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Black Gun, Silver Star

The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves

Art T. Burton

Publication Year: 2006

In The Story of Oklahoma, Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves appears as one of “eight notable Oklahomans,” the “most feared U.S. marshal in the Indian country.” That Reeves was also an African American who had spent his early life as a slave in Arkansas and Texas made his accomplishments all the more remarkable. Black Gun, Silver Star tells Bass Reeves's story for the first time, sifting through fact and legend to discover the truth about one of the most outstanding peace officers in late-nineteenth-century America—and perhaps the greatest lawman of the Wild West era. 

Bucking the odds (“I’m sorry, we didn’t keep black people’s history,” a clerk at one of Oklahoma’s local historical societies answered to a query), Art T. Burton traces Reeves from his days of slavery to his soldiering in the Civil War battles of the Trans-Mississippi Theater to his career as a deputy U.S. marshal out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, beginning in 1875 when he worked under “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker. Fluent in Creek and other southern Native languages, physically powerful, skilled with firearms, and a master of disguise, Reeves was exceptionally adept at apprehending fugitives and outlaws and his exploits were legendary in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Black Gun, Silver Star restores this remarkable figure to his rightful place in the history of the American West.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Race and Ethnicity in the American West


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p. vii-vii


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pp. viii-x

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pp. xi-xvi

My introduction to Bass Reeves came in an Oklahoma history course at Oklahoma State University in the late 1950s. The teacher was Angie Debo, a temporary replacement, as I recall, for Berlin B. Chapman, who was on leave. Even in my late teens I was struck by the quality of her teaching, and although nearly fifty years have passed, I remember that classroom experience remarkably well. Angie differed...

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pp. xvii-xx

Many people have given me significant information and vital assistance in my research on Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves over the last fifteen years. I belong to an organization titled Oklahombres, an educational association for the preservation of lawman and outlaw history in Indian Territory and early-day Oklahoma. I am a past president of the association. Many of the members have assisted me in finding archival and oral resources about Bass Reeves's career. Diron...

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Introduction: Uncovering the History of Black Deputy U.S. Marshals

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pp. 1-10

The research on Bass Reeves has not been easy to obtain. One of the first responses I received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma after inquiring about Reeves was, "I am sorry, we didn't keep black people's history." Due to the discriminatory practices in the twentieth century, much African American history was not retained in local towns of the South or Southwest. Information...

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1. The Lone Ranger and Other Stories

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pp. 11-18

Much of what we know today about Bass Reeves persisted in oral stories told by individuals and families whose origins are in frontier Oklahoma. I was able to collect a few of these stories from persons who currently reside in Oklahoma or have lived there in the past. This chapter will focus on these folktales. After I finished writing Black, Red, and Deadly, I thought about the uncanny...

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2. Arkansas Son

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pp. 19-24

Once upon a time on the Arkansas frontier, there was a young slave who was given the name of Bass. As an adult he would take the surname Reeves, that of the family who owned him as a chattel slave. From all the records available, I believe that Bass Reeves was born in July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. It appears that Bass was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington, whose name appeared on Bass's mother's death certificate. Bass...

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3. Van Buren and Fort Smith

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pp. 25-31

Bass Reeves and his family moved to Arkansas sometime around 1870; the exact date is not known. In the 1870 census for Crawford County, Arkansas, which was compiled in the month of June, Bass's wife, Jennie, is given the name Jane and her age is given as twenty. At that time they had four children: Sarah, age six; Robert, four; Harriet, two; and George A., six months, who was actually a girl...

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4. On the Trail

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pp. 32-55

On numerous occasions in Reeves's early career as a deputy U.S. marshal, he rode out of Fort Smith as a posseman for another deputy. This was not an uncommon practice in the Indian Territory. Less experienced deputies frequently went on patrol with more experienced deputies so they could gain knowledge from seasoned lawmen. Sometimes a deputy would request another deputy to go out with him because he respected his skills and dependability. Oftentimes...

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5. "No Sunday West of St. Louis, No God West of Fort Smith"

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pp. 56-75

In the Indian Territory, whiskey profits were high and attracted tough and dangerous men. Whiskey bought on the Arkansas or Texas border for two dollars could be resold to the Indians for as much as twenty dollars. Many people were willing to take the chance of arrest for the high profits of a crime analogous to the illegal drug trafficking of today. Four-fifths of the criminal cases in the...

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6. Gunman's Territory

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pp. 76-107

The year 1884 had a major impact on Bass Reeves's career as a peace officer in the Indian Territory. He was involved in several deadly shootouts with outlaws, and he had a tragic incident happen in his camp on one of his trips---he shot and killed his cook. Bass Reeves's family had grown larger by 1884. The 1880 census for Crawford County, Arkansas, listed his children as Sally, 16; Robert, 14; Harriet, 12; Georgia, 10; Alice, 8; Newland...

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7. Hell on the Border

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pp. 108-126

The year 1885 found Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves riding hard on the trail of outlaws deep in the interior of Indian Territory. In February, Reeves sent a note to Marshal Boles asking for writs on lawbreakers he had arrested in the Seminole Nation: Eufaula, Creek Nation Feb 2nd 1885 Thomas Boles United States MarshalWestern Dist Ft Smith Ark Dear Sir Please send me a writ for Jimmy Shepard for selling whiskey which...

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8. Trial of the Century

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pp. 127-148

The most important murder case Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was involved in was his own. Some details of the incident in which Reeves killed his cook, William Leach, in April 1884, were presented in chapter 6. Public notice of Reeves's arrest and trial for the shooting began when several articles appeared in Arkansas newspapers. The first is from the Arkansas Gazette, published in the state capital of Little Rock, on January 22...

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9. Back on the Trail [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 149-170

One of the first well-organized bands of horse thieves to operate in Indian Territory was the Tom Story gang. Besides Tom Story, the gang had other talented men like "Peg Leg" Jim, Kinch West (who reportedly rode with William Quantrill), and "Long" Henry, who were all experts in the fine art of stealing and disposing of horses. From 1884 until 1889 Tom and his gang were devoted exclusively to stealing horses in Indian Territory and selling them...

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10. The Winds of Change

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pp. 171-177

On February 6, 1889, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time heard appeals from the Fort Smith federal court. A month later, on March 1, Congress established a white man's court in the Indian Territory at Muskogee. This was a court of civil jurisdiction, upholding the civil laws of the state of Arkansas. The Muskogee federal court, we will remember, handled minor crimes. It had exclusive, original jurisdiction of all offenses against the laws...

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11. Land of the Six-Shooter

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pp. 178-190

Tulsa, Oklahoma, suffered the worst race riot in U.S. history in 1921. But violence was not new to Tulsa. Earlier, Reeves had made an impression on the frontier residents of this town, where many criminals sought refuge. J. M. Hall, the author of a 1927 book about the early days of Tulsa between 1882 and 1900, was the brother of H. C. Hall, the founder of Tulsa in the Creek Nation. H. C. Hall built the first store in Tulsa in 1882, and J. M. Hall was the first...

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12. Paris, Texas

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pp. 191-208

On January 27, 1893, near Purcell in the Chickasaw Nation, Bass Reeves arrested a Creek Indian named Jim Bell for horse theft. Bell had been on the run since September 1890 for the larceny that he committed in the Creek Nation. Also in the fall of 1890, near Eufaula in the Creek Nation, Bell and Harry Sampson, also called Samsuagee, stole a horse from a white man named Newton Kelly. After stealing the horse, they shot and killed it...

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13. Northern District, Indian Territory

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pp. 209-223

By 1897 the Northern Federal District for the Indian Territory, with headquarters at Muskogee, now comprised the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations and the Quapaw Agency. Courts met in Muskogee in the Creek Nation, Vinita and Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation, and Miami in the Quapaw country. Muskogee was a division headquarters for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (MK&T) Railroad, where thousands of cattle were shipped to markets. With the advantage of being able to fatten trail-weary...

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14. Muskogee Marshal

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pp. 224-232

By the late 1890s the white population had grown to more than two hundred thousand, from a total of sixty thousand in the Indian Territory in 1875. On March 3, 1893, Congress passed legislation authorizing negotiations with the Indians to the enrollment and allotment of their lands. Henry L. Dawes from Massachusetts was the chairman of this initiative, which became known as the Dawes Commission. Indians and Freedmen were given...

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15. A New Century

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pp. 233-239

The following short notice appeared in the Muskogee Phoenix on January 18, 1900: Bass Reeves, the well known colored deputy marshal at this place, was married last Sunday at Muskogee. Bass married Winnie J. Sumner, a previously wedded Cherokee Freedwoman originally from Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation.Winnie had been born to Caroline Foreman and Dred Foreman. At the time of Winnie's birth, her mother was a slave of William P. Ross of the famous Ross family of the Cherokee Nation. In...

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16. Devotion to Duty

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pp. 240-254

Bass Reeves was reappointed deputy U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Indian Territory, effective January 10, 1902. An appointment form sent by U.S. Marshal Leo E. Bennett to the U.S. attorney general in Washington dc on March 17, 1902, showed Reeves and John L. Brown as the two most senior men in the district, with twenty years service or more. Also appointed were Grant Johnson of Eufaula with fourteen years...

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17. The Invincible Marshal

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pp. 255-272

The Muskogee city directory for 1903 has Bass Reeves and his wife living at 325 West Court Street in Muskogee. This would confirm earlier information I received from Pliny Twine that Reeves lived at Fourth and Court. This location is right in the downtown area of Muskogee, which is today directly south of Arrowhead Mall Shopping Center. Reeves's neighbor across the street, at...

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18. A Lawman to the End

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pp. 273-304

As the final chapter closes in, Bass Reeves continues to refine his craftsmanship of a "lawman to the end." On October 5, 1904, John Thomas was indicted on two counts: illegal cohabitation with Sarah Britt on October 1, 1904, and assault with intent to kill Pete Reynolds on October 4, 1904. Bass Reeves arrested Thomas on February 25, 1905.1 A shooting took place in the town of Porter in the Creek Nation on March 4, 1905. Alfred Barnett was indicted for...

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pp. 305-308

After Bass Reeves, there were other legendary African American policemen in the United States during the twentieth century. Two policemen from the Midwest were especially noted for their law enforcement careers: Ira L. Cooper from St. Louis and Sylvester Washington from Chicago. W. Martin Delaney wrote: Probably the most significant African American police officer of this generation was Ira L. Cooper of St. Louis. Appointed...


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-326


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pp. 327-332


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pp. 333-347

E-ISBN-13: 9780803205413
E-ISBN-10: 0803205414

Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Race and Ethnicity in the American West