Before being featured in a Netflix film or even carved into American history for generations to come, the name of Bass Reeves was one feared by any lawbreaker in the wild west. He was America’s lawman, an exemplary representation of justice on the frontier and a personification of the ideals that gave birth to the now iconic Heritage Icons line of revolvers. He was built from the same dependably efficient and remarkably effective American foundation that every Heritage firearm delivers in every shot. With over 3,000 arrests in a lifetime of law abiding service, Bass Reeves stands among the very best of the wild west. But misfortune can indeed follow us all…
Molded by the American Frontier
Born in 1838 in Arkansas, Bass Reeves fought in the Civil War as a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made him a free man. From the very beginning, Reeves was a man molded by the American frontier and built to withstand the hardships with training, skill, and a bit of luck. He spent time with the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creed Native Americans learning all he could while also focusing on his firearms proficiency. His well-rounded skill set made him the perfect candidate as a deputy for the newly instated Federal Western District Court around 1875. Though he had a family with ten children and a ranch of his own, he took up the responsibility of cleaning up the outlaws, murderers, and thieves who plagued their home. Bass Reeves was one of many lawmen who would cover over 75,000 square miles in the Oklahoma range, making the United States Court at Fort Smith the largest in the country. While he wasn’t the only deputy active, there were few who were as up for the task as Bass Reeves.
Reeves quickly set the standard for deputies. With two six-shooters strapped to his hip, butt forward for the quickest draw, his career as a lawman was nothing short of legendary. There are countless stories from him shooting an outlaw at over a quarter mile distance with a rifle to being equally skilled with a revolver in both hands thanks to his ambidextrous style. With tales of his thousands of arrests, his exquisite fashion, and even penchant for disguises in various aliases, Bass Reeves carved out a place in history as a timeless icon to be immortalized for generations to come. He even most recently was the inspiration of Netflix’s 2021 star-studded western film The Harder They Fall. As we learn all through history, however, there are always unexpected situations that arise to show even the best are forced to shoot from the hip sometimes, even metaphorically.
A Bullet Out of Character
In 1884, Reeves was involved in a shooting that was nothing less than out of character for him. It would go mostly unnoticed until two years later in January of 1886 when he was charged with first-degree murder and taken to the Fort Smith federal jail. The official story says that Bass Reeves was involved in a minor argument with the camp cook named William Leech, and later that evening, a bullet was caught in Reeves’ rifle and in an attempt to dislodge it, he caused the rifle to fire and strike Leech dead. It’s the story heard all too often, an accidental discharge with disastrous and sometimes unpredictable results. But there are others who claim it not to be so innocent, saying Reeves shot Leech down after he maimed a puppy with hot grease that Reeves had taken a liking to after their argument. Regardless, thanks to a lifetime of revered service and the placement of new U.S. marshal John Carroll – who Reeves first served under at Fort Smith – he would be acquitted of all charges.
Reeves himself was known to have said he “never shot a man when it was not necessary for him to do so in the discharge of his duty to save his own life,” and this was a core tenant to his actions as a lawman, so most were keen to believe that the charges on his record was in fact just one of those accidents that no one saw coming. It represents the moments of the unknown in a profession such as his at a time when the frontier was at its most dangerous and lawless. A tragedy no matter what you believe was the cause. However, the response from his community and his fellow lawmen set in stone a reputation that clearly preceded him. Bass Reeves was a known man of justice, truth, and dedication to duty. This status, even during his own lifetime, made him something of a local hero and many admired him despite facing charges. It was this standing that helped to lead to his acquittal, but there is a lesson to be learned, in that even the best of American icons could find themselves between a rock and a hard place unexpectedly.
The celebrated career of Bass Reeves wouldn’t end after his acquittal, either. His arrests as a U.S. deputy marshal would continue with notorious captures like the Seminole outlaw Greenleaf and the Tom Story gang before he took on the role of a patrolman in the Muskogee Police Department in Oklahoma. It’s a record of excellence marked with a single mishap, but also representative of how to push forward even when the most unexpected and unbelievable happens.
A Legend Perseveres
The wild west is full of stories of justice, revenge, gambling, and shootouts, but the story of Bass Reeves shows that while not everything goes as planned even for the best of us, our actions mean something. He was a man who proved his character with his service and while his proficiency with a six-shooter sure helped to keep him alive, it was his actions that won him the admiration of both everyone around him as well as those carrying on his legacy today. The very legacy that Heritage Manufacturing brings to life in every firearm, playing a crucial role in continuing the story of the wild west and the ideals which shaped the icons born of it, like the lawman and legend named Bass Reeves.