The Remarkable True Story Behind "Lawmen: Bass Reeves"

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 3, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+
Emerson Miller | Paramount+
Emerson Miller | Paramount+

Writer and showrunner Taylor Sheridan is known for creatively exploring and highlighting aspects of American history and culture in his many acclaimed works, ranging from TV series like "Yellowstone" to movies like "Sicario." His most recent project, "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," tells the story of Bass Reeves, a great American legend and Western frontier figure who was the first Black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi River. In the series, "Selma" actor David Oyelowo plays the role of Reeves alongside a stacked ensemble that includes Dennis Quaid and Donald Sutherland.

The story of Bass Reeves is remarkable: the real figure behind the dramatized series was born into slavery and, according to some reports, managed to capture more than 3,000 outlaws throughout his career as a deputy US marshal, all while enduring the hardships of racism and prejudice in a post-Civil War America. "I think that audiences today need to see stories of triumph, and he is a man that embodies that triumph of spirit perfectly," series creator Chad Feehan told Country Living in October. "I think, hopefully audiences are craving that, I know that I certainly am. As well as this idea that we're all connected by this universal experience of being a human being, and hopefully that will start to break down some of the perceived divisions that exist amongst us."

Before you watch the series, which is now streaming on Paramount+, read the astonishing true story of Bass Reeves.

Who Was Bass Reeves?

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in July 1838. At the time of his birth, Reeves and his family were owned by William S. Reeves, an Arkansas state legislator, and lived in Arkansas until William relocated to Grayson County, TX, when Bass was 8 years old in 1846, per History. Following the move to Texas, Bass was made to join the Confederate Army with Williams's son George Reeves and fight in the Civil War. Sometime during his military service, Bass escaped, with some accounts alleging that Bass managed to escape after getting into an altercation with George. His escape led him to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, where Reeves lived among the Seminole and Creek tribes, gaining knowledge of their landscape and customs and learning multiple languages, as reported by The Washington Post. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, which made Reeves a free man. He moved back to Arkansas with his wife Nellie Jennie and went on to have 11 children. But that is hardly the end to Bass's story.

How Bass Reeves Became an American Legend

Due to his remarkable skills, Bass worked as a scout and guide, according to Collider. After nearly 10 years of being a free man, Bass was chosen by Marshal James Fagan as one of 200 deputy marshals to police Indian Territory in 1875 following a rise in murders in the area. Due to his ambidextrous weaponry skills from his military experience, his familiarity of the Indian Territory landscape, and his knowledge of Indigenous languages, Bass was one of the best candidates to catch criminals like thieves and murderers across the 75,000-square-mile area. He was known for using a variety of disguises, ranging from a cowboy to a farmer, to conceal his identity and capture criminals, which proved to be highly effective. Throughout his career as a deputy marshal, Bass is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws, per History.

Bass served as a deputy marshal for 32 years, and after Oklahoma became a state in 1907, he joined the Muskogee Police Department, as reported by The Norman Transcript. He worked in the police department for two years before retiring in 1909. One year later, Bass died on Jan. 12, 1910, from Bright's disease (a kidney disease) at the age of 71. Though the rumors are unconfirmed, some have claimed that Bass served as the original inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an enduring fictional character in American film and TV. Although Bass surely has not gotten the recognition he deserves over the years, "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" attempts to revitalize his legacy and bring attention to his remarkable story. Don't miss the series, which is streaming now on Paramount+, and watch the trailer below!

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