By Massad Ayoob
A black lawman fights prejudice and bad guys for more than three decades, filling several graves along the way while leaving a distinguished legacy.
Marksmanship enhances survival and the advantages of the “patrol rifle” aren’t a new discovery. There’s more to the survival mindset than a willingness to pull the trigger.
Last October I was in Fort Smith, Ark., once the bailiwick of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker’s court. History painted Parker as a cross between Torquemada and Roy Bean, but the man presided over a vast and lawless area spanning several Indian nations and what is now Oklahoma. Trying more than 13,000 cases gave him extraordinary experience, and he was nominated by President Grant as chief justice of the Supreme Court in the Utah Territory. One of Parker’s deputies was Bass Reeves, the first black man sworn in to the post.
While in Fort Smith, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Dunn, a retired lawyer who is now heading up a project to build a museum there dedicated to the U.S. Marshal’s Service. He mentioned the museum owns a Colt single action, which once belonged to Reeves. Afterward, I realized I was long overdue to write about the long-dead lawman.
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Texas somewhere between 1824 and 1840 — birth records were not kept for people who were viewed as property in those sad days. His descendants peg his birth year at about 1839. Reeves grew up to be a favorite of his master, a man named Stewart, serving as his valet, bodyguard and companion from age 13.
The day came when he suddenly fled — some say it was because he had struck his master, which in those days could have cost him his life. The escape path to freedom led him to Indian Country and then to the Civil War. Ultimately, he ended up with the United States Marshals, which he joined in 1875. Reeves was one of the few black men in America wearing a badge at the time. In the following decades, he would make thousands of arrests … and kill 14 men in the line of duty.
The First Kill
The following account of Reeves’ first justifiable homicide in the line of duty comes from the very detailed biography written by his great-nephew, Judge Paul Brady. Reeves was in the process of arresting a bootlegger and his conspicuously armed bodyguard who had been selling whiskey from a horse-drawn wagon.
Brady writes, “The peddler immediately raised his hands, but the gunman began cursing. ‘A Black badge don’t mean a damned thing to me!’ He swung the rifle towards Bass; in mid-swing, Bass fired two bullets into his chest. He was dead before he fell from the driver’s seat. Bass never forgot that first killing.”
This incident apparently inspired Brady to title his biography The Black Badge. It wouldn’t be the only time a white man’s refusal to accept the authority of a black man lead to trouble in Reeves’ career. Years later, he was one of several deputy marshals transporting a gaggle of Federal prisoners — some of them white — to a penitentiary.
One particular white man observing this loudly took exception to a black man with a gun issuing orders to white folks. A local police officer took up the complainer’s side. Guns were drawn. Only the timely intervention of a senior deputy marshal prevented what might be called today a “blue-on-blue” shooting.
The Guns of Bass Reeves
The Colt Single Action Army revolver was Reeves’ preferred sidearm. In his book Black, Red and Deadly, historian Art Burton points out, “Reeves was an expert with the old cap and ball guns, but favored the Colt .45 and .38-40 pistols with his Winchester rifle chambered for the same cartridge. Reeves was also known to sometimes carry a double-barreled shotgun in his arsenal. He wore two pistols, handle butts forward for a quick draw.”
The SAA in the Marshals’ Museum, Mr. Dunn advised me, is a .32-20. It passed from Reeves to his daughter Alice, then to his favorite nephew and finally to Judge Brady who donated it to the museum. Colt historians track it back to 1890’s production, shipped to a hardware store in St. Louis. Dunn believes there are two reasons why Reeves kept it as a souvenir from one of the countless felons he arrested.
First, the big deputy marshal normally carried .38-40, .44-40 or .45 Colt sixguns, and the .32-20 would have been light for his tastes. But, second, the revolver in question has six notches on the handle … and Dunn’s research has determined Bass Reeves never “notched” any of his own firearms.
Another gun Colt shipped to a St. Louis hardware store, this one in 1902, also has an origin tracking to Bass Reeves. Chambered for .45 Colt and wearing a 4¾” barrel, this well-worn Single Action Army bears serial number 233872 and was sold by Reeves’ daughter to collector Tom Odom of Alabama in the 1960’s.
An Adept Marksman
Reeves had a reputation of being one of the best marksmen on the frontier, and his path to becoming so was an unusual one. He was taught to shoot by the same master, Stewart, who didn’t allow him to read.
Judge Brady observed, “Demonstrating the contradictions of the times and his indulgence, Stewart did, however, allow his trusted slave the use of his guns for hunting. To Stewart, knowledge was a far more powerful and dangerous thing than a firearm. Stewart’s decision regarding reading had a profound effect on Bass’ life. He never learned to read or write, but the use of his master’s guns would prove to be closely tied to his destiny… It was soon apparent the young slave had a good eye and quick hands.
“This talent gave Bass a sense of self-confidence. He became an excellent marksman, easily surpassing his master who was himself a poor shot. Stewart was not concerned or intimidated with Bass’ prowess with a gun. On the contrary, the amused master took pride in Bass’ growing reputation as a marksman, and entered him in turkey shoots and other trials by firearms.”
Bass Reeves’ biographers are unanimous in stating he quickly became so unbeatable in these matches he was banned from competing. Skill in such events was something he had in common with a contemporary he probably never met, Wyatt Earp, and such famous lawman/gunfighters of later periods as Jelly Bryce, Col. Charles Askins and multiple members of the NYPD Stakeout Squad.
Having mastered the long gun in his teens, he did not reach the same level with handguns until he carried one for a living, tutored by a marshal named Arch Landon. According to Brady, “Though Bass was a crack shot with a rifle and shotgun, he was limited with a handgun. Landon offered to help his new friend hone his handgun skills. Bass readily accepted. Landon taught Bass the key to handling a gun was to quickly get it into action and fire accurately.
“True to form, Bass spent almost every day practicing. His diligence again paid off. His prowess with a handgun soon rivaled his ability with the long guns. D.C. Gideon later noted, ‘Bass handled a revolver with the ease and grace acquired only after years of practice.’”
This practice would save Reeves’ life on more than one occasion during his long career. Some of his shootings would sound like scriptwriter fiction from a cowboy movie — if they weren’t firmly lodged as historical fact.
The Dozier Shooting
According to his daughter Alice Reeves Spahn, Bass Reeves felt the high point of his career came in bringing to justice one Bob Dozier. Dozier was a skillful professional robber — and a serial killer and torturer. Reeves caught up with him in 1891, while leading his posse down a steep, thickly wooded ravine during a raging thunderstorm. Historian Art Burton tells the story in his biography of Reeves, Black Gun, Silver Star.
Burton writes, “The instant they reached the bottom of the ravine, the blast of a gunshot greeted them, and a slug whined past Bass’ head. Bass and his posse left their horses in a hurry for the cover of the trees, expecting more shots from the hidden ambushers. After a few minutes, Bass saw the dim shadow of a man slipping from tree to tree. He waited until the shadow was caught between two trees and fired two quick shots. The shadow dropped and fell.
“This eliminated one of the men but his two shots had given away his position to a second man who immediately opened fire. Bass jerked upright, took a reeling step away from the protective shield of the trees, and fell full length to the ground facing his attacker. He waited with his gun cocked and ready in his hand.
“For several minutes the ravine was relatively quiet, only the rain and the crack of lightning could be heard. Bass lay waiting in the mud and rain, fully exposed. Finally, a man stepped from behind a tree laughing aloud, convinced Bass was dead and his posse had run away. Bass smiled to himself as the lighting lit up the man’s face. The long trail was over. He was facing Bob Dozier.
“Bass waited until Dozier was only a few yards away before he raised up and ordered him to stop and drop his gun. Dozier stopped laughing, his eyes wide with surprise. He hesitated for a moment, then dropped into a crouch and attempted to shoot once again as Bass lay stretched out ready and waiting in the mud before him. Before he could level his gun, Bass shot first, hitting him in the neck and killing him instantly.”
The Brunter Brothers
Bass Reeves was a huge man for his time, described as standing 6′ to 6’2″ tall, and weighing about 200 pounds. He was as famous in his jurisdiction for his physical strength as for his marksmanship. On a day in 1884, he had reason to be grateful for both attributes. The big deputy marshal was surprised at gunpoint by three brothers named Brunter. He calmly told them he had warrants for their arrest. They burst out laughing … at which time he made his move.
Grabbing the barrel of the nearest man’s gun in a vise-like grip and holding the muzzle away from himself, Reeves drew one of his Colts with his other hand and opened fire, quickly dropping the other two brothers. By now, the first man had desperately launched three harmless shots from the diverted barrel of his revolver.
Reeves smashed his Colt .45 into the man’s head, ending the fight. By all accounts, Reeves’ bullets proved fatal to the two men he shot that day. Historians differ as to the fate of the third brother. In Judge Brady’s account of the incident, it appears the two who were shot died immediately, but the third is not said to have died. Describing the same incident, however, Burton writes, “Reeves proceeded to hit this outlaw in the head with his pistol and killed him instantly.”
Reeves’ ability to fight with his hands and his gun would save him another time, against a man with which he had two gunfights.
The Jim Webb Incidents
Jim Webb was a Texas ranch foreman gone bad, a bully who accelerated to arson and murder. The big deputy went after him with posse-man Floyd Wilson and caught up with him in a ranch house in their jurisdiction. Confronted by a loaded revolver in Webb’s hand, Reeves smacked the gun away and grabbed him in a chokehold with his left hand, while drawing with his right and shoving his gun into the man’s face.
Gasping for breath, the fugitive surrendered. But Webb’s partner Frank Smith fired two shots at Reeves, both missing. Judge Brady writes, “With Webb completely controlled by his left hand, Bass fired one shot. Smith fell to the ground, the fight burned out of him by a .45 slug in his abdomen. Still gripping Webb’s throat, Bass instructed Wilson to handcuff Webb, then mapped plans to return his prisoners to the court in Paris, Texas.”
Smith died en route from Reeves’ bullet; Reeves turned Webb over to the proper authorities and went on his way. Time passed — in that time the Dozier shooting occurred — and Reeves learned Webb had posted bail after he had been in jail for many months. Reeves went on the man’s trail again.
The trail ended in a rifle duel, with Webb firing the first four shots at Reeves, who was on horseback. Those bullets reportedly clipped the brim of the deputy marshal’s hat, grazed his saddle horn, cut a button off his coat and shot the reins out of his hands. His horse shied, and Reeves dove to the ground with his rifle and returned fire. Jim Webb fell to the ground. According to biographer Brady, “It was later discovered all three bullets had hit Webb’s body within a hand’s width of each other.”
The deputy approached the downed outlaw, as did eyewitnesses John Cantrell and Jim Bywaters. The latter wrote down the dying gunman’s last words on the back of a freight receipt. He said Webb called Reeves “a brave, brave man” and he wanted Reeves to have his revolver and holster. His last words, according to Bywaters, were “I have killed 11 men, four of them in Indian territory, and I expected you to make the 12th.”
Brady, perhaps significantly, doesn’t mention the distances involved in the Webb killing. However, historian Art Burton reveals Reeves’ account, “(I) shot twice. He dropped and when I picked him up, I found my two bullets had struck within a 1/2″ of each other. He shot four times, and every shot he kept running up closer to me. He was 500 yards away from me when I killed him.”
Braggadocio? Maybe. It’s “a far piece” for a pistol-caliber Winchester with iron sights. However, Burton also records another of Bass Reeves’ shootings in which he supposedly killed a fleeing felon from a quarter-mile away with a single shot from his Winchester.
Fast Draw Contests
At least two of Bass Reeves’ fatal shootings were fast draw contests right out of the cowboy movies. Dr. Jesse Mooney reported treating him for a gunshot wound of the left thigh, a few feet away from a corpse on the floor — still holding a gun in its hand. He said Reeves told him the other man had drawn on him, and “He was real fast, but like a lot of them, they couldn’t shoot both fast and straight.” One of Reeves’ most famous gunfights was the 1889 killing of outlaw Tom Story, who went for his own revolver while the marshal’s Colts were still holstered. Bass Reeves drew and killed him before he could fire.
For much of his career, Reeves preferred to carry revolvers and rifles of the same caliber. It wasn’t just about ammo logistics for him — it was also about hard experience. Next to a campfire in 1884, he discovered he had mistakenly loaded a .45 Colt revolver cartridge into his .44-40 Winchester. Trying to pry the jammed round out of the magazine with his pocketknife, he accidentally discharged the rifle. The bullet struck his cook in the neck, mortally wounding him. Reeves was subsequently tried for murder. Though acquitted at trial, his substantial legal expenses depleted his life savings and left him financially hurting for the rest of his life. Some things just don’t change over the centuries …
A time came when Reeves’ son shot and killed his own adulterous wife. A grieving Bass Reeves arrested him and personally brought him in. His son was convicted and served hard time.
After more than 30 years, Bass Reeves left the Marshals. He was in his 70’s when he worked for two years as a Muskogee, Okla., police officer — walking with a cane but still carrying one revolver on the hip and another in a shoulder holster. He died of natural causes (Bright’s Disease) in January 1910. According to legend, he was so feared by then no crime was ever committed on his beat in Muskogee.
Remembered for killing 14 men in gunfights, those who knew him said Bass Reeves was most proud of the thousands he had arrested without having to harm them. Famous for clever subterfuge, he used more disguises than Sherlock Holmes to successfully serve his warrants. Ashamed of his own illiteracy, he made sure his children were well educated, and he memorized Bible passages he had learned from his devout mother to preach to his prisoners on the long ride to Judge Parker’s court.
Reeves believed in justice so strongly he arrested his own son. He left a legacy to the future showing how well-armed, well-prepared good people could develop the skill and alertness which allowed him to survive extreme criminal violence — which surely would have killed lesser men — and how good people could victoriously survive mindless prejudice.
The US Marshal’s Museum is still a work in progress, accepting contributions at www.usmarshalsmuseum.com. I hope to visit one day and take a look at the planned Bass Reeves exhibit. For now, I’ll make do with my long look at the statue on the grounds of Judge Parker’s historic courthouse.
Astride a horse 19 hands high is a proud Bass Reeves, Winchester in hand, Colt on hip and double-barrel shotgun in saddle scabbard — as immovably resolute in bronze as he was in life.