Reeves, Bass (1838–1910)

By: Nudie E. Williams

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: June 28, 2021

Bass Reeves, the first black commissioned United States deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River, was born to enslaved parents in July 1838 near Paris, Texas. He relocated 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. He married Nellie Jennie (or Jinney), a Texas native, in 1864, and they raised a family of ten, five boys and five girls. After his first wife's death, Reeves married Winnie Sumter of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1900 and started a second family. When Isaac C. Parker was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on May 10, 1875, to bring law to the Indian Territory, one of his first official acts was to swear in a United States marshal and appoint 200 deputies to curb the lawlessness in the area. White outlaws had so terrorized the interior groups, especially the Creeks and Seminoles, that Whites, with or without a badge, were unwelcome. Reeves was recruited because he knew the tribal languages and country well, and as a black he did not suffer from the reputation for abuse produced by the activities of the White criminal element among the Indians.

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. Among them were Bob Dozier, a master criminal whose illegal activities included cattle and horse theft, land swindles, and murder, and who eluded Reeves for several years before being killed after refusing to surrender in the rain and mud in the Cherokee Hills. Another outlaw was Tom Story, expert horse thief and murderer, who sold stolen horses south of the Red River from 1884 to 1889, and who lost his life at the Delaware Bend crossing in an attempt to beat Reeves to the draw. Jim Webb, a cowboy and horse thief with eleven notches on his pistol handle, was outshot in a fierce running gunfight after a manhunt that lasted from 1893 to 1895; the dying Webb acknowledged Reeves as the better man by giving the deputy his pistol and scabbard. 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.

Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and Lonnie E. Underhill, "Negro Marshal in Indian Territory," Journal of Negro History 56 (April 1971). Nudie E. Williams, "Bass Reeves," Negro History Bulletin 42 (April-May-June 1979).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Law Officers
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Nudie E. Williams, “Reeves, Bass,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

June 1, 1995
June 28, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: