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The Story Behind the Legendary Bass Reeves

The Story Behind the Legendary Bass Reeves

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Of the must-see shows for November, I am most excited about Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The series is taking viewers back to the Old West, with David Oyelowo portraying the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshal. This series will take us back to the post-reconstruction era, in which Bass Reeves became an infamous frontier hero by capturing thousands of the most notorious criminals in the land. Oyelowo will be joined by Dennis Quaid, Garrett Hedlund, and Donald Sutherland.

Initially, Lawmen was supposed to be a Yellowstone spin-off. However, after showrunner Chad Feehan learned more about Reeves’ life, he wanted the show to take place from 1862 to 1877. In other words, Bass Reeves deserved his own shine, in his own standing.

With that said, the timeframe of the show is just after the antebellum period, which extended from the conclusion of the War of 1812 to the start of the American Civil War in 1861. This is a time when police forces in the South terrorized Black people and reinforced the institution of slavery. Oftentimes, these police forces were localized white militias, which performed a wide range of functions within their communities, including surveillance of the enslaved.

They were hostile to Black people in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. With Black Americans’ citizenship status still in question around 1866, white policemen of the South either ignored violent acts perpetrated by white southerners against Black people, or actively participated in it themselves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. The Reeves family was owned by William Steele Reeves, an Arkansas state legislator. When Bass was 8-years-old, William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas. Bass was kept enslaved by William Reeves’ son, Colonel George R. Reeves — a Texan sheriff, legislator, and one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death in 1882.

When the Civil War began, George Reeves joined the Confederate Army, forcing Bass to go with him. It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves escaped, but at some point, during the war, he gained his freedom. Bass stayed with Native American tribes and learned their languages, picked up their customs, and also learned how to scout. 

As a freedman, Reeves returned to Arkansas where he acquired his own land and built an eight-room house with his bare hands.

Reports regarding Reeves’s activities and whereabouts during the Civil War are ultimately unclear. He claimed to have served in several battles, however, Reeves’ family members claimed that at some time between 1861 and 1862 he attacked his owner following an argument during a card game and escaped to Indian Territory, to what is now Kansas and Oklahoma.

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In 1875, at the age of 38, he was commissioned to be a deputy U.S. marshal by Federal Judge Isaac Parker of the Western District of Arkansas, known as the “hanging judge” for the high number of convictions of crimes punishable by death in his court. In this role, Reeves was authorized to arrest not just Black outlaws, but white outlaws as well. He earned a name for himself for being an incredible marksman, smart detective, and for being fearless. Reeves was responsible for apprehending criminals in a 75,000-square-mile region of what is now mostly Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Well known for his valor, Reeves killed 14 outlaws and apprehended more than 3,000 throughout his 32-year career. Upon retirement in 1907, he became a city police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma. While there is no definitive proof of the connection, Reeves is sometimes speculated to have been the inspiration for the fictional character, the Lone Ranger.

The story of Bass Reeves takes us right to Django Unchained — which is not based on a true story, but where racism and slavery still exist in a very real way. We were given a different story in Django; one of redemption and an ending we didn’t see coming. Although never confirmed by director Quentin Tarantino, Django seems to have been inspired by Bass Reeves, including it being set during the same time frame.

In Season 1, Episode 6 of HBO’s Watchmen, it opened with a black-hooded figure in pursuit of a lawman; he quickly finds himself lassoed in front of a stunned church congregation. But then the man reveals himself to be the legendary Bass Reeves, and exposes his hogtied victim as the corrupt white sheriff who has been rustling all the local cattle. Reeves gets cheered on by the townspeople, because he liberates them from a villain who’d disguised himself as their protector.

What we know for sure is, for Black lawmen, taking on white supremacy and establishing peace during Reconstruction was not an easy feat. Most likely, they were outmanned and outgunned, particularly after 1874 when a campaign of violence by the Democratic Party aimed at completely disfranchising Black people in the South.

It goes to show that turbulent times of racism of the Jim Crow era and beyond can nearly extinguish someone’s existence. What I am excited to see in this series is another story given back to us of who gets to be a hero. In this case, a Black legendary cowboy.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves premieres November 5, 2023 on Paramount +.

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