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August 18, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Professor Art T. Burton tells us how he first found out about Bass Reeves and he didn't think much about him. It wasn't until later in life, and after hearing stories that sounded almost too good to be true, that he decided to dive into the life of one of the first black deputy U.S. marshals west of the Mississippi River.

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a story from Professor Orit T. Burton on Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River and quite possibly the basis of Django from Django Unchained or the Lone Ranger. Art is the author of Black Gun, Silver Star, The Life of Frontier Marshall, Bass Reeves, and has dedicated his life to the academic study of African Americans in the west.

Take it away, Art. I first became aware of western culture around the age of four years old. My mother was from Arcadia, Oklahoma and the family lived in the country outside of Arcadia. And at the first memory of around the age of four, I can remember visiting relatives and my uncle trying to break a horse that was in a pasture. And I thought at the time, this is like western films I've seen on TV, people rat and bucking horses.

That was one of my first memories. And originally as a young man, I thought it was very strange because you didn't see African Americans in movies and television shows who were cowboys. But in Oklahoma, there were quite a few African Americans that were involved in ranching, owning horses, and there was a segregated black rodeo circuit that traveled between Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. And there were quite a few rodeos in Oklahoma back at that time when I was a little boy. And actually I had a couple of cousins near my age, a little bit older, who used to do trick riding in rodeos. And they would do all types of jumps and flips and all types of things on the horses.

And later one of them became a bareback rider in the rodeos and won several rodeo first prizes. So quite a few of my family owned livestock. They owned cattle. I remember sometimes going to Oklahoma and they'd have to put medicine in the cattle's eyes so they wouldn't get sick.

Or doing different things, branding the cattle. So I used to do all that and I would come back home because I lived in the suburbs of Chicago and tell my friends about it and they thought I was not telling the truth about my adventures when I went to Oklahoma. But that was like the first introduction to the African American aspect of Western culture in the United States. Now I was always bothered by the fact that African Americans were not depicted in movies and television shows talking about the Western frontier. And I didn't really know the history at that particular time but it looked like there was a big disconnect somewhere. So I went to high school. My last two years I went to high school in Oklahoma. And it wasn't until I went to college and I seen a book called The Black West. It was a picture book that started filling in some chapters and some information on the Wild West. I made a few trips back to visit family.

Didn't do any research. But I do remember on one occasion my grandparents. I was visiting them at their home and I was watching a movie on Wild Earp. And I asked my grandfather if he had remembered seeing any African Americans who were Deputy U.S. Marshals during the frontier days because my grandparents came to Oklahoma in 1890 when it was Oklahoma Territory. And my grandfather stated that he had remembered seeing some Black Deputy U.S.

Marshals ride through Arcadia. He didn't know who they were. And I remember asking him was any of them like Wild Earp. And he said no they weren't like Wild Earp far as he could know with that type of celebrity. And then he asked my grandmother what was the name of that Black Deputy over in Muskogee. And they both had said he had quite a reputation during the frontier days. And they couldn't think of his name and then my grandmother said Bass Reeves.

That discussion I had with my grandparents didn't come back to me too many years later till 85 when I went to Oklahoma for a family reunion. And I was hanging out with a cousin. One of my favorite cousins. His name was Jabari Parks. And he had a college roommate and his roommate stated that he was from Reeves Edition in Muskogee. And it was named for a Black lawman named Bass Reeves. Now I had at that time I had been writing a column here in Chicago on blues and jazz. And a lot of my interest at that time was music history because I'm a musician. I've been playing jazz music all my adult life. And I thought that it would be very interesting to write an article about Bass Reeves. Because I had never heard of a part of a town being named for a Black lawman. And so I told my cousins to find everybody they could find who knew anything about Bass Reeves.

Get their phone numbers and I would talk to them. And so I talked to quite a few people that my cousins had got phone numbers. And the people said that Bass Reeves would arrest Jesse James. He would arrest Billy the Kid. He would arrest just about anybody of fame that you would have known. And I thought that was very strange.

It didn't make sense to me. Because I was saying well if he had been that good a lawman, everybody would have known about him. And you've been listening to Professor Art Burton tell the story of Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal, west of the Mississippi River. When we come back, more of this story here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

But we truly can't do this show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button.

Give a little, give a lot. Go to and give. And we continue with Our American Stories and Professor Art T. Burton on legendary Black lawman Bass Reeves. When we last left off, Art's curiosity had been piqued after his cousin's roommate told him that he had lived in Reeves Addition in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Art thought it was strange that an area in the town would be named after a Black lawman. So he decided to do some research.

Let's continue with the story. Now in regards to Reeves Addition, which was in Muskogee, I contacted the Northeastern State University Library, and then I got a packet. And the packet that stated that Reeves Addition was named for a white banker who was also a developer in Muskogee. And, you know, that, that just brought to an end the aspect of Reeves Addition being named for Bass Reeves, who lived in Muskogee the last 10 years of his life and died in Muskogee.

So I was about ready to give up. And then I remembered there was a man I had read about. His name was Stuart, Mr. Stuart. And he had lived in Waukegan, Illinois, had been a barber, and he had moved to Denver, Colorado, to start a Black West Museum. And he had a small little museum in the basement of a radio, a Black radio station in Denver. So I called him up on the phone. And I asked him, what did he know about Bass Reeves? And he stated he didn't know too much about Bass. But there's two older gentlemen, he said, from Oklahoma. And he said, that's all they talk about. And he said, one man is Reverend Haskell Shoeboot. And Reverend Haskell Shoeboot said that Bass would walk the streets of Muskogee with a sidekick who would carry a satchel full of pistols. And if somebody called his name, he was always quick to put his back up against the wall before he turned around and seeing who was calling his name.

Very cautious. So that sounded pretty interesting from what he was telling me. So I asked him, did he have any phone numbers for the two gentlemen that lived in Denver that talked about Bass? And he said, no, he actually hadn't seen them in a couple of years. So I took the name Reverend Haskell Shoeboot and I dialed the operator in Denver.

I knew it was a long shot because most of the time older people are living with relatives or they're living in senior homes. And I dialed up the operator though, and the operator said, yes, they had a listing for Reverend Haskell Shoeboot. And I dialed the number and the lady answered the phone and I told her I wanted to speak to Reverend Shoeboot. She said, just a minute. And Reverend Shoeboot came to the phone and he talked with a, like a hoarse whisper of a voice.

How you doing? Yes. Like that. And I told Reverend Shoeboot, I was trying to get some information on Bass Reeves and he laughed. And to this day, I don't know why he laughed. Maybe he was kind of overjoyed that somebody was trying to get information on Bass Reeves. But he went on to say that Bass Reeves could out fight, out rope, out ride, out shoot. Basically he was saying Bass Reeves could out do anything that anybody could do.

And, you know, I feel it was nice that he felt so strong about Mr. Reeves, but it was nothing I could do with that, you know, in terms of me writing an article because that's initially what I wanted to do was just write an article about Bass Reeves. And then I guess he figured I wasn't impressed enough with what he was saying. And he said, I'll tell you something I've seen with my own eyes.

I'll tell you something I've seen with my own eyes. And he stated that he used to drive the hack. And I had to stop him and ask him what was a hack. And he said a hack was a one-horse carrot.

He got a little laugh out of that also. But he said he drove the hack for Bud Ledbetter. And Bud Ledbetter was the principal lawman in Muskogee after the turn of the century. And he said that they went after an outlaw. And I guess he must have did something really bad because they were trying to kill him. And he said Bud Ledbetter had a posse. And the posse was shooting at this outlaw. And they were not able to hit the outlaw. They were expending a large amount of ammunition that was basically ammunition from Ledbetter's stock.

And so he said by the middle of the day, because they came out early in the day, they were not making any progress. And I guess the outlaw had a real good hiding place. And he told somebody in the posse to go back to Muskogee and get Bass Reeves.

So Shubu said that by the end of the day, he said the sun was starting to set. He said Bass Reeves came on the scene and said that the posse had quit shooting at this outlaw by this time. And the outlaw evidently, with it being toward the end of the day, felt that he was going to make a run for it. And he said the outlaw jumped up. And when he said the outlaw jumped up, I watched so many western movies, I was thinking that he was going to jump up on his horse. And he said his outlaw jumped up and started running across the field.

And the posse started shooting at him and were missing. And he said, but Ledbetter hollered at the top of his voice, get him Bass. And he said Bass Reeves said very coolly and calmly, I will break his neck. And he said Bass took his Winchester rifle and with one shot at a quarter of a mile broke this man's neck. When he told me that shivers kind of went up and down my spine, I know a little bit about shooting. A quarter mile is two city blocks. To shoot a moving target is very hard.

And to call a shot on a moving target is almost phenomenal. And so I got mad because I would say here I am just trying to get some information on Bass Reeves and this man is going to tell me the biggest lie I've ever heard in my life. So I was a little heated. I thanked people for the story. I hung up the conversation.

And I used to walk a mile from the train station in downtown Chicago to my office every day. And I was thinking about this conversation with Shubu all week long. And so by the middle of the week, I started thinking, Shubu told me he was 98 years old. And most times people when they tell you a lie, they're going to get something out of a lie.

There's nothing Shubu would get out of a lie if it was a lie. And then I started thinking if it's true, that's one of the most phenomenal stories I've ever heard in my life. And became more and more impressed with the fact that if he's telling the truth, this needs to be researched. And so I became possessed by the end of that week to find out everything I could on Bass Reeves. And you've been listening to Professor Art T. Burton discussing his soon to be obsession and developing obsession with lawman Bass Reeves.

And it was in preliminary research for a mere article that the obsession was born. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, not only about an historian's pursuit of a person's story he didn't know, but more importantly, the story of Bass Reeves. That story continues here on Our American Story. And we continue with Our American Stories and Professor Art T. Burton on legendary black woman Bass Reeves. When we last left off, Art had dove headfirst into researching Bass in order to write a column about him for a newspaper in Chicago. All the stories he heard about Bass seemed extraordinary, almost, well, too large in life to believe. But as he looked into Bass, it became clear that he was indeed a superstar of law enforcement.

Let's continue with the story. Bass Reeves was born in Arkansas as an enslaved person in 1838, near Van Buren, Arkansas. And he was enslaved to a family of Reeves.

William Steele Reeves was the patriarch of the family. And when Bass was nine years old, they moved to Texas, and they lived there the rest of their life, the family did. And William, I guess, had appointed Bass to become the body servant to his son, George Reeves, who was a county sheriff. And he was a legislator in the Texas legislature. And Bass, as a young man, got quite good with a rifle.

And the oral stories from the family states that George Reeves would make money on Bass in turkey shoots, he would put him into competition, and he would make money on the fact that nobody could outshoot Bass Reeves. So he did that, but he went with George, I guess, doing all his work as a county sheriff. But anyway, when the Civil War came around, George became a colonel in the 11th Texas Cavalry Regiment. They served in the Indian Territory and in Missouri and Arkansas early in the war.

It was at that time that Bass supposedly got into an argument with George Reeves over a card game, and Bass knocked him out. And for a slave to hit his master in Texas law, it was punishable by death. And so Bass didn't wait around to see what the outcome of that would be, and he went deep into the Indian Territory and hooked up with Seminole and Creek Indians. And from what I can understand, the family history says that he had some interaction with Opapiaholo, who was the Creek chief that was aligned with the Union forces. And so the best that I can gather is that he most likely served with Union Indians in the Indian Territory during the Civil War against the Confederates. And the Indian Territory was pretty much like Vietnam. It was total guerrilla warfare for the most part. It was the place in the United States that suffered more than anywhere on a percentage basis. There was more loss of life, property, and livestock in the Indian Territory than anywhere in the United States during the Civil War.

Quite bloody. And so Bass evidently came through that, and then after that war, he served as a scout and a guide for the deputy marshals who were working out of the federal court at Van Buren, Arkansas. And he was the first African American to build a home within the city limit. And there were a lot of Confederate veterans that lived in that area too.

It was kind of interesting. But you were looking at Reconstruction and Republicans held sway. The Van Buren Court around 1872 moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was a former military base that the U.S. Army discarded.

And the U.S. Marshal's Office and the federal jurisdiction took over the property. And it was both used as a jail and a court. Bass was given a commission as a deputy as marshal in 75. He was not the first African American deputy west of the Mississippi River. There was probably a half a dozen or more African Americans that proceeded Bass.

There was one that I know for sure named Bynum Calbert, who was a former United States Colored Soldier during the Civil War and served seven years with the 10th Calf Buffalo Soldiers. He became a deputy marshal in 1872. So he proceeded Bass about three years. And there are stories about black deputies I've seen as early as 1867.

But Bass got a commission in 75. And he worked up till Oklahoma Statehood in 1907. And they said he had served under seven U.S. Marshals.

And he did a yeoman's job in terms of what he had to do. There was quite a few crimes such as murder, horse theft, cattle theft, rape, robbery. There was issues with train robbery and stagecoach robbery, people stealing lumber.

Any type of crime were a non-Indian committed crimes against Indians that felt under the U.S. Marshals' jurisdiction. And Fort Smith Court originally had jurisdiction over 75,000 square miles, which is pretty much the whole state of Oklahoma.

And so the deputy U.S. Marshals had a route where they would leave Fort Smith, head west, across the Missouri, Kansas, Texas railroad tracks 60 miles from Fort Smith. And the railroad tracks were called the Dead Line. And generally if you were going west, you couldn't pick up prisoners before you got to the Dead Line. You could pick them up on your way back to Fort Smith. They would head west to Fort Seal, which is a far west Indian territory. And then they would go north to Fort Reno. And sometimes you'd even go north, head toward Kansas, and then you would make a loop back to Fort Smith, at least 400 miles round trip or more.

And it would take a month or two months to make this trip. And you would have open warrants where you could find people with committed crimes, or you would have warrants where you were given names of individuals to be apprehended. He would handle as many as 30 warrants at a time, and he was illiterate. You know, Bass being illiterate, how he did that, he would have an individual read the warrant to him, and he would memorize the name and what the warrant was for. And in those 32 years, never did he bring back the wrong person because he was illiterate. So he had total recall. And he got so good with warrants that the federal officers at Fort Smith started giving him subpoenas for people they wanted to come and testify in trial. And I guess he evidently then was one of the best deputies in terms of dealing with subpoenas and warrants.

And this man couldn't read. I mean, it's absolutely phenomenal because he would come back to Fort Smith on many occasions with anywhere from a dozen to 17 prisoners on a regular basis. They were singing songs about Bass Reeves during his career. And this was white people, black people, and Indians were singing songs about this man's abilities to catch criminals. And they said once he got on your trail, he was going to catch you unless you got completely out of the territory to go to Texas or New Mexico or Kansas or something for him not to catch you.

Because they said once he zeroed in on who he wanted to go after, he would definitely find you. Probably the greatest manhunter of that era. And he worked in disguise on many occasions to catch criminals. When you've been listening to Professor R.T. Burton tell the story of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, who we thought in the beginning was just a little too large for life itself.

But in the end, the stories kept piling up. When we come back, more of those stories of Bass Reeves here on Our American Story. Should we continue with Our American Stories and Professor R.T. Burton on legendary black woman Bass Reeves? When we last left off, Professor Burton was telling us about how Bass Reeves, born a slave, fled his bondage after knocking out his master during the Civil War.

He fled to the Indian Territory, where he became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. Despite being illiterate, he traveled 400 miles round trip to execute warrants and subpoenas. He also worked in disguise.

Let's continue with the story. What he had to do now, the stories that came back about Bass in terms of his abilities and what he had to do. Many times he worked in disguise.

I stayed early one time. He dressed as a tramp, shot holes in his hat. He found a hat and found some old broken hands to put on. He looked slovenly like an outlaw.

There were two boys that had a couple thousand dollars reward on them. He went and found where they lived, walked in. They weren't home, but their mother was there and told her that he was an outlaw and he was on the run. She told him that she had a couple of boys that were also on the other side of the law and maybe they could hook up and do something together.

Maybe they could have a discussion once they came home. Bass told her they thought that was a good idea. When they came back home that evening, they made a pact to commit some crimes together.

Eight went to sleep. While they were asleep, Bass slipped the handcuffs on them. In the morning, he kicked them up and told them, let's go.

You're under arrest. The mother was so upset. I think she followed him for two or three miles cursing at him, but he arrested those boys and got the reward for them. Another time he found out some gentleman who had robbed the store owned by Brown, who was chief in the Seminole Nation.

He had a trading post and it was robbed. Bass found out where the outlaws were hiding out and he decided to get a yoke of oxen to pull a wagon. He drove the wagon to approximately where the outlaws were staying and it was kind of a hidden type of area, but he found out where they were and drove the wagon into a ditch. And then he started howling for somebody to come out and give him a hand. His wagon was stuck.

And so these outlaws wanted him to get on his way because they didn't want any type of knowledge about people knowing where they were. And so they came out and as they pulled his wagon up out of the ditch, he pulled the gun out of his overalls and told them they were under arrest and took them in. He did those type of things.

He was also very strong. Bass was six feet two, 190 pounds. And there was one story told in the Chickasaw Nation that Bass came across some cowboys. They had about six ropes on a steer that was caught in the mud and they were trying to pull it out and they weren't getting anywhere and Bass watched them for a while. And so after watching them for a while, Bass got off his horse, took all his clothes off, jumped in the mud with the steer and took all the ropes off the steer and pushed and pulled the steer out of the mud using his strength. And the cowboys were amazed.

They said Bass got on his horse without originally putting his clothes back on, but he rode off saying, you know, those dumb cowboys or something to that effect. He could also shoot very good. His shooting was remarkable. They said one time he came upon six wolves pulling down a steer on the prairie and he shot all six of the wolves from the back of his horse. And the bulls are scattered in all directions and they said that he only had to shoot two of the wolves twice, but he killed all six of them from the back of his horse, which was pretty good shooting on running wolves. And his weapon of choice was a Winchester rifle.

He would carry two to three pistols on him also, and he was ambidextrous with left hand or right hand. So this guy was like, you know, the Michael Jordan of law enforcement. If you got in a gunfight with Bass, it was almost tantamount to committing suicide. If you tried to run, he'd catch you.

If you tried to hack, he would find you. And a lot of times people, if they found out Bass had the warrant, they'd turn themselves in. Belle Starr, who was the most famous female outlaw from the Indian territory, several movies been made about her life. It was said that she and Bass was good friends. Well, Bass got a warrant for her arrest around 1886 and she turned herself in.

It was the only time she was known to walk in the road into Fort Smith, Arkansas and surrendered herself. And she was found not to be guilty for that particular time. But that was the one time Bass had the warrant for her arrest. He arrested lawmen that went bad.

He did that on a few occasions. And then there were some outlaws he arrested that came back out of prison and became lawmen. And in 1902, Benny, one of his sons, he had problems with his wife. And then eventually, during an altercation with Benny, caught her with another man. Benny shot and killed his wife.

Bass found out about it and told the marshal to give me the warrant. And he went and arrested Benny for capital murder. Benny was convicted and was sent to the Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas for life.

But he only actually served, I think it was 11 years. And he got out. And actually, the preacher that baptized him got behind in the ribs for his church. And the congregation gave him permission to sell bootleg whiskey to make some money for the church.

And Bass arrested him, put him in jail for selling bootleg whiskey. And he liked to tell jokes. He liked to laugh. Once he got to know somebody, he never forgot them. But he had a flip side. Like, if you're an outlaw, he was the worst person you ever want to meet in your life. But on the other side, they said he was very kind and very gentle and was a total, you know, good person to be around. And so he had that duality about him. You know, the thing that gets me is that he had no fear.

And that's scary to me in itself for you not to fear anything that walks on the face of the earth. So he had a different mindset, because most people are scared of something. Daz would probably be a hero for law enforcement today. Daz worked for the Fort Smith Court up to 1893, and for the Eastern District of Texas until 97.

In 97, he transferred to the Muskogee Federal Court. So he worked up to statehood November 16, 1907. His career was legendary in terms of the status. There were newspaper stories on his police work in Texas, Kansas. And the newspapers always stated that Daz had never been wounded. Even at the time of his death, newspapers were saying he had never been shot. But he did walk with a cane late in his career, and some people stated that it was due to him being shot. And I think there was at least one newspaper article that stated that he was walking with a cane due to a bullet wound he had received earlier. There was approximately four or five saloon towns just to the west of the Seminole Nation and the Creek Nation.

All of them was real bad, but one was notorious. And supposedly Daz was in one of these saloons. And he got into an argument with a young Texas cowboy. The cowboy called him out, and supposedly Daz got shot in the leg, but Daz killed the cowboy. Now this has never been written about in newspapers. It is in some books that were oral books that were recorded from people's remembrances.

So it's quite possible. The newspapers also stated that he had killed over 14 men in line of duty. And at the time of his death, I found at least three or four newspapers said he killed over 20 men in line of duty. In 1902, he was interviewed by the newspapers and he stated he had arrested over 3,000 men and women who broke federal law.

So by the time he retired in 1907, it was probably upwards of 4,000 people he had arrested for breaking the law. For me, for me, Bass Reeves is the greatest frontier hero in United States history. I taught American history, later American, early American history. And I don't know of any frontier hero in US history that even comes close to Bass Reeves. Being that he had to walk the fine line between white, red, and black populations in Indian territory and what that all entailed.

Doing the fact that the majority of deputies marshals killed in the line of duty were killed in the Indian territory is very, very dangerous. He walked in the valley of death every day for 32 years and came out alive. He is, without a doubt, unless somebody can show me something different, the greatest frontier hero in American history.

And a great job on the production by Monty. A special thanks to Professor Art T. Burton. His book, Black Gun, Silver Star, the Life of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.

Go to a local bookstore and buy it or purchase the book wherever you get your books. He could outfight, outride, outrope, outshoot anybody. He killed 20 men in the line of duty and arrested over 4,000. The story of Bass Reeves here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 11:09:45 / 2023-02-17 11:22:08 / 12

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