Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 237.
Art T. Burton's study of African American lawman Bass Reeves contributes to the growing body of work on the black experience in the West. Burton does a fine job of sorting through the fact and fiction surrounding the marshal's career. Although an engaging character, a fulllength study of the marshal did not exist until now. Burton's Black Gun, Silver Star provides insight into the place of race in the Southern Plains in the late 1800s. Burton argues that the significant number of black federal law enforcement agents in Indian Territory "was truly unusual in American history."
Reeves's "accomplishments are all the more meaningful" when examined in the racist context of his lifetime. He escaped bondage in Texas and took refuge among Native Americans in Indian Territory while a teenager. Although illiterate, his ability to speak Muskogee afforded him a skill few white federal law enforcement agents possessed. Additionally, "many Indians didn't trust white lawmen." At a time when Jim Crow was evolving in the South, he became a respected and feared gunman throughout the Great Plains and Southwest. His use of disguises, ploys, and trickery in apprehending felons for crimes ranging from illegal distribution of alcohol to murder exemplified his cunning. Reeves was a superb detective, captured perpetrators of all races, and collected bounties which made this a lucrative profession for a former slave.