States deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River He was born to slave parents in Arkansas in 1838. He escaped to Indian Territory after severely beating his young master in a dispute over cards and lived among the “five civilized tribes,” especially the Creeks, as a fugitive until 1863. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and no longer a fugitive, the six-foot-two, 190-pound former slave left the Indian country, bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, and became a successful stockman and farmer. Reeves was recruited as a deputy in 1875 because he knew the tribal languages and country well, and as a black he was trusted by the Indians more than white men.
Reeves had a well-earned reputation for law enforcement south of the Red River. He killed fourteen men in the performance of his duty while assigned to the federal district courts at Paris and Sherman, Texas, during his thirty-two-year career as deputy. Dependability and devotion to duty were the benchmarks of Reeves’s service to the government. Many of the district courts asked for Reeves because of his reliability in serving warrants. Having never learned to read and write, he had someone to read the subpoenas or warrants to him until he memorized which name belonged to each warrant. If the man Reeves arrested could not read, then the deputy had to locate someone who could to make sure that he had the right person. The deputy’s respect for the law was legendary. He was always acquitted of the deaths of his prisoners. However, it was his refusal to make exceptions that was extraordinary. He once arrested his own son on a murder warrant after a two-week manhunt. His son was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, but was later given a full pardon.
After 1907 the role and the duties of the United States deputy marshal as a primary law-enforcement officer were assumed by state agencies. At the age of sixty-nine Reeves accepted a job as patrolman with the Muskogee city police department, and from 1907 to 1909 there was reportedly never a crime committed on his beat. In 1909 his health failed, and he died on January 12, 1910, of Bright’s disease.