Who Was Bass Reeves? ‘1883: The Bass Reeves Story’ Explained

by Jon D. B.

Born into slavery, Bass Reeves would rise above to become one of the most influential men of America’s Reconstruction Era and beyond. Now, his story stands to be told through a collaboration from David Oyelowo and Taylor Sheridan in 1883 spinoff 1883: The Bass Reeves Story.

Actor David Oyelowo has been fascinated by the life of Bass Reeves for his entire career. He’s spent the last decade shopping a project based on the Western legend to no avail. Until Yellowstone mastermind Taylor Sheridan gave the project an enthusiastic greenlight, that is. It was a “pinch-me moment,” Oyelowo says, after facing a dozen rejections in Hollywood. But “to have your conviction validated is always a good thing,” the actor told PopCulture.com at Paramount Upfront 2022.

But who is Bass Reeves? Why does the lawman continue to fascinate creatives and scholars alike over a century after his death?  “This is the guy The Lone Ranger was based on, who got whitewashed out of history,” Oyelowo offers in a nutshell. But even this only scratches the surface.

To tell Reeves’ story, Sheridan is pulling Oyelowo’s pitch into his mammoth Yellowstone universe. And what better property to offer a lens through than the perpendicular exploits of 1883.

Enter ‘1883: The Bass Reeves Story’

“In some ways, Bass Reeves gives context from a different lens of some things that were happening then,” Oyelowo says of their resulting spin, now called 1883: The Bass Reeves Story. “It was post civil war. [America] was going into reconstruction. It was a time when, as a black man very much within living memory, he was enslaved; and now he was deputized to bring law to the Indian territories,” the actor explains. “It was a time of huge change in America. And so, we get to see another side of what was going on in America at that time.”

Left: Actor David Oyelowo at Paramount Upfront, 2022 (ViacomCBS Press Gallery). Right: Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves (1838-1910) (Public domain. Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Library)

“As it pertains to 1883, you see a world that I think audiences are loving having an entry point.” Bass Reeves, however, “is very much a stand-alone story,” he clarifies.

This is a vision Sheridan and Oyelowo share, too. There’s no hesitation on the Yellowstone creator’s part to make this a starring vehicle for the actor, who Sheridan calls a “once in a generation talent.” It won’t be tethered to tie-ins with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s ancestral Duttons of 1883. Instead, it will embrace the history of a man far more legendary, and far more real.

Who Was Bass Reeves? The Western Icon Explained

From a glance, Bass Reeves was the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. Working mainly the Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory, Reeves would bring more than 3,000 dangerous criminals, outlaws, and murderers to justice – including his own son. 14 were shot in self-defense. The remaining thousands, however, were brought to a court of law. He was, in a word, surreal.

Like countless others, Reeves was born into slavery in the American South. Enslaved by Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves, Bass was born in 1838 to the Reeves plantation in Crawford County, Arkansas. At 8-years-old, he was taken to Grayson County, Texas. There, scholars believe him to have been kept in bondage by William Reeves’ son, Colonel George R. Reeves, a sheriff and legislator in the Lone Star State.

This led to a series of events that would change history. When America broke out into Civil War, Colonel Reeves would join the Confederate Army. And he took Bass with him.

We don’t know exactly how, but at some point during America’s Civil War, Bass escaped – gaining freedom for the first time.

With the colonies amassed in bloodshed, Bass fled to the Indian Territory of America. There, he would live among the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole peoples. He learned their languages, customs, becoming one with their lands.

The Civil War raged on until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. And when it did, Bass Reeves could return to the American colonies a free man. Or, as free as the times allowed a Black man to be, rather. But as countless accounts tell us, Reeves was not one to suffer the injustices of racism. Instead, he carved a path as remarkable as any man in U.S. history.

‘Reeves would prove himself time and again as an expert marksman with both a rifle and revolver, a master detective, and a remarkable horseman’

Remaining in the Indian Territory, Reeves and his family would farm land until 1875. That year, Isaac Parker became federal judge of the Indian Territory, bringing it under American law. The first U.S. marshal of the territory, James F. Fagan, had heard of Reeves, his knowledge of the land, and ability to speak multiple Indigenous languages. Considering him indispensable, Marshal Fagan appointed Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas; a district holding responsibility for the Native Reservation Territory in America’s eyes.

As such, Bass Reeves became the first Black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River. This was the start of a 32-year-long record as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory. No other lawman would match his record during this time. Reeves would prove himself time and again as an expert marksman with both a rifle and revolver, a master detective, and a remarkable horseman.

By the time he retired in 1907, Reeves had to his record over 3,000 felon arrests; a number that included some of the most dangerous men of the 19th century. Only 14 of these thousands were killed in self defense, the rest being brought to a court of law. Shockingly, one of these arrests was his own son, Benjamin “Bennie” Reeves, who was charged with the murder of his own wife. Yet even this did not shake Bass from his duty. He captured his son for trial, and Bennie was convicted for murder.

‘Through it all… Bass Reeves was never injured in the line of duty’

Left: Bass Reeves in 1907, 3 years before his death. (Public domain. Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Library)

Through it all – including transfers to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas and the Muskogee Federal Court in the Native Territory – Bass Reeves was never injured in the line of duty. Accounts recall his hat being shot off his head multiple times, but Reeves never fell. No man of the time rivaled the skill, talent, and dedication of Reeves. And he became Judge Isaac Parker’s most valued deputy as a result.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Reeves would finish his career with only one blemish. One murder charge was brought against him: a posse cook shot dead. Reeves himself claimed in court to have shot the man by mistake during the act of cleaning his gun. The trial went before Judge Parker, and the court acquitted Reeves based on his testimony and, possibly, on his exceptionally clean, decades-long record.

By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves was 68-years-old. There, he would serve his last as a lawman as an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. Two years in, however, he became ill and retired.

Bass Reeves would die of Bright’s disease, or nephritis, on January 12, 1910.

How much of this life and career we’ll see unfold in 1883: The Bass Reeves Story is unclear. But if we can count on one thing, it’ll be the quality resulting from Taylor Sheridan and David Oyelowo’s combined passion, talent, and reverence for the life of an American legend.