Legend of Black Cowboy and U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves continues to grow in Arkansas, globally
By Wesley Brown -- What do Jay Z, highly acclaimed British actor David Oyelowo, a new exhibit at the Arkansas State Capital, and the recently opened U.S. Marshalls Museum (USMM) in Fort Smith all have in common?
They all bring newfound attention to the exploits and legend of the late Arkansas U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who many believe is the archetype for the Lone Ranger and other American Western heroes.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Reeves was one of the first black lawmen west of the Mississippi River. He achieved legendary status for the number of criminals, outlaws and western bandits he captured and brought to justice, which some estimates top 3,000 arrests.
Born a slave in Crawford County in July 1838, Reeves’ owners moved to east Texas in 1846. During the Civil War, Bass became a fugitive slave and found refuge in the Oklahoma Territory among the Creek and Seminole Indians. He later served with the Union Indians that fought in the war.
Later, Reeves settled again in the Van Buren area with his wife, Jennie, and children. Oral history states that Reeves first served as a scout and guide for deputy U.S. marshals going into Indian Territory for the federal government. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker became the federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas and hired Reeves as a commissioned deputy U.S. marshal. Together, the two help to tame the frontier West for more than 30 years, with Parker earning the infamous title of “The Hanging Judge.”
During his law enforcement career, legend has it that Reeves “could shoot a pistol or rifle accurately with his right or left hand and whip any two men with his bare hands.” Known for his ability to catch criminals under trying circumstances, Reeves brought fugitives by the dozen into the Fort Smith federal jail. Reeves said the largest number of outlaws he ever caught at one time was nineteen horse thieves he captured near Fort Sill, Okla. The noted female outlaw Belle Starr turned herself in at Fort Smith when she found out Reeves had the warrant for her arrest, notes the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
In the nearly all-Black cast of the 2021 Netflix western, “The Harder They Fall,” veteran actor Delroy Lindo’s character portrays Reeves in the Jay Z-produced and musically scored movie based on real-life historical figures. Besides Reeves, the other Black cowboys and cowgirls highlighted in the movie were Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, and Trudy Smith. Those partly fictionalized characters were respectively portrayed by Black actors Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Lakeith Stanfield and Regina King.
Today, a more straight-forward version of Reeves’ life is underway at Paramount’s MTV Entertainment Studios. Last summer, Oyelowo was tabbed to play Reeves in a new “Yellowstone” spinoff series highlighting the Black Arkansas cowboy’s heroics in catching outlaws on the U.S. Marshal’s infamous “10 Most Wanted” list.
Although a premiere date has not been announced for the MTV series, several episodes of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” have already been shot in Fort Worth and other Texas locations. The Hollywood studio has been silent on whether any filming will occur in Arkansas and Oklahoma, Reeves’ home territory as a U.S. marshal.
Earlier this summer, the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office showcased a Reeves exhibit at a State Capitol event commemorating the grand opening of the 51,000 square-foot USMM facility in Fort Smith on July 1. The exhibit unveiled on June 22 includes a life-size poster of the famous Black lawman and other artifacts related to service as a U.S. marshal dating back to the 19th century.
In 2007, after a rigorous selection process, top U.S. Marshall Service officials chose Fort Smith as the permanent home for its national museum. Since then, more than 15 years of planning, fundraising and design efforts have taken place to build the state-of-the-art facility designed by Boston-based Cambridge Seven and Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock. Construction of the $50 million museum was completed in early 2020, followed by the installation of galleries and exhibits earlier this year.
“To say we’re excited would be a vast understatement,” USMM Chair Doug Babb said of the July 1 grand opening. “It’s truly gratifying to see the work of so many different people who have dedicated their time and resources to this effort come to fruition. This will be a jewel for Fort Smith, the state of Arkansas and the country.”
Located off the Arkansas River in Fort Smith, the national museum honors the service and history of the USMS and features architectural cantilevered roofs that look like a star from an aerial view. The star-shaped design signifies the star badge worn by courageous U.S. Marshals. The museum also features five immersive galleries to educate guests about the critical, ever-evolving role the Marshals have played in upholding the Rule of Law, driven by justice, integrity and service.
Exhibits and 20,000 square foot of gallery space also feature the latest in digital interaction technology as well as rare historical artifacts, documents and movies and videos that tell the stories of the agency’s 230+ year history. The museum includes a store featuring books, gifts and keepsakes, while the facility’s café will offer Fort Smith’s first riverfront dining experience. Meeting spaces and classrooms are planned later for school and community use.
“The museum will inspire Americans across the country – both now and for future generation – to live with the core values of the U.S. Marshals Service, justice, integrity, and service. Now it’s time to welcome the world through our doors,” said USMM President and CEO Benjamin Johnson.
Just a mile from the museum, a 25-foot bronze statue depicting Reeves on a horse-riding west was also dedicated in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park in 2012. The statue, designed by sculptor Harold T. Holden at a cost of more than $300,000, was paid for by donations to the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative.
Besides Basses’ recent accolades, the Black Arkansas lawman has also emerged as a pop culture figure across the globe. For example, he appeared in the acclaimed 2019 HBO series Watchmen, was the subject of a comic book series published by Allegiance Arts starting in 2020, and appeared that same year in an issue of the Franco-Belgian comic book series Lucky Luke titled, “Un Cow-Boy Dans Le Coton,” which means “A Cowboy in High Cotton.”.
He was also the subject of Sidney Thompson’s trilogy of historical novels and appeared in the July 2021 Texas Monthly magazine cover story that focused on his broader legacy. Reeves worked until Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907 when he became a city policeman for Muskogee. He died of Bright’s disease, what we now call nephritis, in January 1910.