Bass Reeves, Overlooked American Hero, Gets Hollywood Close-Up

The story of the first Black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi is coming to the screen.

In 2013, the Daily Mail called him "the real-life Django."

Despite speculation that he inspired the creation of the Lone Ranger, few people know the epic story of Bass Reeves. And unlike the famous hero of radio, TV and film, Reeves wore no mask. Instead, as the first Black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi, he fought to clear the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories of criminals during the late 19th century.

Reeves is also at the center of 500 Miles to Nowhere: The Legend of Bass Reeves, by Fred Eason, a former financial consultant turned author. Eason seeks to reclaim Reeves’ position as a true American hero, mostly forgotten by history.

Born into slavery, Reeves fled to Indian Territory until 1865, when he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment. During his time in hiding, he became familiar with the unexplored territories and learned the practices and languages of the Cherokee and Seminole tribes. All of this would make him invaluable for white lawmakers who recruited him as a deputy marshal for the Western District of Arkansas.

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Eason takes this premise as the starting point for a story filled with thrills, humor, nail-biting gunfights and a nuanced look at how the pervasiveness of racism in 19th century America might have sealed Reeves’ place in the history books.

Under the aegis of Voyage Media, Eason’s book has been optioned and adapted to become a film, produced in partnership with Shaun Redick’s Impossible Dream Entertainment — of the Oscar-winning movies BlackKkKlansman and Get Out.

Reeves’ larger-than-life story is posed to make it to the silver screen at a time when diverse audiences are seeking more representation. We spoke with author Eason about his process and what a film adaptation could mean for Reeves’ legacy.

Jose Solís: How did a financial consultant get the writing bug?

Fred Eason: I’ve always been a writer. I started writing in high school, edited two college newspapers, and then I became a financial consultant. I wrote a book about the financial industry, then this one on Bass Reeves, and have a third book in my head, I just haven’t written it yet.

JS: Why did you want to tell Reeves’ story?

FE: I attended a museum dedication in Fort Smith, AR, and someone who used to be a US marshal told me about Bass Reeves. I read everything I found about him and knew I needed to tell his story. I realized if I wrote it like a movie, he’d finally be recognized. People are now finally interested in making TV shows and movies about his life. I happened to fall into that train earlier.

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JS: The book is comprised of historical facts and stories you created. Given that most of the myths about the Old West are about white cowboys, why was it important for you to add Reeves to the canon of larger-than-life figures?

FE: Just think about everything that happened in his life. He was a slave to a Colonel George R. Reeves, who took him under his wing and taught him how to shoot, which was very unusual. In Hell on the Border, one of the books I read about him, I learned how Bass joined Judge Isaac Parker’s famous court. Parker was appointed by Ulysses S. Grant to help Native Americans receive the money they were trying to make from the land we stole from them. White outlaws were robbing the trains that passed their territory, and Grant believed Parker could clear the area. Parker didn’t believe in capital punishment, but somehow hung a lot of people.

Reeves was one of the marshals who brought people to Judge Parker’s court. He concentrated on the people worth more in terms of rewards. People like Jesse James, for instance, who were mad because every time they robbed a train, the companies lost thousands of dollars. Reeves eventually got into the horse business and all the money he made from capturing people he put into horses, which became his retirement plan.

JS: Were you a Batman and Superman kid, or more of a cowboy type?

FE: I’ll be honest with you, I never pretended to be any of those people. I wanted to be myself more than anybody else. I didn’t have a hero as a kid.

JS: I ask because I got a sense that you had a lot of fun writing the book.

FE: I did!

JS: It comes through.

FE: I will admit — when I was a kid, I collected comic books. We barely had cartoons back then; you got to see them when you went to movie theaters. We had no TV channels with cartoons; color TVs came out when I was a little bit older. I’m 78 now, so comic books were my favorite as a kid. Although my mother ended up destroying a lot of them, so I don’t have a collection anymore.

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JS: Are comic books why the book makes it so easy to picture the images you describe?

FE: I’m also a fan of Clint Eastwood, I watched all his movies, and other Westerns, and a lot of them describe similar events to the ones in Bass Reeves’ life. The man who wrote True Grit, Charles Portis, was from Arkansas, for instance. Some of the names that I put into my book also came from real names found in Hell on the Border. No one would expect to have a Native American called McClintock, for example. It sounds confusing and anachronistic, but that was a real name of a real Native American.

JS: Doing your research, what surprised you the most about Reeves?

FE: The only thing that really surprised me is that nobody knew who he was. We have this guy who was probably better than Wyatt Earp and no one knew about him. I also thought it was interesting that his owner bought him guns. Slaves weren’t allowed to get married, and here we have a man who owned two guns and a rifle. My theory is that Colonel Reeves raped his mother and Bass might have some of his blood in him.

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JS: What do you hope Reeves’ story tells people about the state of America today?

FE: I hope it tells people that there were African-American heroes a long time ago that never got recognized. In my book, you can see Bass was the enemy of the newspaper editors — the press didn’t care about African-American heroes. They were neglected. I may write a book about Bass Reeves when he was older and became the sheriff of Muskogee.

JS: How did you become involved with Voyage Media?

FE: I met the founder of Voyage Media, Nat Mundel, through my publisher. Voyage helps storytellers outside of Hollywood develop their projects for movies and shows and bring them to market. Voyage, together with Impossible Dream Entertainment, is stewarding the adaptation and we have some very high-profile actors interested in playing Bass.

JS: Did you ever expect to be involved in the movie industry?

FE: I’m not expecting recognition from Hollywood — I’m financially well-off and I’m not trying to make a second career. I hope people read the book and watch the movie, because what inspired me to write about Bass is that he was an outstanding guy who didn’t stand out in history.

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JS: Around the time your book was published, a monument for Reeves was erected in Fort Smith. Do you ever visit the statue and wish you could ask him something?

FE: I think I know everything I need to know about him. What I’ll say is that once the book makes a profit, I promised the people at the U.S. Marshal’s Museum in Fort Smith, AR, and the Bass Reeves Monument that I would split the earnings between them. If the movie makes my book sell, the museum and the monument will benefit.

JS: Imagine him becoming a hero for African-American children.

FE: That’s also one of my objectives. I wanted to portray to African-American children that there was a hero a long time ago who can inspire them. Since I knew I wanted this to happen, my book is in almost in every school library in Arkansas. I spoke to the state teachers’ association about it and they included a copy in every public school and some high schools. If my book inspires one person, then it was worth writing it.