In researching the job of Deputy U. S. Marshal for the hero in my new book, LOST HEARTS, I discovered that many African Americans also rode for Judge Isaac Parker, Federal Court judge for the Western District of Arkansas, which had jurisdiction over Indian Territory.
In a time of post-war, southern reconstruction, when blacks were deprived of citizenship and the right to vote, Judge Parker gave these deputies the legal authority to arrest whites and to shoot whites--or anyone else the situation warranted.
One of the first men to ride for Parker, was Bass Reeves, who was one of Parker's favorite deputies, if not his most dependable.
Reeves stood over 6 feet tall and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds, with a large frame and muscular arms. He could cup a Colt revolver in his palm the way a lesser man would cup a Derringer.
He wore a large black hat, always dressed neatly and was known for his polite and courteous manners. He moved with the easy grace of a man used to open spaces, whose strength had been tested and proven many times. His voice was deep and carried the smooth drawl of the south. He smiled often and his laughter was booming.
Bass was fluent in Creek and could converse well in all the languages of the Five Civilized Tribes.
He wore two pistols, butts forward, for a quick draw that was not only fast, but accurate. However Bass prefered the slower, even more accurate method of taking his time, planting himself solidly and drawing a bead. His skill with a rifle was legendary and he was banned from participating in any local competitions at picnics and turkey shoots.
Reeves prefered using detective skills and disguises as much as possible to avoid shoot outs, although he did admit to having killed at least fourteen men in the line of duty.
Any incident where a felon was killed by a deputy marshal was thoroughly investigated by the Fort Smith court. Some deputies were prosecuted for unjust killings. Bass was never one of them.
Early records paid little attention to race, so it is impossible to know how many African-Americans served as deputy marshals except through newspaper accounts. These are the names of some of the men I came across.
Bass Reeves, Grant Johnson, Zeke Miller, Bill Corbert, Neely Factor, John Garrett, Jim Ruth, Charles Pettit, Robert Fortune and Rufus Cannon.
Many of these men were former slaves with no education. They faced ambushes, shoot-outs, exhaustion, and hazzards of nature. They performed all the duties of a deputy marshal often with outstanding valor and distinction. They are some of the unsung heroes of the old west.