You think you know the West.
Every American thinks they do, conjuring up a fever of dusty towns, quick-draw gunmen, drunks, honky-tonk pianos, cowboys, desperadoes, black hat villains and white hat heroes out of bits of John Ford movies and "Lone Ranger" episodes. In that pulp paper West, all Native Americans were the bad guys (other than Tonto, of course) and all women were either wife, nun or saloon girl. If there was a black man, chances are his only job was to hold the horse of the courageous — and very white — sheriff.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves is where the fictional West gives way to the actual West, and it was lot more diverse in reality than it is on celluloid. One of several African-American deputy U.S. marshals who rode the bloody trails of the Indian Territory that eventually became Oklahoma — a place Reeves' biographer unflinchingly calls "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" — Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas, but rose to the status of living legend during his 30-plus years wearing a marshal's star, most of that served as a manhunter for "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker of Fort Smith. With a reputation for going after the baddest of the bad — a giant for his day at 6'2", a crack shot with both hands, a skilled horseman and master of disguise — Reeves arrested more than 3,000 men, including his own son, and killed more than a dozen in the line of duty, often dragging in criminals a dozen at a whack, lashed to his chuck wagon.
Though there are stories of Reeves repeatedly having his hat and even his gunbelt shot off during firefights, he was said to live a charmed life by the Native Americans in the territory, able to walk between the bullets in a land where desperadoes pasted up wanted posters for police instead of the other way around, in a time and place where more than half the U.S. marshals ever killed in the line of duty met their end.
While Jim Crow and a general apathy about the history of non-whites worked to try to make sure Reeves' legend was never known in the modern day, his story has been resurrected fairly recently by a few dedicated researchers. It's one of the greatest Old West legends you've probably never heard.
Historian Dr. Art Burton — author of the Reeves biography "Black Gun, Silver Star," and the researcher who has probably done the most to save Reeves' story from obscurity — started researching the life of Bass Reeves more than 20 years ago. Born in Oklahoma into a family that put kids in a saddle from an early age, Burton said there was always a disconnect between his experience as an African American and the West as seen in movies and books.
"There are a lot of cowboys in my family," he said. "I grew up during the cowboy era on television, but you didn't see blacks in those programs. I felt like, my folks are doing this in Oklahoma because this is what people in Oklahoma do. It wasn't until later that I found out that African Americans played a role in the Western frontier."
Burton began researching the life of Bass Reeves during work for his 1991 book "Black, Red and Deadly," which presented profiles of African-American and Native-American outlaws and lawmen of the Old West. Burton said that most people who base their understanding of the West on popular culture just don't appreciate how diverse it was.
"African Americans were pretty much written out of that whole history," Burton said. "But if we look at the real Western frontier, we find blacks that were mountain men, blacks who were scouts, blacks who were entrepreneurs and cowboys... . You also found blacks who were in law enforcement across the West, in Montana and Colorado and New Mexico. Twenty percent of the military on the Western frontier were African Americans. So Hollywood just totally left out African Americans in the telling of the West, sad to say."
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