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The Groves Scriptor

The Groves Scriptor

Bass Reeves: The greatest US Marshal

Baity Wagner
A banner outside the Groves library showing a variety of black universities across the nation.

We must look at all the amazing Black men and women who contributed to Black history and culture this Black History Month. My personal favorite Black history icon is the incredible US Marshal; Bass Reeves. He experienced slavery, the Civil War, the “Wild West”, the Reformation and early segregation— he is an American icon, who has only recently gotten more recognition for his life’s journey. 

Bass Reeves was born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. However, he would soon leave, as his slave master settled in Grayson County, Texas, in 1946. Before the Civil War, he married his first wife Nellie Jennie. However, historians do not have much information of what happened to Reeves throughout the Civil War. They know that he served in the Confederacy (most likely against his wishes) but know little about what he did. Reeves claims the Battles of Pea Ridge in March 1862, Chickamauga in September 1863 and Missionary Ridge in November 1863. However, his family and other accounts say that sometime between 1861 and 1862 he got into a fight with his master’s son, George Reeves, after a card game. According to these stories, Bass Reeves severely beat George Reeves and had to escape to Native American territory in present-day Kansas and Nevada. Historians say it’s unlikely Reeves fought in Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge; instead serving in Pea Ridge and escaping. Nevertheless, Reeves escaped to Native American territory where he lived as a fugitive with Creeks and Seminole. During the rest of the Civil War, he continued to learn skills that would aid him later in life: for example was able to shoot a pistol and rifle ambidextrously (meaning he could shoot accurately with both hands). 

After the Civil War ended and Reeves was freed, he reunited with his wife Jennie, with whom he ended up having a daughter named Sarah in 1861. Reeves would have 10 more children with Jennie. He then moved his family to Van Buren, Crawford County in Arkansas. He bought some land and worked as a farmer and stockman (which meant he looked after livestock), while also occasionally working as a scout and guide for any US Marshals going into American Indian territory for the Van Buren federal court. 

 In 1875, the biggest change of his life occurred. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Judge Isaac C. Parker in charge of the Western District of Arkansas, which had jurisdiction over all Native American territory, to “clean up Indian territory”. Marshal James F. Fagan, who was in charge of recruiting 200 marshals, allowed Reeves to become a marshal; the first Black Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Reeves’ stature was intimidating— the average man was 5’6″, but Reeves was 6’2″ and 180 pounds. Reeves also captured 3,000 men and women in 32 years. This fact is made more impressive since he rarely killed bounties (he only killed roughly 14 outlaws), he was never injured, and he memorized the warrants due to his illiteracy. He brought thousands of criminals to the Fort Smith Federal Jail. 

While Reeves continued to bring in criminals, the second most controversial and the biggest economically damaging incident would occur in April 1884, where Reeves killed the cook in his posse; William Leech. Eventually, on October 12, 1887, Reeves went to trial for the murder. Even though Reeves said it was an accident, accounts say that Reeves got angry when Leech’s dog ate some of his food. When Reeves hit the dog, he got into a conflict and then shot Leech. Historians just aren’t sure if Bass Reeves killed Leech on purpose; he was let free due to his records. After the trial Reeves had to declare bankruptcy due to the legal fees so he ended up selling his beloved farm in Van Buren. Jennie passed away from peritonitis in 1896 while Reeves was stationed in Eastern Texas. She was buried in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A year later, Reeves was transferred to Muskogee territory in 1897; there he met Winnie Sumter, who was part of the Muskogee tribe and had previously been married on two occasions. In 1900, Bass Reeves would marry her, though they wouldn’t produce any children. 

Even though the trial had long been over, another event would put a large stain on Reeves’ career in the form of his son, Bennie Reeves. Most of Reeves’ sons went to prison, but Bennie was the most extreme case. He was born around 1882 and grew up to be a barber. On November 20, 1900, he married a Freedwomen Creek named Castella Brown, though their relationship soon went sour when Castella started cheating. So on June 7th, 1902, Bennie decided to confront his wife, who did admit to the cheating, but (according to Bennie), refused to apologize. In a rage, Bennie murdered her by gunshot. Bass Reeves was tasked with tracking down Bennie. He was eventually caught and convicted, so on February 3rd, 1903, he joined Ft. Leavenworth Penitentiary as inmate No. 3282. Bennie would frequently talk with his sisters and his stepmother, but would only receive one letter from Reeves in 1906.

The American flag outside of the main office at Groves High School. (Baity Wagner)

Reeves eventually stepped down as a U.S. Marshal, becoming one of the first police officers in Oklahoma when it officially became a state in 1907. Reeves would only serve as a police officer until January 2nd, 1910 when he died of Bright’s disease. 

Even though none of his children were able to accomplish much, Reeves’ legacy lives on.  On May 26, 1912, a statue of Reeves riding a horse was erected in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park. He was given a TV series in 2023, though it leaves out many dates, many adventures, Reeves’ bankruptcy and even Bennie’s arrest. 

However, Bass Reeves may live on through the Lone Ranger, of Detroit radio fame. Even though it’s not confirmed, there are similarities: Reeves rode a white horse and used silver coins as calling cards like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets. He regularly has help from the local Indigenous populations while the Lone Ranger had his sidekick, Tonto. While we may never know if he is the ‘Lone Ranger’, it is safe to say he is the greatest Marshal ever who lived through every era.

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About the Contributors
Jose Serrano
Jose Serrano, Reporter
Jose Julian Serrano is a freshman at Wylie E. Groves High School and a reporter for the Scriptor. Jose is very enthusiastic to improve his writing by working with the Scriptor. Upon coming to Groves, he decided to participate in Model UN and Green Club. Jose enjoys watching soccer, martial arts, and classic movies outside of school. Upon graduating, Jose will look forward to continuing his education to eventually gain a Doctorate in Biology.
Baity Wagner, Reporter
Baity Wagner is a sophomore in high school and a writer for the Scriptor. This is her first year on the Scriptor and she decided to join for her love of creative writing. Baity plays volleyball and lacrosse for club teams and is considering doing water polo for Groves. Baity has won four state awards for poetry through Reflections and she plays the guitar, piano, drums and violin. She also loves to draw and run.
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