In the year of the Centennial of the United States, the last of the West left relatively unscathed by the forces of law and order was that part of present-day Oklahoma set aside as homeland for the native Indian tribes. This was a 70,000 square mile territory in which anything went … and usually did. Among what was called the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) there were native law enforcement officers, who upheld the law among their own. But they had no jurisdiction over interlopers of any color, or tribal members who committed crimes in company with or against an outsider, and the Territory was Liberty Hall and a refuge for every kind of horse thief, cattle rustler, bank and train robber, murderer and scalawag roaming the post-Civil War west. Just about every notorious career criminal at large for the remainder of the 19th century took refuge in the Oklahoma Territory at one time or another, including the James and Dalton gangs.
The situation was exacerbated as stagecoach and railway lines etched thoroughfares across the territory. The settlements around stage stations and depots leaked disreputable characters into the population. Herds of Texas cattle crossing the territory on their way to railheads in Kansas contributed a lawless element, as well as temptation for horse thieves and cattle rustlers.Emancipated slaves from outside the territory or formerly property of the wealthier tribes, also chose to settle in the territory, but they fell under the distant jurisdiction of the US Court … in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Lastly, the borders of the Territory were violated frequently by land-hungry squatters. Officers of the law were stretched as thin as a pat of butter spread on an acre of toast; by 1875 the situation was intolerable to law-abiding settlers along the Territorial borders, and to the equally-law abiding members of the Civilized Tribes within it.
The man – and those whom he appointed to serve under his authority – who came to the rescue of the embattled and crime-plagued citizens like a 19th century super-hero appeared in the year of the Centennial. Isaac Charles Parker did not materialize from a phone-booth or a secret underground lair, but by means of accepting an appointment as judge for the Western District of Arkansas. He was in his mid-thirties, a legalist of unimpeachable moral character, long experience in Federal administration and government, and deep sympathies for the situation of the Indians. He was also a demon for hard work, which he commenced barely a week after he arrived in Fort Smith. In his first two-month session of his court, he heard 91 cases. Of those convicted, six were condemned to death. The sentences were carried out publically and en masse – as an encouragement to those considering a life of capital crime to re-consider their career options. In short order, Judge Parker earned the nickname of “The Hanging Judge.” He spent the next twenty-one years on the bench in Fort Smith; the scourge of evildoers, criminals and scoundrels and the highest law of the land. Only a presidential pardon could set aside a Parker court death sentence.
Besides conducting his court with efficiency and dispatch, Judge Parker took other steps in establishing the rule of law rather than the gun. His chief marshal, James Fagan, was authorized to hire two hundred deputy marshals, more than any other state or territory. Parker’s marshals were sent out in teams, acompanied by a wagon for supplies and captured criminals, a cook and a small posse of assistants. Generally, they avoided actually killing a wanted man; a live criminal arrested and brought back to Fort Smith meant a payment of $2.00 a head. The only payment for a corpse was if there had been a dead-or-alive reward posted by a civil authority or an express company – a rare circumstance, but not entirely unknown. And so it went, nearly until the end of the 19th century.
One of Parker’s law enforcement more effective hires was the first black deputy US marshall west of the Mississippi; Bass Reeves, who stood 6’2 in his socks. Bass Reeves had been born into slavery in Paris, Texas, owned by one George Reeves, who had Bass Reeves as his personal attendant when he went to fight in the Civil War. Sometime during the war, Bass Reeves took his leave of his master, and fled into the Indian Territory, where he spent the rest of the war sheltering among the pro-Union and abolitionist Cherokee. Officially freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, he settled as a farmer and horse-breeder in the town of Van Buren, Arkansas. He married, raised a family – and had a good reputation as a scout and tracker, was knowlegable in the customs of the Territory Indians as well as speaking several of their languages, although he was himself illiterate. He was also an excellent shot with pistol and rifle … with either hand. He was also soft-spoken, courteous to all, a dapper dresser, although he put off his usual clothes, polished boots and fine black felt hat, to go under cover … which he did often. Like a one-man Mountie company, he always got his man … or at least, almost always. On one occasion, he posed as a poor ragged fugitive from a posse to spend the night at a lonely cabin where pair of outlaw brothers wanted by the authorities in Fort Smith was hiding out with their mama. Bass pretended to take their suggestion that they fall in together. That night after the brothers fell asleep, he handcuffed them both, without waking them up. In the morning, he marched them off to the camp where his posse was waiting for him … accompanied for the first couple of miles by the outlaw brothers’ outraged mother, cursing him up one side and down the other.
Reeves, like Judge Parker also had a flinty and Calvinistic sense of duty; one of Reeves’ famous hunts was for his own son, who had killed his wife in a fit of jealous temper. None of the other deputies wanted to take up the warrant – but Reeves did, without a flinch. Over his career in law enforcement, he was supposed to have brought in 3,000 fugitives from justice. When the state and municipal authorities took over responsibility for local law enforcement in 1907, Reeves took a position as a patrolman in the Muskogee Police department – and for the two years that he served, there were supposed to have been no crimes at all on his beat. He died in 1910. There was a local and low-budget movie made two or three years ago about him, of which I can only find bare traces on IMDB. Pity he couldn’t have big-studio interest, but there you go. Quentin Tarantino does an unsettlingly violent cartoon of a movie about a black man in the west and cleans up, but a movie about a real-live black two-gun lawman with an incredible life story has to settle for a miniscule budget and comparative obscurity.
(In my next book, The Quivera Trail, the most obvious villains turn out to be a clan of cattle thieves from the Territory, on a murderous vendetta against Dolph Becker and the men of the new RB ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Stay tuned… This entry was cross-posted at my book blog, and at www.ncobrief.com)
5 thoughts on “History Friday: Bass Reeves and the Last of the Lawless West”
Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and the two good movies made from it are set in exactly that environment. The fictional Rooster Cogburn is one of those deputy marshals. Once Rooster and Mattie Ross cross into the Territory the audience is made aware that they have left the law behind.
Yep – Rooster Cogburn was supposed to have been based on Heck Thomas, who was almost as much of a legend as Bass Reeves (along with two of his buddies, who were called the Three Guardians).
The Territory in the last quarter-century before statehood was such a dangerous place for law enforcement that something like 120 US marshals were killed there, pursuing bad guys – out of 200 killed on duty nationwide since the US Marshal Service began in 1789.
I remember getting a tour of Deadwood and thoug hthe 1920s it has a reputatio of heing a place for fugitives to flee – the law pretty much stayed out of there.
}}} a legalist of impeachable moral character
Thanks. IGB- corrected!
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