10 facts about the real-life Bass Reeves

By Gen Terblanche13 February 2024

10 facts about the real-life Bass Reeves

Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a drama anthology series about the most legendary lawmen in the American Old West. The series launches with arguably the greatest legend of them all – Bass Reeves – the enslaved (and freed) man who became the first Black US Marshal west of the Mississippi, and went on to put more than 3 000 outlaws in chains.  

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves on Showmax
David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves

The series, based on series consultant Sidney Thompson’s award-winning trilogy of historical novels about Bass Reeves (which itself drew on the painstaking and brilliant research of African American historian Art T Burton), is a passion project for British actor David Oyelowo (Five Days). Along with playing Bass Reeves himself, he worked for eight years to get the project made. David finally got his foot in the door when he started talking to Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan, who agreed to come onboard as co-executive producer, along with showrunner-creator Chad Feehan (Banshee).  

Reality has, as always, been tweaked to suit the needs of storytelling. While “hanging” Judge Isaac Parker (Donald Sutherland, The Undoing) is based on a real person, for example, US deputy Marshal Sherrill Lynn (Dennis Quaid, A Dog’s Journey) is a fictional character made up of several lawmen that Bass Reeves worked with. As for Bass himself, there was no shortage of real-life drama to draw on. We’ve hunted down just 10 facts about the real Bass Reeves. 

Stream Lawmen: Bass Reeves S1 now. New episodes each Friday. 

10 true facts about Bass Reeves 

1. Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838 (the year of the Battle of Blood River in South Africa). He, along with his parents, were considered the legal property of Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. 

2. William Reeves’s son, Confederate (pro-slavery) Colonel George Robertson Reeves, took Bass to war with him as his valet and bodyguard. During the American Civil war, Bass is said to have beat up William during a card game before escaping. 

3. George Robertson Reeves later died of rabies. 

4. Bass Reeves fled into Indian territory (modern day Oklahoma), where he lived with the Seminole, Cherokee and Creek people, learning local languages and hunting and tracking skills.  

5. Once the Emancipation Proclamation (declared January 1863 but not effective in Arkansas until Union Army surrender on 2 June 1865) legally freed all slaves, Bass Reeves returned to Arkansas, started his own farm, married a Texan woman named Nellie Jennie, and had 10 kids – five boys and five girls.

6. Aside from farming, Bass worked as a tracker and scout in Indian Territory for the US Marshals service. He was 37 years old when US Marshall James Fagan hired him as an official deputy US Marshal in 1875. 

7. He arrested more than 3 000 criminals of all races during the course of his 32-year career. His most notable arrests include those of Jim Webb, Ned Christy and Belle Starr, who turned herself in when she heard that Bass was on her trail.  

8. Nobody was safe from the long arm of this lawman. He not only arrested the minister who’d baptised him as a child for selling illegal whiskey, Bass Reeves had to arrest his own son, Bennie, for murder after Bennie killed his wife.  

9. Bass Reeves himself was once charged with murder, but claimed he’d shot his posse’s cook by accident while cleaning his gun.  

10. Bass has become a popular folk hero in the US, and the Bass Reeves Western History Conference is now held every year in Oklahoma. If you’re a Watchmen fan you might know the name Bass Reeves from the film-within-a-series, Trust In the Law, which is shown in a cinema in the opening scenes of the first episode. Jamal Akakpo plays Bass Reeves in Watchmen.  

Stream Lawmen: Bass Reeves S1 now. New episodes each Friday. 

Read more about wildly interesting Westerns on Showmax.