“The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West,” by Gary Paulsen, a history of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, was chosen by the Arkansas Department of Education for its Reading Initiative for Student Excellence (R.I.S.E) program to discuss criteria for a hero.
Reeves escaped slavery during the Civil War, lived in Indian Territory and possibly fought for Union forces before settling down to farm outside Van Buren. Knowing the lay of the land, and several Native American languages, as well as being a crack shot and expert horseman, Reeves was hired as a Marshal by U.S. District Judge Isaac C. Parker in 1875 to bring criminals to justice within the Western District of Arkansas.
Stacy Smith, director of curriculum and instruction for the Department of Education, said 300 copies of “The Legend of Bass Reeves” were sent to 300 schools that take part in the R.I.S.E. program. More books are also being ordered to ensure schools in Fort Smith have a copy, and the author is one who is familiar to Arkansas teachers, Smith added.
Smith explained that the impetus for choosing the book came from a discussion with state Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, following a presentation she made last year to the Arkansas Legislature. Smith said McGill approached her and said “We have a famous Arkansan who was a marshal.”
“We were proud to do it,” Smith said of adding the book to its R.I.S.E. program.
McGill said he was surprised and pleased when he heard recently the Bass Reeves story had made its way into the reading program for elementary and middle school students. McGill was among several in the community to take part in having a statue built in Fort Smith in honor of Reeves.
Leslie Higgins, director of education at the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, likewise said they were excited to hear Reeves was chosen for the reading program.
“Reeves’ story of determination and fortitude will be an inspiration to students across the state, as they read about his rise from slavery to becoming one of the most successful deputy marshals to ride out of Western Arkansas and Oklahoma,” Higgins wrote in an email.
Reeves brought in many dangerous fugitives from the Indian Territory, some under extraordinary circumstances. But there was one unfortunate incident that tarnished Reeves’ record and caused him to sell his Van Buren farm.
While camped out in the Chickasaw Nation in April 1884, Reeves shot his posse cook, William Leach, in the neck, likely by accident, while trying to dislodge a .45 cartridge from his .44 Winchester rifle. Reeves, a man with eight children by then, and stellar record that included bringing in his own son for a charge of murder, was arrested in January 1886 by Deputy U.S. Marshal S.J.B. Fair for Leach’s death. Reeves spent six months in jail before being released on $3,000 bond. His trial for the charge of murder was held in October 1887.
Reeves’s cousin, John Brady, was on that fateful trip in 1884, driving the posse wagon.
As noted in Art Burton’s book “Black Gun, Silver Star,” Brady testified in a deposition the shooting was accidental.
“Bass told Leach to not let the dog eat the meat out of the skillet, he drove him away … Leach replied that if he killed the dog he (Leach) would kill him (Bass) or his gray horse,” Brady said. “Bass got his gun and was putting a cartridge in it and it went off and shot Leach.”
Brady said Reeves really meant to kill the dog.
Reeves said during the trial he was examining his .44 Winchester as usual and had found a .45 cartridge.
“I couldn’t throw it up in the barrel,” Reeves said. “I was down on my knee and had the Winchester laying up this way. (Shows by holding Winchester in position etc.) I reached my hand in my coat pocket and got my knife and put my hand back this way and either my knife or hand struck the trigger and the gun went off. (Shows by getting down to the jury and laying the gun across his left arm the muzzle pointing about 40 degrees). The gun went off then and then boy hallooed and said, ‘Lordy, you have hit Leach.’”
The rifle was in its scabbard, Reeves added. When questioned about the dog, Reeves said he had told Leach he needed to kill it because it was “some little Indian dog.”
“I never looked up,” Reeves said. “We hadn’t had any words at all. He was all the help I had to work for me. Wilson was 30 miles behind. There was Johnnie and you couldn’t trust him with five prisoners in that country, no how — you can’t hardly trust yourself.”
A doctor named Nat was sent for Leach, but he couldn’t make it that night so Reeves took Leach into the doctor about 10 or 15 miles away at daylight.
Reeves had five prisoners in shackles. Some of them, including the wife of one of the prisoners who was not there at the shooting, testified in the trial.
At the end of the trial, Reeves was found not guilty of murder and acquitted. He continued serving as a deputy U.S. marshal, bringing in murderers, cattle rustlers and horse thieves dead or alive.