Bass Reeves is having a cultural moment. Not bad for a legendary Black lawman who has been dead for more than a century and was largely absent from history books for much of that time.
Along with a television series based on his life from “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan and filmed partially in Fort Worth, a recently updated biography, a Western history conference in his name and appearances and mentions in the media, Reeves now has a room dedicated to his life at the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum on the city’s Northside.
“We’ve been able to put this together, and it’s a great thing to be able to highlight Bass Reeves and his life,” said Jim Austin, founder of the museum.
Reeves, 1838-1910, was born an enslaved person but eventually became a legendary deputy U.S. marshal with a 32-year career on the Western frontier. His life was relatively unknown until recently when historians began to uncover and document more about his career. One of those historians was Art T. Burton, who wrote a recently-revised biography of Reeves, “Black Gun, Silver Star.” Burton was at the unveiling of the museum room on Sunday, April 30, and presented a program on the life of Reeves.
Reeves should be celebrated, said Burton, who called him the greatest deputy U.S. marshal and maybe the greatest lawman in the country’s history.
“Wyatt Earp was a lawman for four years,” said Burton. “For Bass Reeves to be a lawman 32 years in the most dangerous area of the wild west is amazing. He walked in the valley of death every day for 32 years and he was able to come out alive.”
Reeves was a dedicated lawman, Burton said, noting that he brought his own son in for murder once he received the warrant.
“Many outlaws, when they found out Bass Reeves had the warrant on them, would turn themselves in rather than get tracked down by Bass,” he said.
Reeves worked primarily in the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations area of the West before Oklahoma became a state. But he also worked for a while out of Paris, Texas.
“I’m still finding out new information about Reeves and his work in Texas, but it’s difficult to piece some of this together,” he said.
He recently learned about a murder case in Houston that saw Reeves going undercover in a jail and befriending the suspect in the case.
“I’m still researching it, but it’s real interesting because I didn’t think much occurred during his time in Texas, but this case is fascinating, so there’s more to learn,” he said.
Ties between Reeves and The Lone Ranger?
Burton, who lives in Chicago, spends a lot of time researching Reeves and other historical topics in Fort Worth at the National Archives site that holds records for much of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“I’m here a lot,” he said.
Burton created a bit of a stir in the history world a few years back when he wrote an article that speculated Reeves might have been the inspiration for the popular fictional western hero, “The Lone Ranger.”
“The Lone Ranger” was a popular radio serial drama that transitioned to early television and became a hit. The character has since been the subject of several films.
In his book and in an article for True West magazine, Burton noted several similarities between Reeves and the character. The Lone Ranger’s real name was Reid, similar to Reeves and that Reeves gave out silver dollars while The Lone Ranger used silver bullets. Similar to The Lone Ranger partner, the Native American Tonto, Reeves often used Native Americans as scouts when he did his work, Burton said.
“There is no way to definitively link the two, but there are similarities,” he said.
Researching Reeves’ life was difficult, Burton said. Reeves never learned to read or write and therefore left no written legacy.
“He apparently had a phenomenal memory because he would have someone read the warrants he was serving and memorize them,” he said.
Series on Reeves will be on Paramount+
Also at the opening of the room was Ernest Marsh, an actor who spends much of his time portraying Reeves and has a one-man play based on the lawman’s life.
Marsh was already involved in living history reenactments of Black Buffalo soldiers when people told him he resembled Reeves. Marsh began researching the lawman and now spends much of his time dressed as Reeves, including a trademark bushy mustache, speaking to schools and conferences.
If You Go
National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum
2029 North Main St.
Fort Worth 76164
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Adults – 19 – 64 years – $15
Sr. Adults: 65 + years – $12
Youth: 6 – 18 years – $12
Children 5 and under, free with paid adult admission.
“People kept telling me I looked like Bass, so when I began doing the research, I decided to focus on his life and story,” he said.
Expect to see more of Reeves and his story in the near future, said Burton.
The Sheridan-produced series Bass Reeves stars David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma,” in the title role. It is filming now in North Texas and will be broadcast on Paramount+, likely either later in the year or in 2024. A Morgan Freeman-backed project on Reeves is also in development.
At the Bass Reeves Western History Conference in June in Muskogee, Burton said he is already set up to do an interview with CBS Sunday Morning for a story on the lawman.
“The interest in Bass Reeves is amazing,” he said.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.