Kaia Larsen/Associated Press
U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves (center), portrayed by Baridi Nkokheli, walks along with two other marshals Monday at the Old Fort Rodeo Days Parade in Fort Smith, Ark. Reeves, a former slave, was a noted lawman of the Old West.
Venture starts for statue of ex-slave, a Fort Smith lawman
By Associated Press
June 2, 2007
FORT SMITH, Ark. -- An ex-slave who arrested almost 4,000 people accused as outlaws could assume more prominence in the community he once called home if a fund drive is successful.
A committee seeking donations wants to salute onetime Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves with a $500,000 statue in Ross Pendergraft Park downtown. Reeves served as a deputy marshal from 1875 to 1907.
The Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative collected its first donation Wednesday: $1,157 from a fund-raising effort by pupils at Cook Elementary School in Fort Smith.
Committee chairman Craig Pair says he hopes to have the statue in place by next summer. It would stand about 12 feet tall and feature Reeves atop a horse. Committee members will examine proposed models from two artists on June 23.
Pair said the committee plans to raise the remaining funds through an intense campaign that will target regional historical societies and corporate sponsors.
The project dovetails with Fort Smith's plan to build a national Marshals Service museum. The U.S. Marshals Service in January selected Fort Smith for the museum, which is estimated to cost at least $20 million to build.
Federal marshals, during Reeves' time and today, secure federal courthouses and apprehend fugitives from federal courts.
Marshals arrested about 56,000 fugitives last year.
"The main thing we are hoping to see is that the statue really brings to the forefront the heritage of Fort Smith," Pair said Wednesday. "Back in the day, in the late 1800s after the Civil War, Fort Smith was really prominent on the Western frontier as the place for law and order."
One of the first black deputies west of the Mississippi River, Reeves initially rode for Judge Isaac C. Parker's court. Parker was known as the "Hanging Judge" because he sentenced 160 people to death.
Historian Art T. Burton, author of "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves," said Wednesday that Reeves patrolled hundreds of square miles of the Indian Territory spread across what's now Oklahoma.
It was a lawless stretch of land that attracted illegal squatters, bootleggers, horse thieves, and other nefarious characters. At least 120 of the 200 federal marshals killed in the line of duty since the agency's founding in 1789 died in Indian Territory.
Reeves was perfectly suited for the job, Burton said. He learned multiple American Indian languages and the lay of the land while fighting for the Union during the Civil War.
Reeves also was a crack shot with his .44-caliber Winchester rifle.
Legend has it that Reeves shot a fleeing fugitive through the neck from a quarter-mile -- after calling the shot.
He killed at least 14 men in the line of duty, Burton said. For comparison's sake, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok killed fewer than 10 between them.
"He killed more outlaws than any known peace officer on the Western frontier," Burton said. "If you got into a gunfight with him, it was tantamount to committing suicide."
Still, Reeves remains largely unknown, even in his home state.
Sydney Walker, a sixth-grader at Cook Elementary, said she never heard of Reeves until her teacher began a section on the history of the region.
"I never knew Fort Smith had any major history," Walker said. "I didn't think much of anything happened here."
The school ultimately launched a fund-raising campaign to support the statue initiative after Reeves' story grabbed the students' imaginations. At a Wednesday check presentation, an actor portraying Bass Reeves "arrested" the school's student council president.
Burton said Reeves' black heritage has a lot to do with his banishment from most history books.
He also blamed racial bias for Reeves' arrest in 1886 for murder. Reeves was ultimately acquitted, but not before it cost him his home and much of his fortune.
Richard O'Connell, U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, said Wednesday that he'd be proud to have Reeves represent the marshals in his district.
"The statue would honor the diversity of our area and the integrity of its people, along with Bass," O'Connell said. "It's a worthwhile project."
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