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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

True Tales from the Old West

Western District Federal Court Fort Smith, The Early Days Of Bass Reeves

By Ray Shelley

I have been fascinated with the old west as far back as I can remember.  In 1954 I purchased a new magazine on the market called ‘True West.’  Over the years, my magazines were thrown out or misplaced, with many documented histories lost.  Since my earlier days, I have changed my habits. Now I’m a packrat.  There is no telling how many True West, Frontier Times, and Wild West magazines I have, plus several hardback books with more information than a guy from Mena, Arkansas, needs.

My main interest in law enforcement officers and outlaws centers around 1875 -1896, Judge Issac C. Parker’s tenure, and the Western Arkansas Federal Court system.  I have read several accounts of the Earp Brothers of Tombstone, AZ, the Masterson Brothers of Dodge City, Kansas. Still, I find the Bill Tilghmen, Chris Madsen, Heck Thomas, and James ‘Bud’ Ledbetter are far more fascinating while bringing law and order to Indian Territory.  Another lawman who up until recently did not receive a lot of press.  His name is Bass Reeves.

While researching Bass Reeves, I have found several versions of his life story.  

Bass was a big man for the times.  He stood 6’2″ and weighed approximately 180 #, and he rode a horse that was 19 hands high. Average man’s height in those days was around 5’6″ to 5’9″.  He must have been a rugged-looking individual riding down Garrison Ave in Fort Smith.  Garrison Avenue used to be the parade grounds where troops drilled under the command of Zachary Taylor, Commander of the Fort, who later became the President of the United States.

Western District Federal Court

Fort Smith bordered Indian Territory ( present-day Oklahoma) between the 30 counties of Western Arkansas and all of Indian Territory. The court had to keep a handle on federal crimes committed in 75,000 square miles.  Before 1875 the Western District Federal Court many illegalities were occurring from mismanagement under the tenure of Judge William Story.  Judge  Story, accused of overcharging the government and taking bribes, resigned from the pressure of impending impeachment.

On May 2, 1875, the irresponsibility of the court changed when President Grant appointed Isaac C. Parker as Judge of the Western District Federal Court of Fort Smith at the yearly salary of $3500.00 a year.  Parker became the youngest judge appointed to the federal bench at the age of Thirty-six years of age.  

Judge Parker did not waste time dispensing justice.  Eight days after his arrival as the new federal judge, he held his first trial.  Eighteen murderers faced his bench, and fifteen were convicted.  Eight of these he sentenced to hang. Out of the eight convictions, one was shot and killed trying to escape. The President commuted one sentence because of his youth. ( incidentally, for fourteen years, there were no appeals to the supreme court, Judge Parker had complete control over his decisions.  Except when appealed to the President.)

Judge Parker commissioned the first black. United States Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi when Bass Reeves took the oath of office in 1875.

 Bass Reeves

(Early Days)

To understand Bass Reeves’s impact on taming of Indian Territory, you have to start from his beginning. 

Bass was born a slave in Paris, Texas, the date varies, but most historians think Bass was born in 1838.  Colonel George Reeves owned Bass’s mother and father, Sam and Sara Reeves,     (There has been much debate among scholars and historians if the enslaved African Americans used the surnames of their last or previous owners. Sam and Sara chose to take the Reeves name )    

Historian researcher and College professor Art Burton’s book, Black, Red, and Deadly, writes, “Colonel Reeves owned a small plantation, also seven slaves, of whom Bass was one.  The slaves lived in the same house as Reeves and his family but in a different location.

 One of Bass’s first jobs was to bring water to the pickers in the fields. While keeping their palates wet, he would also sing, a gift he acquired from his father, who also loved to sing.  Sam and Sara were good parents, teaching their children responsibilities, ethics, honesty, and fairness while living in bondage.

There are a couple of versions of how Bass ended up as a Deputy Marshal.  Burton writes Oral history recorded by the Bass Reeves family stated that Bass was picked to be his master’s companion or Body servent.  Oral history also says Bass was with Col. Reeves at the battle of Pea Ridge Ar and had a disagreement over a card game.  The two got into a fight, with Bass beating Col. Parker to within an inch of his life.  Bass fled to Indian Territory and hid out until President Lincoln signed the Emancipated Proclamation Act in 1863 that made Reeves free, then he waited until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.

Another version  ( BASS REEVES: DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL 1875-1902 By Mary Wyche Estes ) I find more colorful, but again not provable.   The author claims Col. Reeves son, Jonathon, befriended Bass, as they were roughly the same age.  Through the years of friendship, Bass was allowed to exercise the Reeves horses. Also, the boys would shoot pistols and rifles.  Bass became very proficient at both.

Jonathon went off to college, and on his trips home, he would teach Bass the card game of poker and showed Bass all the signals for Jonathon to win. Bass wasn’t very uncomfortable with this arrangement because he knew cheating was wrong.  Then he told Bass he was bringing some college kid home for the weekend and wanted Bass to play cards with them and use the cheating techniques he had acquired.  Bass refused and made the owners’ son very angry.  Jonathon told Bass if he didn’t comply with his wishes, Bass would be sorry.

Bass went home and told his mother what Jonathon had in mind.  He said, “I can’t cheat; you taught me better than that.”  Sara tried to comfort Bass, but being slaves,  nothing she could say would ease his pain.  

A little while later, Sara asked Bass if he had seen his sister Rose.  Bass said she was at the big house. They both thought she should have been home by now.  Bass found Rose running down the road toward him and was crying.  He asked why, and she said Jonathon had pushed her around, scared her, and ripped her dress.

Bass sent Rose home then proceeded to the big house, where he found Jonathon and beat him to a pulp. 

Bass found his father and told him what he had just done to Jonathon.  Sam told his son to saddle the best horse the Colonel owned and head for Indian Territory; he said people wouldn’t ask you anything, and you can hide out without too much worry.  So, off Bass rode for Indian Territory and unbelievable life.

Like I said, a colorful version and exciting reading, but without factual evidence, who’s to know.

Part two of Bass Reeves’s exploits will post in a future article.

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