Lessons in Manliness from Bass Reeves

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 24, 2011 · 53 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

Who was the greatest Deputy U.S. Marshal of the Old West?

Wyatt Earp?
Wild Bill Hickok?

How about Bass Reeves? Bass who?

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was arguably the greatest lawman and gunfighter of the West, a man who served as a marshal for 32 years in the most dangerous district in the country, captured 3,000 felons, (once bringing in 17 men at one time), and shot 14 men in the line of duty, all without ever being shot himself.

He was also a black dude.

To understand the story of Bass Reeves, you first need to understand a bit of the fascinating history of Oklahoma. Let’s start there.

Before Oklahoma was a state, it was a territory. When the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Seminoles, and Chickasaws) were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in the Southeast, they were relocated to the middle of the country, to an area called the Indian Territory.

Because the Five Tribes sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, the federal government forced them to renegotiate their treaties and cede the Western half of Indian Territory for the settlement of other tribes. This was called the Oklahoma Territory, and it was opened in 1890 to white settlers. The two territories were referred to as the “Twin Territories.”

The Indian Territory boasted an unusual mix of peoples and cultures. It was the home of Indians, Indian Freedmen (the black slaves of the Indians who were emancipated after the Civil War and made citizens of the Five Tribes), white settlers and African-Americans who had formerly been slaves to white masters in the South who rented land from the Indians as sharecroppers, and finally, outlaws fleeing the law and squatting on the land.

The Indian Lightforce police and the tribal courts governed this diverse population. But the tribal courts only had jurisdiction over citizens of the Five Tribes. So if a crime was a committed by an Indian and/or it involved a fellow Indian, it was handled by these tribal courts.

Non-Freedmen blacks, whites, and Indians who committed a crime against a person who was not a citizen of the Indian nations had to be tried in the U.S. federal courts in Paris, Texas and Fort Smith, Arkansas. And so the only U.S. law enforcement officers or judicial figures in Indian Territory were the U.S. Marshals, who rode for miles over the prairies, for months at a time, looking for wanted criminals to arrest and bring back to Fort Smith or Paris.

This made the Indian Territory a highly desirable place for horse thieves, bootleggers, murderers and outlaws of all varieties to hide out and lay low. At the time, it was estimated that of the 22,000 whites living in Indian Territory, 17,000 of them were criminals. This was truly the Wild West, or as the saying of the time went, “No Sunday West of St. Louis. No God West of Fort Smith.”

“Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the dead line,” and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track he took his own life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the dead line they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails.” -Oklahoma City newspaper article, 1907

Indian Territory was the most dangerous place for a U.S. Marshal to work then or ever. In the period before Oklahoma statehood, over one hundred marshals were killed in the line of duty. It helps to put that number in perspective: Since the US Marshals Service was created in 1789, more than 200 marshals have been killed in the line of duty. 120 of those were killed in the Indian and Oklahoma territories before statehood in 1907. That’s right, half of all the U.S. marshals ever killed were killed in the Twin Territories.

A man really had to have true grit to be a marshal at this time and in this place.

Bass Reeves had that grit in spades.

Reeves was likely the first African-American commissioned as a deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River and was brought into the service by Judge Isaac C. Parker, aka the “The Hanging Judge.” Parker presided over the largest federal court district in U.S. history (74,000 square miles) and sentenced 88 men to be hanged during the course of his career. For more than half of his years on the bench, no appeals of his decisions were allowed. Reeves and Parker enjoyed a professional and personal relationship of great mutual respect.

It was a respect Reeves worked hard to earn.

Reeves stood 6’2 in a time when men were much shorter, and he had very broad shoulders and large hands. He was a giant among men. Such a large man needed a uncommonly large horse (“When you get as big as me, a small horse is as worthless as a preacher in a whiskey joint fight. Just when you need him bad to help you out, he’s got to stop and think about it a little bit.”). He rode the territories with two six-shooters, his trusty Winchester rifle, and a big black hat upon his head. Needless to say, Reeves cut an extremely imposing figure.

But it was his reputation more than his appearance that really struck fear in the hearts of the “bad men” of the territories. Contemporaries described Reeves as a “lawman second to none,” a man who was “absolutely fearless,” and a “terror to outlaws and desperadoes.” He was said to be the “most feared U.S marshal that was ever heard of in that country,” and his nickname was the “Invincible Marshal;” the undisputed king of narrow escapes, “at different times his belt was shot in two, a button shot off his coat, his hat brim shot off, and the bridle reins which he held in his hands cut by a bullet.”

Reeves was also know for his honesty, dogged persistence, and unswerving devotion to duty and the law. He always got his man; having arrested 3,000 criminals, he only once failed to nab the man he was after. He never shot a man when it wasn’t necessary and they hadn’t aimed to kill him first. And he never changed his policies or treatment of folks on the basis of race, ethnicity, or even familial ties; all were equal under the law. Not only did Reeves arrest the minister who baptized him, he also arrested his own son after the young man murdered his wife in a fit of jealously. None of the other marshals wanted the latter assignment, but Reeves simply strode into the Chief Deputy Marshal’s office and said, “Give me the writ.” Two weeks later, he brought in his son to be booked.

Oh, and he had an awesome mustache.

Reeves’ deeds and exploits are the stuff of Hollywood films, but they’re absolutely true and offer us several lessons in manliness.

Lessons in Manliness from Bass Reeves

It’s Never Too Late for a Man to Have a Second Act

Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. When the Civil War broke out, his white master joined the Confederate Army and took Reeves along to serve as his body servant. Reeves bided his time, until one night he saw an opening, laid out his master with his mighty fists, and took off for the hills a free man. He was taken in by the Keetoowah, an abolitionist sect of the Cherokee Nation.

When the war was over, he struck out on his own and settled with his family in Van Buren, Arkansas, making a good living as a farmer and horse breeder. He was the first black man to settle in Van Buren, and he built his family an eight room house with his own hands.

He started making some extra money by helping the U.S. Marshals with scouting and tracking and soon earned a reputation for himself as a man who knew what he was doing and could be relied upon.

He was commissioned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in his own right in 1875, when he was 38 years old. During this time marshals were paid for the number of criminals brought in and the distance traveled in capturing them and bringing them back to court. With so many miles to cover in Indian Territory, and with his legendary effectiveness for tracking down wrong-doers, Reeves made a great living at his job. And so it was only as he was nearing 40 that he found his true calling.

Compensate for Weaknesses by Cultivating Signature Strengths

“My mom always said she heard that Bass was so tough he could spit on a brick and bust it in two!” -Willabelle Shultz, granddaughter of fellow marshal

Because he grew up a slave, Bass Reeves did not know how to read or write. Being an illiterate U.S. Marshal was highly unusual—the men needed to fill out forms and reports–but Bass got and kept his job by compensating for this weakness with other valuable strengths.

First, he could speak the Muskogee language of the Creeks and Seminoles, and he could also converse pretty well in the languages of the other Five Civilized Tribes. He took the time to get to know the tribes and their customs, and they respected him for it. His friendly and sterling reputation among Indians, blacks, and whites alike led folks to trust him and give him assistance and tips they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with other marshals.

Reeves knew Indian Territory like the back of his hand, and his scouting and tracking skills were second to none.

But his most notable strength was his prowess with firearms. He carried two big .45 caliber six-shooters and wore them with their handles facing forward. He employed the cross-handed draw, as he believed it was the fastest way for a man to grab his guns. And indeed, he was known as a man who could draw with lightning fast speed; numerous men tried to beat him, and 14 of them died in the attempt.

But unlike what you see in movies, cowboys in the West did not rely on their pistols; those were their back-up firearms. A cowboy’s weapon of choice was his trusty Winchester rifle, and that was the gun Reeves used most. But he was a proficient marksman with both weapons. Ambidextrous and always cool under pressure, Reeves could fire an accurate shot with pistol or rifle, with his left hand or his right. It was said he could draw “a bead as fine as a spider’s web on a frosty morning” and “shoot the left hind leg off of a contended fly sitting on a mule’s ear at a hundred yards and never ruffle a hair.”

Turkey shoot competitions were popular at territorial fairs and picnics, but Reeves was banned from entering them because he was too darn good. Once, when he saw 6 wolves tearing at a steer, he took them all out with just 8 shots from the back of a galloping horse.

The Mind Is Just as Powerful a Weapon as the Gun

“If Reeves were fictional, he would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger.” -Historian Art Burton

Despite Bass’ legendary strength and prowess with firearms, he didn’t simply go after criminals with guns and fists blazing. Rather, he took a far slower, methodical, and ultimately more effective approach. He was an intuitive and quick-thinking detective who often got his man from being smart and crafty.

Reeves was a master of disguise, a tactic he used to sneak up on unsuspecting outlaws. They would undoubtedly see a giant black man on a giant horse coming for them, so when Bass was closing in on a man, he would switch to a smaller ride, and he learned tricks from the Indians on how to look smaller in the saddle.

And often he would ditch the horse all together. For example, one time he dressed like a farmer and lumbered along in a ramshackle wagon pulled by old oxen. He drove the wagon close to a cabin where six outlaws where holed up, and as he passed their hide out, he pretended to get the wagon snagged on a large tree stump. When the outlaws came out to help this humble farmer, he coolly reached into his overalls, drew out his six-shooters, and placed the men under arrest.

On another occasion, Reeves was after two outlaws who were hiding out at their mother’s house. Reeves camped 28 miles away to be sure they didn’t see him coming or hear he was in the area. Then he ditched his marshal duds and stashed his handcuffs and six-shooters under a set of dirty, baggy clothes, flat shoes, and a large floppy hat into which he shot three bullet holes. Dressed like a typical tramp, Reeves sauntered up to the felons’ hideout and asked for something to eat, showing them his bullet-ridden hat and explaining how he had been shot at by marshals and was famished from having walked for miles to flee the law. Having ingratiated himself as a fellow outlaw, the men ate together and decided to join forces on a future heist. After everyone had fallen asleep for the night, Reeves crept up to the two outlaws and handcuffed them in their sleep, careful not to wake them. In the morning, Reeves bounded into the room and woke them up with his booming voice, “Come on, boys, let’s get going from here!” As the men tried to get out bed, they quickly realized they’d been had by crafty old Bass Reeves.

Be Reliable–The Details Matter

Even though he was a tough-as-nails badass, locals also remembered Reeves as a man known for his “politeness and courteous manner” and as someone who was “kind,” “sympathetic,”  and “always neatly dressed.” He was also a man who took pride in getting the details right.

Reeves was unable to read or write and yet part of his job was to write up reports on his arrests and serve subpoenas to witnesses. So when he had to write a report, he would dictate to someone else and sign with an “X.” When he would get a stack of subpoenas to serve to different people, he would memorize the names like symbols and have people read the subpoenas out loud to him until he memorized what symbol went with what subpoena.

He took great pride in the fact that he never once served the wrong subpoena to the wrong person. In fact, many of the courts specially requested that their subpoenas be served by Reeves because he was so reliable.

Keep Cool. Always.

“Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is. Place a warrant for arrest in his hands and no circumstance can cause him to deviate. ” -Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal, 1907

Bass Reeves had an uncanny ability to stay calm and cool, even when he was in a really tight spot.

He found himself in that kind of tight spot while looking to arrest a murderer, Jim Webb, who was hanging out with posseman Floyd Smith at a ranch house. Reeves and his partner moseyed up, tried to pull the old, “we’re just regular cowboys passing through” trick, and sat down to get some breakfast. But the two men weren’t buying it and sat glaring at the marshals, pistols at the ready in their hands. An hour went by and Reeves and his partner still didn’t have an opening to make a move on the outlaws. But when Webb was momentarily distracted by a noise outside, Reeves jumped up, wrapped his large hand around Webb’s throat, and shoved his Colt .45 in the surprised man’s face. Webb meekly surrendered. Reeves’ partner was supposed to jump in and grab Smith, but he froze. Smith fired two shots at Reeves; he dodged them both, and with his hand still around Webb’s neck, he turned and took Smith out with one shot. Then he ordered his partner to handcuff Webb and called it a day.

Reeves was the target of numerous assassination attempts but he often saved his own neck by staying completely calm and in control. One time, he met two men out riding who knew who he was and wanted him dead. They drew their guns and forced him off his horse. One of the men asked if Reeves had any last words, and Bass answered that he would really appreciate it if one of them could read him a letter from his wife before finishing him off. He reached into his saddlebag for the letter and handed it over. As soon as the would-be-assassin reached for the letter, Bass put one of his hands around the man’s throat, used his other hand to draw his gun, and said, “Son of a bitch, now you’re under arrest!” The outlaw’s partner was so surprised he dropped his gun, and Reeves put both men in chains.

Another time, Reeves faced a similar situation; this time three wanted outlaws forced him from his horse and were about to do him in. He showed them the warrants he had for their arrest and asked them for the date, so he could jot it down for his records when he turned the men into jail. The leader of the group laughed and said,“You are ready to turn in now.” But having dropped his guard for just a second, Reeves drew his six-shooter as fast as lightning and grabbed the barrel of the man’s gun. The outlaw fired three times, but Reeves again dodged the bullets. At the same time, and with his hand still around the barrel of the first man’s gun, he shot the second man, and then hit the third man over the head with his six-shooter, killing him. All in a day’s work for Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves.

Build a Bridge

When Reeves was appointed a marshal by Judge Parker, the judge reminded him that “he would be in a position to serve as a deputy to show the lawful as well as the lawless that a black man was the equal of any other law enforcement officer on the frontier.”

Bass took this responsibility seriously.

Black law enforcement officers were a rarity in other parts of the country, but more common in Indian Territory and surrounding states like Texas. In fact, despite Hollywood’s depiction of the Old West as lily white, 25% of cowboys in Texas were African-American.

Because of the reputation Bass earned as a marshal who was honest, effective, and doggedly persistent–the Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal of the Western District, Bud Ledbetter, called Bass, “one of the bravest men this country has ever known”–more black marshals were hired in Indian Territory; a couple dozen were part of the service during Bass’ tenure. Nowhere else in the country could a black man arrest a white man. Bass had paved the way, and done one of the manliest things a man can do—build a bridge and a legacy for others to follow.

Sadly, when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, it instituted Jim Crow laws that forced black marshals out of the service. Despite his legendary record as a deputy marshal, Reeves had to take a job as a municipal policeman in the town of Muskogee the year before he died. But his shining example of manhood cannot so easily be passed over and still speaks to us today.


Source: Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves by Art Burton

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

1 M. Lawrence April 24, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Wow. Someone should make a movie about this guy. I bet there are a few directors in Hollywood that would love to sink their teeth into Bass Reeves’ life story, along with a bunch of actors, too. You wouldn’t have to fictionalize anything, either. From the sounds of it, it would be agonizing deciding what to leave out, in fact.

2 James A. Schofield April 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Truly impressive! They need to make a movie about this gentleman!

Does anyone know what kind of 6-shooters he used? It says he used .45 revolvers. I ask because one of the most common .45 revolvers used in the west by outlaws and lawmen alike was the Schofield .45 revolver (Smith & Wesson). That gun was invented by my 5-times-great grandfather, Col. George W. Schofield. Granted, the odds are low, but I can’t help but be curious, just in case. A great many famous gunfighters (good and bad) used it, from Jesse James (the last gun he used) to Wyatt Earp.

3 M. Lawrence April 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Alright, I just looked it up.

Apparently, someone did make a movie: http://web.mac.com/ponderousproductions/The_Films/Bass_Reeves_-_Noble_Lawman.html

4 Bruce Williamson April 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm

So, why hasn’t a movie been made about him?

5 Mark W April 24, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Great history lesson about a very interesting historical figure. Great AoM takeaways as well. Lessons in respect and integrity could have easily been drawn out in this post as well.

6 M. Lawrence April 24, 2011 at 11:42 pm

it doesn’t look like the production values are all that high, but it might be OK. I’d like to see Hollywood or someone with a lot more financial backing to hire some really good actors take a crack at it, though.

7 Mark W April 24, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I agree with M. Lawrence on the production value. It would be nice to see a ’3:10 To Yuma’ type production to portray his story. But, considering the costs involved, I don’t think there will be a very big audience for a story about a black US Marshall.

8 Mark April 25, 2011 at 12:05 am

Damn! M. Lawrence is right on. This guy was something else! I like stories about real people and a real badass that beats all the odds like Bass Reeves did is right up my alley. More people need to hear about this man.

9 PK April 25, 2011 at 1:16 am

Great article! Thanks.

10 Lee April 25, 2011 at 2:32 am

Denzel Washington as Bass Reeves sounds nice to me. His story is definitely better than any movie one can make.

11 Roger April 25, 2011 at 6:48 am

There WAS a movie made about him. See blazing saddles. Cue the campfire scene!

12 Aaron April 25, 2011 at 7:37 am

Are you reading this, Paul Kirchner? Please put this in your next “Deadliest Men” book!

13 Brian April 25, 2011 at 8:03 am

Awesome story and even more awesome mustache!

14 Tony April 25, 2011 at 9:39 am

Bass did not stop when he became a munipal policeman. Nearing old age he came off his rocking chair and shot and killed the driver of a getaway car while it was speeding away from a robbery attempt.

15 David Cranmer April 25, 2011 at 9:48 am

I wish more books and films were done on Bass Reeves. A great American hero.

16 Bass Reeves VI April 25, 2011 at 10:32 am

I must say thank you for writting this cousin. My cousin Brett McKay is a great guy and a great writer. I wish I had the talents that he does.

17 Marcus April 25, 2011 at 11:39 am

WOW! Thanks for this very impressive story!

18 Noah April 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Amazing story. Thank you very much for this. It is very inspiring.

19 Jessica Ferguson April 25, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Great story. I’m wondering what happened to the movie that was made. It was suppose to release in 2010. I’ll have to research. I’ll also be researching to learn more about Bass Reeves. Never heard of this incredible man and his fantastic story. Thanks!

20 Lorne April 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm

What a fantastic story!
I saw the trailer for the movie (soon to be released?), and the trailer looks to be really poor quality. Such a shame that a great man like Bass, who most of us (myself included) have never heard of, rates a 3rd class movie.
Thanks for bringing us these great stories of heroes Brett and Kate; from Franklin to TR, and now Bass. You have an awesome site (and yes, I bought the book – also great!).

21 Nate @ Practical Manliness April 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm

This is my favorite article yet this year!

22 SF April 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

We’re pretty proud of Reeves here in Fort Smith. It’s a shame more people know of a fictional Rooster Cogburn than know of true-life Bass Reeves.

23 bruthaman April 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm

“He was also a black dude.”

Was this necessary?

Other than that it was an awesome article man. Thanks for highlighting an untold stories…

24 Brett McKay April 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm


Yes, as it was meant to surprise the reader who likely thinks of cowboys and US marshals of the Old West as being exclusively white. That he did all he did, and he was a black guy in a time of fierce racism, is part of what makes the story so extraordinary.

25 HIstorytellers April 25, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I heard from Art Burton some years ago that Morgan Freeman was very interested in a movie. Her has researched and written on Bass. He was an awesome man. His mother is buried in Van Buren AR just up the hill from where Bass and family lived. Most historians in the Fort Smith area would love to see a high quality movie.

26 Phil April 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm

This guy put the “Bad-ass” in “Bad-ass”! Thanks for sharing.

27 Jameson April 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Wow! Wow! Wow! Where is Denzel Washington and how had he not played this guy! Wow! Seriously this would be an awesome movie. Just being true to the actual history of it apparently would make for some pretty badass stunts and gunfights!

28 Frank April 26, 2011 at 12:15 am

The part of the story I want to know is what superpower did he posses that allowed him to dodge so many bullets?

29 Ken April 26, 2011 at 5:23 am

Sorry, Mr. Schofield,
According to this website: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-bassreeves.html, Bass Reeves carried Colts.

30 Bob April 26, 2011 at 11:40 am

It seems like all of the stories that have been told about cowboys were all taken piecemeal from this guy’s life. It almost makes him seem made up.

31 frankie April 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Sorry but Denzel is not a big enough guy to play this part. Mr. Reeves was a really big man. Maybe Fishburn or Michael Clarke Duncan but not Washington.

You do have to wonder how many other great American’s we never heard about or have been buried in time are out there.

32 jennybee April 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Next May, Fort Smith will be placing a 20′ bronze statue of Bass Reeves on his horse at the near the Fort Smith National Historic Site in downtown Fort Smith. Learn more about Reeves and the project at http://www.deputybassreeves.com.

Morgan Freeman’s been wanting to help get a film about Reeves made for 20 years. He spent time in Fort Smith researching Bass Reeves 20 years ago when he thought maybe he could play him. Clint Eastwood’s expressed interest in directing a film about him. Most of the black leading men in Hollywood have been talked about to play him. The main hold up is the script. No one’s written a decent one yet. I think part of the problem is that he is so larger than life that it’s hard to a) fit it all in and b) make it believable and c) still have a top-notch script. It’ll happen, though.

The sad thing is that although he was a legend in his day, when Art Burton started trying to research him, many of the records had been lost over time and he was all but forgotten. When he called up the Muskogee, Okla. people about burial records, he was told they hadn’t kept the records on black folks. So no one knows exactly where this man they were singing songs about five states away during his lifetime is buried.

It’s a historical tragedy, and someone needs to restore his legacy as one of the greatest American heroes. Thanks for this article. It’s an excellent start!

33 Marshal D Ryder April 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Well I have to say, now I know who the Duke modeled the character of Roster Cogburn after in True Grit. Theres just too many similarities to be coincidental. If you know the movie you know what I mean. The remake should of had a black ex football player play the part, it would have really made more sense. A part of real History this Bass Reeves.

34 bnrtn April 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I also bet that Laurence Fishburne (as per frankie) would be great in the role of this truly great man!

35 Roger April 26, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Before Chuck Norris there was Bass Reeves. If you were to play rock-paper-scissors against him and both of you were to shoot paper, Bass wins.

36 MG April 27, 2011 at 10:18 am

Clearly the solution to the problem of making a movie but having too much good material is to make a television series. It is about time there was something worth watching.

37 John April 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Bass Reeves was an impressive man.

History still hasn’t given African American men thier due.

Check out Eugene Bullard for another example of manliness.


38 Matt April 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm

That mustache can only be maintained with a comb built out of 100% pure awesome.

39 Capt Carl April 27, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Thank you Brett for this fascinating story. I applaud you for always finding stories about men of color. You and your wife inspire me to continue on the path of gentlemanly growth.

40 RandallCunningman April 28, 2011 at 3:21 am

I’d put my money on Dwayne Johnson if you could get him to tan a little, get a fitting mustache piece and be able to carry the nuance/acting chops necessary for a stone cold character like this one. Physically he has the imposing presence to translate the character, just depends on the attitude and bad assedness, but I’d say from the intensity in “Faster” he could do it. Will Smith maybe. Boris Kodjoe too pretty. Kinda tired of seeing Denzel in movies.

41 Michael S. Hilton April 28, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Wonderful article.

42 Kix April 29, 2011 at 6:37 am


“He had to arrest his own son for murder.” (quote:wikipedia)

An example of a man, but not of a father.

43 Tuesday April 29, 2011 at 10:17 am

I discovered this website while searching for something else and I love it. Although I’m not a man, I am a young woman who has had many discussions with people about the sad lack of manliness–@ least in the areas I’ve lived. In my opinion, a major part of the reason is that, over time, fathers and grandfathers have stopped passing the art of manliness along, leaving their boys to end up either too macho or too passive. I have 3 brothers. One is older than me, one is a
teenager and the other is only in 3rd grade, but
all are quite manly :) I think they would really
appreciate this site, so I’ll pass it along! This post on Reeves is interesting. I’d never heard of him before…
@Kix: I’m not sure of you’re making the point that he didn’t raise his son properly or that he shouldn’t have arrested him. Of course I don’t know anything about his paternal skills so it’s possible he wasn’t the best dad. But there are also some great dads whose children still turn out to be quite awful so who knows…As for arresting his son, well, a man should have integrity and a U.S. Marshal is supposed to uphold the law. Letting a murderer go free–regardless of the relationship–would’ve been wrong. Besides, what if the son had gone on to kill more innocent people? Yikes!

44 Maru April 29, 2011 at 11:28 pm


I disagree. It was the work of both a man and a father. As parents, of course, we tend to love our children without condition, and to want the best for them, and to make the best possible life for them. But there comes a point at which we can do no more for our children; that we must let them go; that we must let them lie in the bed they have made, and let them suffer the pain of their mistakes. While it hurts to let them suffer, to shield them from that suffering is to inflict an even greater wrong.

I do not think that Bass Reeves took any pleasure in arresting his son. However, given that his son had murdered his own wife in a fit of jealous rage, his son had already fallen from the path of the righteous man. When a man falls, it is better to let him fall and hit bottom as quickly as possible, because the longer he is prevented from hitting the bottom, the farther he will fall. The sooner they get done falling, the sooner they can start climbing up again. Reeves’ son had only one death on his conscience; if Reeves had flinched from his duty as a lawman and failed to apprehend his son, how many others would his son have killed? Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you let them get away with things, and in fact sometimes it means that you are even harder with them than with others. Letting someone get away with something is, I think, the opposite of love. And nothing, not even the blood between a father and son, can excuse the death of another. The younger Reeves may not have been entirely in his right mind when he killed his wife; he may have committed what the French reasonably call “a crime of passion.” But nevertheless, a crime was committed, and the man responsible needed to answer for it.

45 JB May 3, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Ummm…Ving Rhames or Michael Clarke Duncan.

A good portion of this is embelishment and tall tales but that aside it would still be an incredibly impressive story. I’m sorry…dodging bullets? Is that before or after he told Moses to build the Ark?

These sort of tall tales are not uncommon for old lawmen as most tried to bolster their reputation in hopes that people would simply surrender rather than fight. I think part of the problem with doing a film about him would be you would have to cut out a good deal of the embelishment to keep the story believable, however since the story is about a black man any alteration to the narrative could very easily lead to charges of racism so there is a lot of risk to it. Frank Hamer, also a legendary lawman only he was white, had similarly over the top often outlandish claims but people did not hesitate to call his BS because there was no fear of charges of racism.

46 Evan May 21, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Remember, there are plenty of tricks to make one look bigger or smaller on film (the guy who played Gimli was 6’4″)….However, Samuel L Jackson would be an excellent choice for such a role if it ever comes up. Mr. Jackson is 6’3″ btw.

47 Marq May 23, 2011 at 5:10 pm

i love this article. i know some US Marshals and ive shared this story….great stuff

48 Tom January 20, 2013 at 11:07 pm

I just heard the name of Bass Reeves from an episode of the great show “Justified.” This is an awesome story. They even mentioned Denzel Washington as a possible actor for this character. I love Denzel (59yo) but he’s getting a little old to play this character at the beginning of his career. Also too old are Sam Jackson (65yo) and definitely Morgan Freeman (76yo!). My pick would be Idris Elba, who is now the perfect age (41yo) and perfect height and size (6’3″). Wise up Hollywood. This is the time!

49 Lance Howell April 24, 2013 at 10:41 am

Wow. Just Wow. A true hero. Great right up too. True Grit.

50 Mark Dancer April 24, 2013 at 10:47 am

The Bass Reeves statue went up in Fort Smith this past summer, and it is fantastic. http://www.deputybassreeves.com/monument.php For those that are interested, you can still tour Judge Parker’s courthouse and the gallows as well. Remember, this is also the same town memorialized in True Grit.

51 David Smith August 17, 2013 at 5:08 pm
52 Marcus October 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I was told The Lone Ranger character is based on the stories the creators heard about Bass Reeves.

53 Ken Farmer April 12, 2014 at 11:12 am

Excellent article, only a couple of mistakes. The Indian police were Lighthorse, not Lightforce, I’m assuming a typo. Secondly, Bass preferred .38-40 Peacemakers, not .45s. He did carry them in reverse holsters as you said. (There’s a story in my latest novel about Bass in “Hell Hole” about why he carried in cross draw…from his great nephew who still owns most of Bass’ guns) He also wore a .41 Peacemaker in a shoulder holster.

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