The Life of Bass Reeves: From Enslavement to Law Enforcement

By Louie Fecou
Published: November 7, 2023
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Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves / David Oyelowo

A fascinating limited series based on the life of the legendary Bass Reeves, the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal in Mississippi, has dropped on Paramount+. The show, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, stars David Oyelowo as the titular character, and covers the life story of Reeves, charting his incredible struggle from enslavement to law enforcement. With many thinking the mustachioed lawman was the inspiration behind The Lone Ranger, an entire swathe of American popular culture owes a debt to Bass Reeves.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves has been highly anticipated, and Paramount+ seems to be the perfect home for the property alongside its other successful Westerns like 1883 and 1923. If the show sounds like something you’d be into, read on for a round-up of his life and most notable accomplishments, some of which may even make their way into the show.

Who was Bass Reeves?

Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves | Source: Wikipedia / The Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Library

Born in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, Bass Reeves was an American lawman, considered to be the first Black U.S. Marshal in the American West.

Bass was born a slave, and his owner was called William S. Reeves. He grew up in Grayson County, Texas. His cotton farmer owner would move there to live, and although the facts are a little blurry, it appears he fought in the American Civil War under the command of George Reeves, the son of his owner.

After the end of the war, he was employed as a guide for U.S. government officials interested in traveling through Indian Territory, and this led to him being commissioned to be a deputy U.S. Marshal by Federal Judge Isaac Parker of the Western District of Arkansas.

Judge Parker was notoriously known as “The Hanging Judge” due to the high number of people he sentenced to the death penalty.

Reeves would eventually retire from the position in 1907 and became a city police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

He would die on January 12th, 1910.

What challenges did Bass Reeves face?

Bass would face many challenging situations that would mostly arise from being Black and in a position of power in the American West.

Early in his life, he was forbidden to learn to read, and would have to memorize the way suspects’ names appeared on paper so he could issue warrants.

However, it is widely reported that Reeves was a feared and formidable lawman, with an incredible record, and a highly skilled way of handling his gun.

Did Bass Reeves have a wife, family, and children?

Reeves was married twice and fathered an incredible eleven children. He would marry Nellie Jannie first, and after she passed, he would re-marry Winnie Sumter.

His children were named Newland, Benjamin, George, Lula, Robert, Sally, Edgar, Bass Jr., Harriet, Homer, and Alice.

He was a great uncle to Paul L Brady, who became the first Black Federal Administrative Law Judge in 1972.

Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp (L) and Armie Hammer in the Gore Verbinski adaption of The Lone Ranger

The legendary status and career of Bass Reeves have led to many speculating that he was the inspiration for the fictional character The Lone Ranger.

Reeves was so feared and respected, often rounding up gangs of outlaws, and bringing criminals to justice at an incredible rate, that the character of The Lone Ranger appears to have been based on his life.

The Lone Ranger would be a radio show in the 1930s and then become a beloved character in books, comics, TV, and film. On the big screen, Gore Verbinski directed an adaptation in 2013 starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer that was savaged by critics upon its release.

News, Paramount+, Streaming Service, TV
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