I have a cousin who is my grandfather’s sister’s grandson. I have been in contact with him in recent years and his name is Richard “Dick” Hefton, who lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. He is a great supporter of his state. His grandmother was Stella Ramsey of Sherman and her brother was Samuel Benton Vaughan of Denison.
Dick and I have exchanged family information for several years and he recently sent me a subscription to the Oklahoma History Society publications that include the quarterly “The Chronicles of Oklahoma” and a newsletter, “Mistletoe Leaves,” published every two months. I recently received the first newsletter and while thumbing though it, I ran across a name that was familiar.
I had in my mind that I had written a column about him some time ago, but on checking, it was a feature story that my friend, Edward Sutherland, had written in 2004.
The newsletter article was talking about the Bass Reeves Legacy Troup that would be hosting the ninth annual Bass Reeves Western History Conference in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on July 27-28. Muskogee is close enough that some who are interested in Bass Reeves might like to attend.
I searched “The Handbook of Texas Online” because I remembered that a Bass Reeves had a large connection with this area of Texas. This one was the first black commissioned United States deputy marshal west of the Mississippi. Born to slave parents in July 1824 in Paris, Texas, he escaped to Indian Territory after severely beating his young master in a dispute over cards.
Reeves lived among the “five civilized tribes,” especially the Creeks, as a fugitive until 1863, when he was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The six-foot, two inch, 190 pound former slave left Oklahoma and bought land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a successful stockman and farmer.
He married a Texas native, Nellie Jennie, in 1864 and they raised a family of 10 children — five boys and five girls. After this wife’s death, Reeves married Winnie Sumter of Muskogee in 1900 and started a second family.
When Isaac C. Parker was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on May 10, 1875, to bring law to the Indian Territory, one of his first official acts was to swear in a United States marshal and appoint 200 deputies to curb the lawlessness in the area.
Texans often have referred to a lot of trouble in Texas being started by the Native Americans of Oklahoma, but it looks like white outlaws had terrorized the interior groups of Native Americans, especially the Creeks and Seminoles, who with or without a badge were unwelcome.
Reeves was recruited because he knew the tribal language and the country well. As a Native American man, he did not suffer from the reputation for abuse produced by the activities of the white criminal among the Native Americans.
He had earned a reputation for law enforcement south of the Red River, killing 14 men in the performance of his duty while assigned to the federal district courts at Paris and Sherman during his 32 years as a deputy.
Among those was Bob Dozier, whose illegal activities included cattle and horse theft, land swindles and murder. He eluded Reeves for several years before being killed after refusing to surrender in the rain and mud in the Cherokee Hills.
Another outlaw was Tom Story, a horse thief and murderer who sold stolen horses south of the Red River from 1884 to 1889 and who lost his life at the Delaware Bend crossing when he tried to beat Reeves to the draw.
Jim Webb, a cowboy and horse thief with 11 notches on his pistol handle, was outshot in a fierce running gun battle. When he was dying he acknowledged Reeves as the better man by giving the deputy his pistol and scabbard.
Many of the districts asked for Reeves because of his reliability in serving warrants. Never having learned to read and write, he always had someone read the subpoenas or warrants to him until he memorized which name belonged to each warrant. If the man Reeves arrested could not read, the deputy had to locate someone who could make sure he had the right person.
Reeves’ respect for the law was legendary and he always was acquitted of the deaths of his prisoners. He once arrested his own son on a murder warrant after a two week manhunt. His son was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but later was given a full pardon.
Reeves had been owned by Colonel George Reeves, an interesting character in his own right, who had a total of seven slaves who all lived in the main house. During his lifetime, he was a farmer, sheriff of Grayson County, tax collector, state legislator before and after the Civil War, and a colonel in the Confederate Army. He organized the Texas 11th Cavalry Unit for Grayson County, was speaker of the House of Representatives for Texas and master of the George R. Reeves Masonic Lodge in Grayson County, which was named in his honor.
Like all slaves, Bass took the surname of his owner. As a child, he worked alongside his parents on the Reeves farm near Pottsboro. He liked to sing and his work usually was accompanied by songs he made up of guns, rifles, butcher knives, robberies and killings — to the point his mother thought he would turn out to be a criminal.
But, when Texas sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and his master went into battle, young Bass went with him. Sometime during the war years, the two men parted company.
After 1907, the role and duties of the U.S. deputy marshal as a primary law enforcement officer were assumed by state agencies. At the age of 83, Reeves accepted a job as patrolman with the Muskogee city police department and from 1907 to 1909 there was reportedly never a crime committed on his beat. He died on Jan. 12, 1910, of Bright’s disease.
The conference will be at Three Rivers Museum highlighting the life and career of Bass Reeves, the longest serving U.S. deputy marshal on the frontier who spent his final years in Muskogee. His career in law enforcement spanned more than 32 years during a dangerous time when the average marshal served less than five years.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.