U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum searches for Bass Reeves’ rel­a­tives

Texarkana Gazette - - STATE - By John Lovett

The South­west Times Record

FORT SMITH, Ark.—The U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum in Fort Smith has an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of guns and doc­u­ments re­lated to famed Deputy U.S. Mar­shal Bass Reeves. Al­most a year out from a planned open­ing of the new $60 mil­lion mu­seum, it's the law­man's fam­ily tree the cu­ra­tor wants most.

Dave Kennedy, cu­ra­tor of col­lec­tions and ex­hibits, said re­cently the mu­seum is still in search of Bass Reeves's de­scen­dants, the South­west Times Record re­ported.

At this point, with a down­town Fort Smith statue of Reeves erected in 2012, along with sev­eral True West Mag­a­zine sto­ries and a 1992 in­duc­tion in the Hall of Great Western­ers at the Na­tional Cowboy and Western Her­itage Mu­seum in Ok­la­homa City, it would be pe­cu­liar if some­one asks "Who's Bass Reeves?"

The ques­tion, how­ever, opens up an op­por­tu­nity to talk about one of the best sto­ries around: Born into slav­ery in Craw­ford County; es­caped servi­tude dur­ing the Civil War; pos­si­bly fought for the Union with the Kee­toowah Chero­kees; sur­vived dozens of gun­fights rid­ing for Judge Isaac C. Parker as one of the first black U.S. deputy mar­shals west of the Mis­sis­sippi; ac­quit­ted of mur­der for the death of his cook; ar­rested his son, Ben­jamin, for shoot­ing his wife, Castella, in a jeal­ous rage. Th­ese are just a few of the in­cred­i­ble sto­ries of a man who hunted down men no­body else could cap­ture.

Af­ter serv­ing as a valiant mar­shal's deputy, Reeves worked as a po­lice­man in Musko­gee for two years, 1907-1909. He died in 1910. Kennedy pointed to "racist sen­ti­ment on the part of in­com­ing state of­fi­cials," as well as the Con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion and the in­com­ing U.S. mar­shal when Ok­la­homa be­came a state in 1907 as rea­sons Reeves lost his job with the Mar­shals Ser­vice. Other rea­sons, Kennedy adds, in­cluded Reeves' age.

Thought to have been born in the sum­mer of 1838, by the year 1880, Bass and Jennie Reeves had eight chil­dren: Sally, Robert, Har­riet, Ge­or­gia, Alice, New­land, Edgar and Lula. All were two years in age apart. In 1887, Reeves had to sell his home and farm in the Catcher Com­mu­nity near Van Buren to pay for his first-de­gree mur­der de­fense with at­tor­neys Wil­liam H.H. Clay­ton, for­merly the U.S. At­tor­ney in Judge Parker's court, and Wil­liam M. Cravens. The Reeves fam­ily moved to North Twelfth Street, Park Place, in 1889.

As noted in Art Bur­ton's 2006 book, "Black Gun, Sil­ver Star," Reeves has been known to his­to­ri­ans for quite some time and was even men­tioned in Larry McMurtry's 1997 novel "Zeke and Ned." But Reeves is left out of the pic­ture in S.W. Har­mon's 1898 book "Hell on the Border." How­ever, as early as 1901 writer D.C. Gideon de­tailed Reeves in his book "Indian Ter­ri­tory."

"Among the nu­mer­ous deputy mar­shals that have rid­den for the Paris (Texas), Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Indian Ter­ri­tory courts none have met with more hair­breadth es­capes or have af­fected more haz­ardous ar­rests than Bass Reeves, of Musko­gee," Gideon writes. "His long mus­cu­lar arms have at­tached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a gi­ant and they han­dle a re­volver with the ease and grace ac­quired only af­ter years of prac­tice. Sev­eral 'bad' men have gone to their long home for re­fus­ing to halt when com­manded to by Bass."

Tom Wing, his­tory pro­fes­sor with the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fort Smith, feels that Reeves was so well re­spected by lo­cal law­men that he was of­fered a "light duty" job with the Musko­gee Po­lice De­part­ment.

As noted by the U.S. Park Ser­vice in a his­tory of Bass Reeves, Judge Parker "be­lieved that black men would make great of­fi­cers of the law in the Indian Ter­ri­tory, due to shared mistrust that ex­isted be­tween In­di­ans and blacks to­ward the white man." That en­try also notes that racial ten­sions were par­tic­u­larly high at the time and "caused whites to feel anger to­ward a black man who had the power to ar­rest them."

Un­til just a few years ago, it was more likely that only read­ers steeped in the lore of the west or Parker's court knew much about the deep-voiced man who sang softly be­fore go­ing into a gun­fight. Reeves was also known to love rac­ing his sor­rell horse, and would go to ex­tremes to serve writs. Once, he walked 28 miles dressed as a beg­gar and fooled two men and their mother into let­ting him stay the night. The men with a $5,000 bounty on their heads woke up in hand­cuffs.

In "Black Gun, Sil­ver Star," Bur­ton re­counts some sto­ries from Adam Grayson, a for­mer res­i­dent of Indian Ter­ri­tory, say­ing that Reeves tore up at least one warrant for a pris­oner who out­raced his sor­rel steed.

Claude Le­gris, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fort Smith Ad­ver­tis­ing and Pro­mo­tion Com­mis­sion and a mem­ber of the U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum's board of di­rec­tors, said Bur­ton told Reeves' story at a Fort Smith Na­tional His­toric Site De­scen­dant's Day event in the early 2000s and helped Reeves re­ceive the no­to­ri­ety for his brav­ery and in­cred­i­ble ca­reer as a law­man. The U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice also started do­ing th­ese events in 2012 in con­junc­tion with the Chero­kee Na­tion.

Se­bas­tian County Cir­cuit Judge Jim Spears, now re­tired, is cred­ited with lead­ing an ef­fort to promi­nently en­shrine the folk hero in bronze. Af­ter five years and sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars in fundrais­ing, Spears and his com­mit­tee saw the un­veil­ing of the large bronze "Bass Reeves Legacy Mon­u­ment" by H. Holden at Ross Pen­der­graft Park in down­town Fort Smith in May 2012.

Spears said Bill Black pre­sented the idea for a Bass Reeves statue af­ter Spears' ef­fort for a statue of Pres­i­dent Zachary Tay­lor did not get trac­tion. Spears is now lead­ing an ef­fort to erect a bronze statue of Judge Parker down­town.

Many U.S. Mar­shals who rode for Parker have re­ceived fame over the years: Paden Tol­bert bring­ing in Ned Christie, for ex­am­ple. And "The Three Guards­men" was a name given to a group who be­came leg­endary in their pur­suit of many out­laws of the late 19th cen­tury: Deputy U.S. Mar­shals Bill Til­gh­man (1854-1924), Chris Mad­sen (1851-1944), and Heck Thomas (1850-1912).

"But they didn't stay there for 30 years," Spears said of the trio with Parker's Court. "I think Bass Reeves' claim to fame is his per­sis­tence, and he bounced back af­ter the mur­der trial."

Spears also agreed with the Na­tional Park Ser­vice notes that point out that although Reeves is of­ten cred­ited with as many as 3,000 ar­rests and as many as 20 out­laws killed in the name of the law, the numbers "have to be used with his­tor­i­cal cau­tion." Kennedy said they have only been able to ver­ify five peo­ple were killed by Reeves, in­clud­ing his cook, which was most likely an ac­ci­dent.

"Bass Reeves was born a slave, but died a re­spected law­man, hav­ing served in the Indian Ter­ri­tory (and later Ok­la­homa), Arkansas and Texas," the Na­tional Park Ser­vice states. "His ca­reer stretched from the U.S. Fed­eral Court for the Western Dis­trict of Arkansas in 1875 un­til two years af­ter Ok­la­homa gained state­hood in 1907."

Bar­ton quotes many sources in his book, and many times Reeves is cred­ited with bring­ing in about a dozen pris­on­ers or more at a time from the Indian Ter­ri­tory to the Dis­trict Court­house in Fort Smith.

The "Court Notes" of the July 31, 1885, Fort Smith Weekly El­e­va­tor for ex­am­ple states "Deputy Bass Reeves came in same evening with eleven pris­on­ers, as fol­lows: Thomas Post, one Walaska, and Wm. Gibson, as­sault with in­tent to kill; Arthur Copiah, Abe Lin­coln, Miss Ade­line Grayson and Sally Copiah, alias Long Sally, in­tro­duc­ing whiskey in Indian coun­try; J.F. Adams, Jake Is­land, Andy Al­ton and one Smith, lar­ceny."

The leg­end of Bass Reeves will only con­tinue to grow as more dis­cover his story.

The Fort Smith Na­tional His­toric Site has a room ded­i­cated to the his­tory of black law­men and lo­cal mil­i­tary units.

"We may never know ex­actly how many black men served as Deputy U.S. Mar­shals," a plac­ard at the His­toric Site reads. "There is no in­di­ca­tion of race on fed­eral records. Their names are listed side by side with other Deputy U.S. Mar­shals. All face the same hard­ships and dan­gers."

The known black deputy U.S. mar­shals, how­ever, are listed as Ru­fus Can­non, Bill Col­bert, Bynum Col­bert, Cyrus Den­nis, Wiley Es­coe, Neely Fac­tor, Robert For­tune, John Gar­rett, Ed­ward D. Jef­fer­son, Grant John­son, John Joss, Robert Love, Zeke Miller, Crow­der Nicks (Nix), Charles Pet­tit, Bass Reeves, Ed Robin­son, Dick Roe­buck, Isaac Rogers, Jim Ruth, Dick Shaver, Mor­gan Tucker, Lee Thomp­son, Eu­gene Walker and Henry White­head.

The U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum in Fort Smith, which is in the process of con­struct­ing a build­ing on the Arkansas River in Fort Smith for a na­tional mu­seum, has among its col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts a Spencer ri­fle Reeves took from a Civil War bat­tle­field and two pis­tols Reeves pur­chased later dur­ing his ca­reer. The Three Rivers Mu­seum in Musko­gee also has sev­eral ar­ti­facts from Reeves' ca­reer as a law­man.

More U.S. mar­shals died in ser­vice while hunt­ing down fugi­tives in the Western Dis­trict of Arkansas than any other place. Eighty-two of the U.S. deputy mar­shals are buried at Oak Ceme­tery in Fort Smith. It's not known ex­actly where Bass Reeves is buried, but in the 1990s the Ok­la­hom­bres or­ga­ni­za­tion placed a small marker bear­ing Reeves' name in the Old Agency Ceme­tery in Musko­gee.

From 1920-1970, Kennedy ex­plained, the name Bass Reeves, as well as those of Grant Fore­man and Robert For­tune were for­got­ten out­side the cir­cle of fam­ily and lo­cal his­tory.

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