BLACK GUN, SILVER STAR, by Art T. Burton
Brief though the period of the Wild West was, the exploits of its villains and lawmen have fascinated people around the world, and been disproportionately represented in pop culture. But the multicultural nature of the Wild West has rarely been evidenced in the plethora of films, books and television shows. Which probably explains why the arrival of Sheriff Black Bart in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974) elicited such a stunned response from the townspeople, and a riot of laughter from the audience. Imagine: a black lawman in the Old West!
Imagine no more. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave, served for nearly 30 years in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, the most deadly location for U.S. marshals. And according to glowing accounts of his bravery, skill and steadfast devotion to duty (found in white newspapers of the time, mind you) nobody was laughing when he rode into to town, especially not the bad guys. As this book amply illustrates, Reeves is remarkable not merely for being a black marshal (there were others) but for being one of the greatest U.S. Marshals, period.
But Reeves' story - with the exception of references published here and there - has been largely ignored by western historians. Though widely known and respected during his lifetime, he was illiterate and left behind no diaries or letters, so what little has come down has been in the form of oral history and legends. Art T. Burton has spent the better part of 20 years reclaiming the heritage of African Americans in the American West, and has scoured through a wide range of primary sources - including Reeves' federal criminal court cases available in the National Archives, and account books at Fort Smith Historic Site - to separate legend from fact and painstakingly piece together the story of this American hero.
The book is not a biography in the traditional sense, but as the subtitle states, a reader. It reproduces many of the court documents and contemporary newspaper articles with just enough narrative to put them into context. Not being a Wild West buff myself, I felt the author did an excellent job providing background to help me make sense of it all.
As the author recounts, one of the first responses he received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma when inquiring about Reeves was "I am sorry, we didn't keep black people's history." This book is the perfect example of the wealth of information which can be gleaned by a creative, dedicated historian who looks beyond the usual sources in order to root out the hidden history of multicultural America. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Western history and culture, law enforcement, American or African American Studies.
And I hope this book inspires someone to finally bring the life and times of Bass Reeves to the big screen.
Old West Law Was White and Black
Bass Reeves, U.S. deputy marshal, overcomes naysayers.
You want the definition of a touch Old West lawman? Bass Reeves was the very model of a U.S. deputy marshal, serving the Indian Territory for an incredible 32 years. He was tall at 6'2", expert shooter with either hand. He was a dogged tracker with a reputation for getting his man. He reportedly killed 14 fugitives in the line of duty.
And Bass Reeves as a black, former slave.
Sure, he faced discrimination throughout his life. But a new biography by Art Burton, Black Gun, Silver Star, shows that Reeves overcame the naysayers through sheer guts and determination.
Take one case from the spring of 1883.
Cowboy Jim Webb had killed a black preacher in a dispute over a brush fire. Reeves was given the warrant to arrest Webb, so he and white posse member Floyd Wilson headed to a ranch in the Chickasaw Nation where Webb worked.
Reeves and Wilson got there in the early morning, greeted by Webb and fellow cowboy Frank Smith. The lawmen didn't identify themselves, but the wranglers were both suspicious and kept their hands on their guns. A hearty breakfast didn't break the tension.
After the meal, Reeves and Wilson went outside and sat on a bench; Webb and Smith took positions standing behind them. Webb momentarily relaxed - Reeves jumped up, knocked the fun out of the cowboy's hand while pulling his own pistol with his right hand and grabbing Webb by the throat with his left. Wilson froze. Frank smith didn't, firing two shots at Reeves from nearly point-blank range - and missing both. Reeves turned his gun on Smith and fired once, hitting his target in the gut. Smith lingered a couple of days before dying. The officers took Webb to Hanging Judge Isaac Parker's jail in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Webb and Reeves would meet again.
The cowboy was released on bail after nearly a year in jail. He promptly ran—and Bass Reeves was sent to get him. The deputy found him at a store in what is now Woodford, Oklahoma. Webb saw Reeves coming, and he sprinted from the building, firing as he went. Reeves was lucky; one shot grazed his saddle horn, a second ripped a button from his coat, a third cut the bridle reins from his hands and a fourth tore the brim of his hat. Bass fired his Winchester twice, hitting his man both times. Webb lay dying in the dirt as Reeves approached—and in a weird scene, the nearly departed gave his pistol and holster to the lawman as a present to remember him by.
Reeves would later say that Jim Webb was the bravest man he ever saw. Webb likely felt the same way about the man who killed him.
Black Gun, Silver Star by Art Burton is published by the University of Nebraska Press. To order this book, visit unp.unl.edu/press or call 800-755-1105.
“Aside from a few fluff films (like Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles) and a smattering of lesser-known scholarship, the African-American presence in Wild West history has been severely underrepresented. . . . Against this backdrop rises Burton’s painstaking account of U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. . . . Rigorous and impartial, Burton is less concerned with entertainment than faithful research—no small task given the Old West’s diverse and troubled racial climate, in which black accomplishment often went overlooked. But dedicated readers will become acquainted with a brave, resourceful lawman and the patchwork of homesteaders, murderers, horse thieves and bootleggers he governed.” —Publishers Weekly.
“Burton has completed a solid research effort, and his writing is clear. . . . Available sources do not allow Burton to resolve all the controversies about the exact details of Reeve’s life, but Burton has given new literary life to a black lawman in a white (and Indian) world.”—James M. Smallwood, Arkansas Historical Quarterly
"As Burton traces Reeves' exploits through oral accounts, records of court proceedings and scraps of correspondence, his fascination with the subject helps to maintain a vigorous pace and ultimately makes Black Gun, Silver Star an eye-opening study of justice and race in the Old West."—Nick Smith, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
“The book is a good addition to the history of law enforcement in the Twin Territories. Students of this area will certainly want to add the book to their library.”—Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association Journal
"[Burton's] years of research resulted in a remarkable story of an Old West giant, one who arguably was the best in his business."—True West
"[This] biography is more statement of fact than tribute to Reeves and no punches are pulled. Bass had an exceptionally long tenure as a Deputy U. S. Marshal and made a few mistakes along the way. These are covered. But, so too, are the remarkable feats he accomplished. . . . No critic, then or now has been able to show that Bass did not do good and bring law and order to the frontier. Art's rendering takes on all comers and their questions. The book is a heck of a good read and not the least bit painful."—Mike Tower, Oklahombres.org
"Burton is a generous author who shares his thinking and analysis with the reader, and explains his personal fascination with the story of Bass Reeves. The result is a highly readable book with a tone that will appeal to several audiences."—Barbara C. Behan, Journal of African American History
"This is a book that should become mandatory reading for any student of American Frontier history. Black Gun, Silver Star not only answers questions about Bass Reeves, the man, but it also provides insight into the incredible courage and extraordinary skill required in nineteenth-century law enforcement. Those with a passion for history, particularly of the nineteenth century, will find this biography of Reeves to be an essential book for their library."—Angela Y. Walton-Raji, author of Black Indian Genealogy Research
"Art Burton has resurrected a heroic Black U. S. Deputy Marshal that thieves and outlaws in the Indian Territory could not kill but was practically eliminated by scholars of frontier history."—Bruce T. Fisher, Curator of African American History, Oklahoma Historical Society
"In the long, sanguinary history of the battle to bring law and order to the violent American West there was no greater or more important figure than this former slave who spent his life enforcing the law in what was the most lawless section of the country. Because Reeves was black, his remarkable career for the most part was overlooked by the contemporary press, making it difficult now to reconstruct his history, but author Art Burton has admirably tackled the task and told a story, long overdue."—Robert K. DeArment, author of Bravo of the Brazos: John Larn of Fort Griffin, Texas
"Art Burton's extensive research for Black Gun, Silver Star fleshes out the fascinating life story and exploits of a former slave who became one of the most famous lawmen in the Indian Territory days of 'Hanging Judge' Isaac Parker."—William Black, Superintendent Fort Smith National Historic Site