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Bucking the odds (“I’m sorry, we didn’t keep black people’s history,” a clerk at one of Oklahoma’s local historical societies answered to a query), Art T. Burton traces Reeves from his days of slavery to his soldiering in the Civil War battles of the Trans-Mississippi Theater to his career as a deputy U.S. marshal out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, beginning in 1875 when he worked under “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker. Fluent in Creek and other southern Native languages, physically powerful, skilled with firearms, and a master of disguise, Reeves was exceptionally adept at apprehending fugitives and outlaws and his exploits were legendary in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Black Gun, Silver Star restores this remarkable figure to his rightful place in the history of the American West.
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Much of what we know today about Bass Reeves persisted in
oral stories told by individuals and families whose origins are
in frontier Oklahoma. I was able to collect a few of these
stories from persons who currently reside in Oklahoma or have lived
there in the past. This chapter will focus on these folktales. After I
finished writing Black, Red, and Deadly, I thought about the uncanny
similarities between Bass Reeves and the TV and radio character, the
"Lone Ranger." Federal law mandated that deputy U.S. marshals have
at least one posseman with them whenever they went out in the field.
Oftentimes the men who assisted Reeves were Native Americans, like
the character Tonto who assisted the Lone Ranger. It was common
practice for Reeves to work in disguise while trying to capture fugitives
from justice, à la the Lone Ranger, who wore a black mask. Many times
the white settlers in the territory didn't know Reeves's name and called
him the "Black Marshal"; likewise, many didn't know the name of the
Lone Ranger. For most African Americans during this time in American
history, their dark faces became a black mask to white America-they
David Craig, a fellow member of Oklahombres, the Association for
the Preservation of Lawman and Outlaw History of the Indian Territory,
and an employee of the juvenile criminal court in Tulsa, told me a story
about his family during one of my research trips to Oklahoma. Craig's
grandfather, D. H. Brown, was from a Quaker family originally from
Indiana. During the territorial era the Browns settled in a sod house
east of Kingfisher, in western Oklahoma, near the home of the mother of
the Dalton brothers. The Dalton gang-Grattan, Bob, and Emmett-were
lawmen who became train robbers in the Indian Territory. A story
about Reeves remains in the family lore. According to D. H. Brown,
Reeves showed up one day at their prairie dugout home with a posse of
two white men and a Pawnee Indian on the hunt for the Dalton gang.
Reeves hired D.H., who was about fourteen at the time, to show Reeves
and his posse where abandoned dugouts and caves were located near
the Cimarron River. Before they went out on the hunt the posse ate
breakfast and Reeves paid for the meal with a silver dollar. The family
told Reeves a silver dollar was way too much money for the meal. Reeves
told them it was quite all right, he would get reimbursed later. After
being out all night with D.H. and finding recently used campsites but
no outlaws, Reeves paid D.H. with another silver dollar. We all know
that the Lone Ranger's calling card was the silver bullet. Quite possibly
Reeves's was the silver dollar. This particular hunt by Reeves and his
posse would have occurred after the Dalton gang robbed the Santa Fe
train at Red Rock, Oklahoma Territory, on June 1, 1892. A large number
of federal posses in the Indian and Oklahoma territories were put into
the field to hunt for the Daltons after this robbery.
In another interesting similarity to the Lone Ranger, Reeves may have
ridden a white horse during one period of his career. During the trial of
Bass Reeves for murdering his cook, which will be discussed at length in
chapter 8, witnesses testified that the cook threatened to shoot Reeves's
gray horse. A gray horse can look anywhere from near black to near
white, so it was possible that Reeves rode a horse that appeared to be
Another possible connection, though tenuous, is that the original
story of the Lone Ranger began on the radio, in Detroit, in 1933. Many
of the fugitives arrested by Bass Reeves and later convicted at Fort
Smith, Arkansas, were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections in
In his book Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North
American Frontier (1997), author John W. Ravage asked the question,
"Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?" I
doubt we would be able to prove conclusively that Reeves is the inspiration
for the Lone Ranger. We can, however, say unequivocally that Bass
Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger
on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.
Many of the oral stories about Reeves are lost to time, but a few
are still extant. Sandy Sturdivant, who grew up in the Osage Nation of
Oklahoma, as a small girl heard the following three stories about Bass
Reeves on the Oklahoma frontier.
Bass Reeves was known to be an animal lover. He cherished not only
his own animals but also other people's. Once, up near Vinita in the
Cherokee Nation, he came upon a man beating his hound dog. The dog
had just had puppies and was apparently in somewhat poor condition. It
grated on Reeves's nerves that someone would beat an animal, let alone
one that had just given birth. Reeves grabbed the stick from the man,
who was a Cherokee Indian, and threatened him with bodily harm if he
didn't stop thrashing the dog. Reeves told the man he would be back,
and then left. He returned with a box to collect all the puppies and
the mother dog. He then tossed some coins at the dog-beater and rode
out, leading the mother dog along on a rope. Reeves took the animals
to a friend somewhere up in that area whom he knew would take care
of them. Several months later, after Reeves had conducted his business
in the area, he passed by this same friend, took one of the now lively
puppies, and headed home.
On one occasion down in the Choctaw Nation near Robber's Cave, Bass
Reeves and his posse had stopped for the night and made camp. They
had been out rounding up felons and were on their way back to Fort
Smith with a contingent of prisoners. After dinner, when everyone was
asleep, a skunk crawled up around Reeves. Now, some skunks don't carry
odor around themselves unless they are riled up. Well, when Bass awoke,
the skunk was curled up, blissfully sleeping next to him. One of the
prisoners woke up at the same time and proceeded to yell and carry on,
trying to rouse the skunk into doing something obnoxious. Bass reached
over, gently stroked the animal and talked soothingly to it, whereupon it
moseyed off without spraying anyone. The Reeves charm had won out
Lynch Party at Oolagah
Ms. Sturdivant's grandmother told her this story, which occurred near
Oolagah, Cherokee Nation, the home of Will Rogers. Her grandmother
said Bass Reeves was afraid of no man. It was like he had a destiny, and
until that destiny was fulfilled he was invincible. This is a belief of many
Native Americans. Since Reeves operated in the Indian Territory, it is
quite possible he adopted this line of thought. While out making his
rounds, Reeves came across a lynch mob near one of the large cattle
ranches. Evidently a rustler had been caught and was about to be strung
to a tree on the prairie by a group of cowboys. Without any thought to
the danger he might be in, Reeves rode straight up to the lynch mob, cut
the man down with his knife, and rode off with the man-without saying
one word to anyone. It so astonished everyone that he was not pursued.
Sturdivant's grandmother said Bass was probably seething under his
The following stories come from interviews Richard Fronterhouse conducted
in Oklahoma during the late 1950s.
Expert with Firearms
Bass Reeves's ability with firearms was legendary. He was ambidextrous
with pistol or rifle. Reeves never carried silver- or nickel-plated pistols
with ivory or pearl handles, or fancy rifles of any type. He preferred his
firearms to be plain, ordinary, and inconspicuous. Reeves was possibly
the greatest gunfighter of all the lawmen of the Old West. He could
shoot so well and so consistently that he was barred regularly from competition
in turkey shoots that were common to the local fairs and picnics
of the Indian Territory. I was told that a turkey shoot in the Seminole
Nation consisted of tying a turkey upside down on a clothesline, after
which a rider with a rifle would attempt to shoot the head off the turkey
while galloping at full speed down the line. Reeves's speed with a pistol
has been likened to that of a "Methodist preacher reaching for a platter
of fried chicken during Sunday dinner at the deacon's house." It was
fast and sure, with no wasted or unnecessary motion. Reeves could draw
and shoot from the hip with great speed and accuracy if necessary, but
he favored the slower, even more accurate method of taking his time,
planting himself solidly, and drawing "a bead as fine as a spider's web
on a frosty morning." When he shot this way, "he could shoot the left
hind leg off of a contented fly sitting on a mule's ear at a hundred yards
and never ruffle a hair." But Reeves claimed to be "only fair" with a
rifle. This characteristic modesty belies the truth, for Reeves was truly
an expert with a rifle. For example, he once rode over the crest of a rise,
way out on the fringes of the Kiowa-Comanche country, and interrupted
six wolves as they were in the process of pulling down a steer. Shooting at
the wolves from the back of his horse with his Winchester rifle, causing
them to scatter in all directions, he killed six with eight shots. True, he
broke one wolf's leg and "gut-shot" another, thus missing a clean, one-shot
kill. But he did stop them both, using a second shot only to end
their suffering. Eight shots for any six kills that are moving targets is
fine shooting in any man's language.
Reeves's physical strength was also legendary in the territory. Once,
while riding in the southern portion of the Chickasaw Nation, Reeves
came upon some cowboys attempting to extract a full-grown steer from
one of the bogs along Mud Creek, which emptied into the Red River.
The cowboys had roped the steer and were attempting to bodily drag it
back to solid ground using their horses. Several ropes had broken under
the strain. The steer was big and was buried so deep in the bog that
only its head and upper back were visible. Its eyes rolled back into its
head, its neck had been pulled and stretched until its tongue lolled out
of its mouth into the mud and slime of the bog, and its windpipe was so
restricted by the ropes that its breath was only an occasional labored,
rasping wheeze. In fact, the cowboys were almost ready to give him
up as lost. They were seriously considering riding off and leaving the
steer where they found him, with a bullet in his brain to soothe their
consciences and mark their defeat.
Bass rode up, watched for a few minutes, and grunted his dissatisfaction.
Then, stepping down from his horse, he began to strip off his
clothes. Without saying a word, he stepped into the bog and began to
work his way out to the trapped steer.
First, he removed all the ropes so that the steer could breathe again.
Then, grabbing the steer by the horns, he began to lift and pull, all the
while talking in a low, steady voice to the steer. He pulled and heaved and
lifted and grunted under the strain until he sank into the mud almost to
his waist before the cowboys could detect the first progress in moving
the steer. Stopping to catch his breath, he wiped his sweating, muddy
hands dry on the back of the steer, and stooped to lift and pull again.
Ever so slowly, the steer was lifted until the lethal suction of the bog
holding the forequarters of the steer was broken. Reeves then moved to
the steer's flank and began the tortuous process again. By this time, the
steer had regained its breath and began its first attempts to help itself.
These attempts were feeble at first but grew stronger with each great,
Reeves repeated this process of lifting and pulling, first at the steer's
head and then at its flank, until the steer, with great, convulsive twists
and turns, was able to lunge toward solid ground under its own power.
Upon reaching solid ground, the steer, without so much as a glance at its
savior, wobbled off into the brush and disappeared, bawling its triumph
for all the Chickasaw Nation to hear.
Reeves waded out of the mud, scraped himself as clean as he could
with the flat of his hands, stuffed his clothes into his saddlebags, mounted
his horse, and rode off stark naked while mumbling something about
"damned dumb cowboys." He rode off without saying a word to any of
the dumbstruck cowboys, even though he had been there for almost a
One of the most fascinating stories I collected concerning Bass Reeves
came from a retired Muskogee, Oklahoma, schoolteacher. Alice Hendrickson
told me a story in the summer of 2001 after I gave a talk at
the Three Rivers Museum. During Ms. Hendrickson's senior year at
the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1959, she took a folklore
class with Prof. Mary Celestia Parler. The professor had the students
in the class research and find native folk songs. Worried that she might
fail the assignment and not be able to maintain her straight-A average
for graduation, Ms. Hendrickson contacted her parents, who lived in
Muskogee, and told them about Professor Parler's assignment. They
advised her to contact an elderly white man named Stewart who sang
When Ms. Hendrickson visited Mr. Stewart at his home near downtown
Muskogee, he was glad to sing a number of folksongs for her. One
of the songs she remembered, due to its content, concerned Deputy
U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. Mr. Stewart told her he had worked with
Bass Reeves, and that Reeves was a legendary black lawman. Ms. Hendrickson
said that, though she had grown up in eastern Oklahoma, she
had never heard of such a man.
Professor Parler was so happy with the songs Ms. Hendrickson had
gathered that not only did she give Ms. Hendrickson an A for the class,
but she had Mr. Stewart record a number of his folksongs. Many of the
folksongs that Mary Parler recorded have been archived in the University
of Arkansas Library at Fayetteville, but the Bass Reeves song has not
yet been located. The main impediment is that the title of the song is
The late Hortense Love, a noted African American vocalist and choir
director in Chicago, told me she was originally from Muskogee, Oklahoma,
and that her grandmother was a Creek Indian and very good
friends with Bass Reeves. Ms. Love said she was told that whenever
Reeves was preparing to go into a gunfight, he would sing softly to
himself. When others nearby heard Reeves softly break into song, they
knew it was time to take cover, for Reeves meant business.
This book documents the law enforcement career of the man known
in his day as the "Invincible Marshal." It begins with what I have been
able to discover about his early life before the Civil War and takes
us through the tumultuous frontier years when Bass Reeves became a
legend. We end after the turn of the twentieth century, as Oklahoma
becomes a state, while Bass Reeves continues to work until nearly the
end of his life. Along the way I include other oral stories that fit into the
chronological sequence of the amazing life of Bass Reeves.
Once upon a time on the Arkansas frontier, there was a young
slave who was given the name of Bass. As an adult he would
take the surname Reeves, that of the family who owned him as
a chattel slave. From all the records available, I believe that Bass Reeves
was born in July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. It appears that
Bass was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington, whose name
appeared on Bass's mother's death certificate. Bass Reeves's obituary
notice in the Muskogee Phoenix newspaper stated that he was sixty-nine
when he retired from the U.S. Marshals Service in November of 1907.
The same article stated that Reeves's mother was living in Van Buren,
Arkansas, and was eighty-seven years old. This would place her date
of birth in 1823. Reeves was interviewed by a territorial newspaper in
March 1907, where he gave his age as sixty-eight. The 1870 census
report gave Reeves's age as twenty-three and his birthplace as Arkansas.
The 1880 census report gave Reeves's age as forty, his birth month
as July, and his birthplace as Arkansas. The 1900 census report gave
Reeves's birth month and year as July 1840 and birthplace as Texas.
According to Paul L. Brady, Bass Reeves's mother's name was Pearlalee
and he had a sister named Jane Reeves. Brady is a grandson of
Jane, who married a man named John Brady. According to a list of
persons buried in Van Buren cemeteries, a Paralee Stewart is buried
in Fairview Cemetery. Her date of birth is given as October 16, 1821,
and date of death is January 28, 1915. However, her death certificate
lists her date of birth as March 16, 1818. The 1880 census report for
Crawford County, Arkansas, lists Paralee Stewart as either a widowed
or divorced housekeeper. Her birthplace is given as Tennessee. At the
time, she had a fifteen-year-old daughter living with her named Belle
Stewart, whose birthplace was Texas. The 1880 census also shows that
living two houses away from Paralee Stewart is John and Jane Brady.
Jane's age in the 1880 census is given as thirty-five. On some official
documents Paralee's last name is spelled as Steward or Stuart. Buried
near Paralee in Fairview Cemetery is J. M. Stewart, a Civil War veteran,
presumably her husband.
Excerpted from Black Gun, Silver Star
by Art T. Burton
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 20, 2006
Professor Burton's book about Bass Reeves combines thorough, meticulous scholarship on the details of Reeves' long career as a lawman with a most impressive general knowledge of the times in which he lived. The result is a biography unlikely to be surpassed. A question that has long interested me, and is asked by this book, concerns the criteria of historical remembrance. Why, for example, is Wyatt Earp (to pick just one example) remembered and even celebrated to this day, when--at the very least--equally deserving historical figures, such as Reeves, languish in relative obscurity? Were history fair (and of course it is not) the reverse should be the case, as by any objective measure Reeves was the superior lawman. One is cynically tempted to conclude that too often subsequent historical recognition is far more a result of puffery than of merit. Burton does an admirable job of reconstructing what can now be known about Reeves' remarkable life, and adeptly separates myth from fact along the way. This was a difficult task, as Reeves was illiterate, meaning that the record of his life is only indirectly available primarily through court transcripts, oral histories by others, and sketchy accounts in contemporary newspapers not often disposed to celebrate the accomplishment of a black man. In addition, Burton is able to present new and significant information. I, for one, had not known that, toward the end of his career, Reeves was prominently involved in a spectacular shootout (every bit as dramatic as the OK Corral) in Muskogee with a deadly gang of religious fanatics. Until now, lawman Bud Ledbetter (the 'Fourth Guardsman') got most of the credit for confronting these dangerous criminals. Professor Burton notes that he's been working on this project, intermittently, for some twenty years--the result is worth the wait.
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 13, 2007
Brief though the period of the Wild West was, the exploits of its villains and lawmen have fascinated people around the world, and been disproportionately represented in pop culture. But the multicultural nature of the Wild West has rarely been evidenced in the plethora of films, books and television shows. Which probably explains why the arrival of Sheriff Black Bart in Mel Brooks¿ ¿Blazing Saddles¿ (1974) elicited such a stunned response from the townspeople, and a riot of laughter from the audience. Imagine: a black lawman in the Old West! Imagine no more. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave, served for nearly 30 years in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, the most deadly location for U.S. marshals. And according to glowing accounts of his bravery, skill and steadfast devotion to duty (found in white newspapers of the time, mind you) nobody was laughing when he rode into to town, especially not the bad guys. As this book amply illustrates, Reeves is remarkable not merely for being a black marshal (there were others) but for being one of the greatest U.S. Marshals, period. But Reeves¿ story - with the exception of references published here and there - has been largely ignored by western historians. Though widely known and respected during his lifetime, he was illiterate and left behind no diaries or letters, so what little has come down has been in the form of oral history and legends. Art T. Burton has spent the better part of 20 years reclaiming the heritage of African Americans in the American West, and has scoured through a wide range of primary sources - including Reeves¿ federal criminal court cases available in the National Archives, and account books at Fort Smith Historic Site - to separate legend from fact and painstakingly piece together the story of this American hero. The book is not a biography in the traditional sense, but as the subtitle states, a reader. It reproduces many of the court documents and contemporary newspaper articles with just enough narrative to put them into context. Not being a Wild West buff myself, I felt the author did an excellent job providing background to help me make sense of it all. As the author recounts, one of the first responses he received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma when inquiring about Reeves was ¿I am sorry, we didn¿t keep black people¿s history.¿ This book is the perfect example of the wealth of information which can be gleaned by a creative, dedicated historian who looks beyond the usual sources in order to root out the hidden history of multicultural America. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Western history and culture, law enforcement, American or African American Studies. And I hope this book inspires someone to finally bring the life and times of Bass Reeves to the big screen.
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Posted August 26, 2012
Posted June 1, 2012
This book is for those with serious interest in the American West. It is notable both for the overlooked contributions of black Americans on the frontier and for the real danger and violence that existed in the Territories before statehood. It is hard to imagine that US Marshall's rode into the open west with one deputy to round up dozens of wanted men, but Bass Reeves did so frequently. It is also instructive about the conditions in late 1800's Oklahoma.
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Posted February 10, 2012
If there is history here worth mentioning I fail to see it.
It is to bad the history of a black person, negro, afro american people of colour was not taken as seriously as it should have been.
This is nothing but a bunch of heresay and court records thrown together and call a book/novel.
A little more peronnel history aboiut the man Bass Reeves and his family is warranted.
We should all know that crime in the I. T. of Oklahoma was mean and sometimes vicious. It is also known most of the trouble there was caused by persons on both sides of the badge.
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