Oden: Lawman Bass Reeves was bigger than life or fiction


The expert historian and genealogist on the paternal side of my family is also my late father’s youngest brother. He is the source of often surprising, sometimes shocking revelations that combine scrupulous research with investigation of family lore and legend.

He lets the cards fall where they will, especially when it comes to the predilection of several ancestors to sow their wild oats. Young husbands seeking adventure and livelihood west of the Mississippi River in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left their families for extended periods – sometimes for years. Many eventually came home, but little was known about their private lives while away.

To put it frankly, there were bigamists in the woodpile.

This was not uncommon during our nation’s expansion. In fact, fortune-seekers from Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama maintained regular commerce with the Cherokee Nation back in the day, with the result being conjugal unions unacknowledged by their families at the time, but which produced generations of offspring across eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas and Texas.

Although some Odens cringe when we discuss this limb of the family tree, the background is necessary to understand an astounding anecdote, originating with a great-great aunt who grew up in the Cherokee Nation. We always chuckled when the story was told and wrote it off as an imaginative tale.

She claimed – and the narrative was so unusual it was never forgotten – that as a child she had met the Lone Ranger, who became a frequent visitor in her home.

Based on my uncle’s historical diggings and a recent controversy involving the Lone Ranger of fiction, movies and television, it is quite possible she was telling the truth … at least, from her perspective as an adult looking back on an incident from her childhood in the late 1800s. However, the lawman she probably referenced was an African-American and former slave.

Bass Reeves, an actual deputy United States marshal whose jurisdiction included the 75,000-sq.-mile Indian Territories, worked for “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in the Western District of Arkansas, based at Fort Smith.

Over a career spanning 32 years, Marshal Reeves became the scourge of outlaws who prowled the Nations. Anyone who’s seen the “True Grit” movies or read the novel by Charles Portis (one of my favorite Westerns) has an appreciation for the geography and atmosphere of the era when Reeves enforced federal law in an untamed territory.

Reeves was a big man, 6-2, who sported a handlebar mustache and rode a large gray horse. Purported to be quick on the draw and a crack shot with a rifle, he was credited with bringing 3,000 lawbreakers to justice and killing 14 men. He could not read or write, so memorized his warrants and recited the charges verbally when making arrests.

That Reeves sometimes used disguises to slip up on his quarry (like the Lone Ranger of film and fiction) and was frequently accompanied by Native American “posse men” became the basis for comparing the historical figure with the masked man on a white horse named “Silver” and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto.

Predictably, the similarities whether actual or coincidental, have blown up into an Internet controversy and racial issue. I won’t go into the details but invite readers to Google “The Real Lone Ranger” and see for themselves.

A legendary lawman, Bass Reeves was highly regarded during his lifetime and after his death. Fort Smith later dedicated a 20-ft. bronze statue in his honor. He is shown on his horse, carrying a rifle, with his faithful dog following along.

Reeves retired from law enforcement in 1907 at age 69 and passed away one year later. The Muskogee, OK, newspaper eulogized him as a faithful officer “respected as an honest man.” The turnout for his funeral was large.

He was buried with high honors. “Black or white, our people have the manhood to recognize character and faithfulness to duty,” the newspaper reported.

Instead of joking about the Lone Ranger’s connection to our family, it has become more likely that our great-great aunt possibly met Bass Reeves several times when he spent the night at her home on treks across the Cherokee Nation in search of federal fugitives during those wild days.

This is sheer speculation, but as an old woman exposed to the golden era of cinema and early television – and as a Native American who understood racial discrimination -- she accepted that Bass Reeves could never be a fictional hero for the large, primarily Caucasian audiences during a period of Jim Crow laws and segregation. But she knew the real hero.

Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.