[00:00:03.430] - Ben
Janita, thank you so much for joining us on crime capsule. We are so delighted to have you.
[00:00:08.330] - Jonita
Thank you, Benjamin. I appreciate the invitation.
[00:00:13.890] - Ben
So you are a native of oklahoma? Born and raised. And you have been working in research and public history for almost your entire career, haven't you? What led you down this path?
[00:00:30.930] - Jonita
Well, I've always enjoyed history. I'm a proud oklahoma, so I think oklahoma has a very unique history, and I really didn't get started in writing about it until I went to work for a museum in my hometown of muscogee, and they had some wonderful history on display there, including information on batteries. And that led me to starting a column in the muskogee phoenix newspaper, which I've been doing for about 20 years now, and that has led to a lot of research. You write a weekly column on history, you've got to do a great amount of research. So that and then in turn, led to me compiling some of that research into some books that I've been fortunate enough to get published.
[00:01:21.570] - Ben
Yes. What was it like when you first set out to persuade those editors to say, hey, let's do this column, let's do this thing? Was there any friction there, or were they pretty open to the idea?
[00:01:33.730] - Jonita
Actually, it was just the opposite. They had always run a history column and have had various writers through the years. And so when the previous columnist passed away, they actually let it set for the column, kind of went away for about a year out of respect to him. But just about the time I started working at the museum, they approached the museum, the editor, and said, do you have anybody on staff who can write a column on history? And I had a background in writing, so everybody's pointed at me, and that's when I took over the column for the muscogee phoenix. So I was approached by them and was happy to take it on because I had not had an opportunity to do it as much riding as I would have liked for about the last eight or nine years. And I was glad to jump back into it.
[00:02:28.030] - Ben
There's a string of words in the english language that is very rarely pronounced, which is we need a writer. And so when that string of words is uttered in that order, many of our hearts just sort of, like, leap up and kind of gratitude like it's a unicorn, right? It's a unicorn.
[00:02:46.390] - Jonita
[00:02:49.910] - Ben
Yeah, absolutely. Well, let me ask you this. Oklahoma originals came out in 2019, and it was your fourth book, I believe, in nonfiction. You've written some fiction as well, which we'll get to for listeners who may not be aware of your other work. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your previous books in nonfiction?
[00:03:15.650] - Jonita
The history press has also published a book of mine called the jefferson highway in oklahoma. It is about probably the oldest road in Oklahoma, runs from Missouri to Texas and has beautiful history prior to being a highway. And so I had done a lot of research on that. And that was the first book that History Press did for me. I had published two other collections of some of my columns from the Phoenix, self published those. They are titled Glimpses of our Past and Life along the Rivers. So that's my main nonfiction works that I've done. I did just publish another one this year. It's called Muskogee, the Indian Capital. And it's, again, a collection of congratulations articles. Thank you. I wanted to get it out this year because this year is Muscogee's 150th birthday. So we've been celebrating 150 years of existence all this year in Muscoge. So I wanted this book to come out in our 150th year.
[00:04:25.290] - Ben
That must have been a real treat to get to research and write what joy.
[00:04:30.750] - Jonita
Yes, it was a lot of fun. And the scogi like Oklahoma has some really interesting history, so there are a lot of good topics to cover.
[00:04:42.610] - Ben
I imagine you are often asked, when you do speaking engagements and so forth, how the research and the writing of history informs your work as a novelist. But Janita, I would actually like to flip the coin onto its other side and ask you, how does the writing of novels inform your writing of history works?
[00:05:12.130] - Jonita
I think I am the sort of person who is always looking for a good story. History can be very boring if it's just a matter of dates and battles and things of that nature. So I go digging for people stories and I think if you can find those stories, then you can make history very interesting. So, of course, the novel is just an extended story. And if you can find a great story, you have both a good nonfiction book and a good fiction book. And that's been always my focus, is finding the stories, and people do compliment me on that. Well, you make history much more interesting than when I was in school. And I say, well, it's about people. To me, it's about their stories.
[00:06:00.050] - Ben
That brings us nicely to Oklahoma Originals in that it is a compendium of over 80 profiles of prominent, interesting, mysterious, enigmatic Oklahomans who really run the spectrum from the folks who gave a great deal of worth and contribution to the state's history and who really sought to build the state's history up, and then the other kind of folks who would much rather have spent their lives conducting train robberies, shall we say. I really enjoyed getting to know the people in your book. They are so incredibly colorful, as we say down here in Louisiana. How did you approach the collecting and the organizing of the men and women in this book?
[00:06:59.050] - Jonita
Well, as I said, I like to focus on people, so I just first of all went back through my columns, all a thousand or more of them, and picked out all of the biographies that I'd done, of course, are very short, brief biographies, but I picked out all of those. Then I had to go through and narrow it down to just about 80. And since my focus writing for a local newspaper is local history, I realized if I wanted a broader audience, I needed to go out beyond just Muscogee or Northeast Oklahoma and do the whole state. So after I had picked several from the Muscogee or Northeast Oklahoma area, then I went to the larger state history and started trying to find some men and women who contributed to the illnesses history. I very definitely wanted to include all kinds of people. I wanted men and women. I wanted whites and blacks and Native Americans and everyone included in this, because that's all a part of what a goal of mystery is.
[00:08:01.450] - Ben
I thought the way that you organized it was really useful and that you have sort of the explorers and you have the pioneers and you have the merchants, and each chapter is about kind of a category of people under which a dozen or so names might fall. And of course, I was particularly glad to see your mention. There are so many women in this book, and I was so glad to see the Bandit Queen Bell Star make her appearance, which is always a joy.
[00:08:27.250] - Jonita
You can't hardly do a book about Oklahoma without including Bell Stars. She is such a larger than live character, although most of what you hear about it is completely untrue. She has so many myths that surround her that sometimes it can be a little hard to extract the actual facts about her life.
[00:08:49.550] - Ben
Well, we are delighted to be able to spend a little time diving into this wonderful book. And as you know, we here at Crime Capsule are doing a series on road trips, on great escapes, on fugitives from the law. And Janita, we thought it would not be right to undertake this series without talking at least a little bit about the law enforcement side of things, the men and women who bring those great escapes to an end. After all, for every mouse on the loose, there has to be a cat, right? In Bass Reeves, we have one of the baddest cats of all time. I couldn't help but think, as I was reading about Bass Janita, that he really is the John Shaft of the 19th century Wild West. I mean, there's just no one who is slicker than he is, and he always gets his man. I'm so excited to get to talk about Bass today, but before we get to him, we actually need to set the stage a little bit because I think maybe some of our listeners who have not recently read much up on Oklahoma history, you may have forgotten or not encountered what an incredibly tense place it was in the mid 18 hundreds, and how it was at the center of so many different political currents.
It's not a flyover state in that period of time at all. It's actually sort of the locus of the America that it's being formed at the time. So I'd love to be able to spend a little time there before we get to Bass. At the time of what you're writing, which is sort of the mid 1800, mid to late 18 hundreds, oklahoma was still a territory with Native American nations such as the Osage, the Muskogee and the Creek still holding very considerable portions of land. So help us to understand the political tensions of this era where your book is set, and the tensions in particular surrounding expansion and statehood.
[00:11:12.650] - Jonita
This was a major controversy that raged in the twin territories, as they were called at that time. The Native Americans had their own independent nations. They never truly organized a territory with, say, a government, a constitution, a governor, any of that. They were five nations, primarily. And then you had a section of land in the middle of Indian Territory, as it was called, that had never been settled by any Native tribe. And so the government finally opened that up to non Indian settlement and then gave them territorial status a year later. So we had two different territories fighting for whether or not we go into the Union as a single state or as two states. This went on and on and on. It couldn't get settled very quickly. There were all these different interests. The railroads had an interest, the cattleman associations had an interest, the Native Americans had an interest. And in the midst of all of this going on, you had all these different jurisdictional issues with each of the tribes having their own government and their own police force. And in this, there was sort of a vacuum of jurisdictional question mark, where people who were not a member of a tribe could slip into a tribal area and the tribe themselves, their police force, couldn't make an arrest of that individual.
So it became this massive hideout for criminals who would commit a crime in Texas, say, or Arkansas, and then slip into the territory or the nations, as it was sometimes referred to, and could hide out there, pretty much free from getting arrested because Native people couldn't do so because if they were white or black, not a tribal member, they were helpless to do anything about them. And it became this really terrible place where criminals could easily hide out and could avoid arrest. So the Native Americans were then fighting that and eventually had to give up and say, okay, we need the federal government to come in here and help us clean this out, because it's just gotten so bad. We've been overrun by the criminal element. I like to say that in Oklahoma you have all of the stereotypes of the Old West cowboys and Indians, cattle drives and shootouts in the street and all the things that Hollywood would have made a movie about, and it all happened in Oklahoma.
[00:13:50.910] - Ben
Let me ask you about this territorial aspect. You say that there's a sort of parcel of land or a region in which no one had ever settled, that there's a sort of it sounds to me like a no man's land almost. Was this because there was a particularly inhospitable element to it? Was there something in the elements or the terrain that made farming or herding cattle, that sort of thing, just particularly tricky? Or had it been contested by these various nations over the years and there was just no easy peace surrounding it? What was the issue surrounding this sort of uninhabited or this unclaimed zone?
[00:14:37.890] - Jonita
Well, it technically wasn't unclaimed because the Plain Stripesmen always had hunted through this area, so it wasn't desert or anything like that. And it basically sat right in the center of what is the state today where Oklahoma City is located. The five tribes of the southeast United States had been given basically the entire state of what is today Oklahoma, except for the Panhandle. At the time that the Indians from the southeast were removed to the Indian Territory, the Panhandle belonged to Texas. But after the Civil War, because the tribes had signed alliance treaties with the Confederacy, the government took back some of the land that had given to these five nations and had begun to, after the war, subtle tribes, other tribes on that land that they had taken back. But there was a section in the center of the state that had not been given to any of the other tribes. So we're being moved into the territory. So that was recalled, the Unassigned Land, because it had never been assigned to a new tribe. And there was this argument back and forth about should it be opened for non Indian settlement or not?
The Indians, of course, were very adamantly opposed to it except for a few of them. And so they resisted and resisted and resisted that opening up the land for good many years until finally they just had enough pressure brought against them that they had to concede. And then the government paid the Muskogee tribe for the land because they had agreed to pay them this money for this land that they were taking back and they just never done. So finally the government said, okay, we'll pay you for this land and then we can do whatever we want with it. And so at that point in time, in 1889, they opened it to a land run which is very unique to Oklahoma history of another state that got settled with a land run where you shoot off a cannon and thousands of people race to get a claim. And that is what happened in 18.9 to this Unassigned Territory.
[00:16:49.470] - Ben
That may have to be the subject of your next book?
[00:16:52.180] - Jonita
Yes, because there are probably some really interesting characters who made that land run.
[00:17:00.210] - Ben
You wish you would have been there to see it. That sounds like an amazing spectacle. Well, let's get back to the sort of the law and justice angle here. You write that the twin territories at the time were quite nearly just lawless. They were unregulated, and they were.
[00:17:24.430] - Jonita
[00:17:24.830] - Ben
Absence of sort of a central body of administering justice where the American jurisdiction ended just did not help any of the internal turmoil that was going through with respect to fugitives and outlaws at all. And so I'm curious two questions for you, Janita. One, what were the main crimes that were taking place in and around the territories at this time? You described cattle rustling and bootlegging, but I'm sure there are many, many more. So I'm curious about kind of what was comprising most of the criminal activity at this time. And secondly, who was trying to maintain order, or what institutions were there at all in order to try to bring some accountability to rustle the wrestlers? Right, right.
[00:18:19.510] - Jonita
Well, of course, train robberies were a major problem in the territory. When the tribes had signed their new treaties with the federal government for following the Civil War, they had to make certain concessions. And one of them had been to allow railroads to build through, with the Texas cattle market being what it was. Right at the end of the war, we had all the cattle drives, as you know, and the railroads very much had an interest to come out of the Midwest, out of Missouri and Kansas, and get down to Texas to claim that cattle market. But they were passing through a very sparsely, subtle land, so it was very easy for them to be robbed. The first train to build through Indian Territory was the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas. It was called the Katy for short. The Katy became the most robbed train in America, the most robbed railroad, because it came through the Indian nations and every switch and every gap at every little stopping place, there were robberies taking place. And so the railroads, of course, had a great interest in seeing some kind of federal presence in the territory to curb all of this, because they were desperate to curb this train robberies that were taking place.
They, in fact, would hire agents to ride the rails just to try to keep it a lid on it. Murder was not huge, but there was some of that going on. When you don't have much law enforcement that you can turn to to settle dispute, a lot of people just pull out a gun and settle it themselves. And so you had a lot of that going on.
[00:20:06.910] - Jonita
The tribes have their own police forces. The tribal police is usually called the Lighthorse. We still have lighthorsemen today. The Turkey were called their law enforcement, the Marshalls, similar to the US Marshall Service. But as I said before, they could only arrest their own tribal members, so they couldn't arrest Bellstar, for example. She wasn't a member of the tribe. And people who would slip into the territory after having committed a bank robbery or chain robbery or maybe a stage coach robbery and then hide out in the cave or in the hills, and they couldn't dislonch them and couldn't make an arrest. So even though they had effective police forces for their own people, they were being overrun by individuals who didn't belong to the tribe and therefore was slipped into this jurisdictional crack where no one could arrest them.
[00:21:10.430] - Ben
We often think of the desert Southwest or parts of Texas as the area where the Wild West is most clearly visible. But your description of these years, from about 1850 to 1880, it makes it come so alive when you realize you paint this portrait of the Katy, the train sort of passing through this completely darkened landscape. There's nobody around for miles. It comes to a switching station. There's somebody in a mask and a hat waiting to throw the switch to send it off to the other track. The conductor and the engineer, they've come to expect this because they know they're not going to get any help. There's no one coming. And it's just sort of this sense of you're throwing your whole life and fortune to almost a chance and to fate by taking one of these trips. I mean, that's the Wild West right there. It's amazing.
[00:22:08.350] - Jonita
That is the Wild West. That is the Wild West. And some authors, particularly Art Burton, who is the biographer of VAS Reeves, he has called Oklahoma, the territories, the epicenter of the Wild West. So much of what Hollywood show is Tombstone or El Paso or Deadwood, that all happened in Oklahoma. Most of the stories that they would turn into movies, they actually took place in Oklahoma.
[00:22:38.850] - Ben
Now, what's interesting is that you write that there were, despite this terminal, despite this lawlessness, despite this chaos of a justice system, there were individuals who over time, did seek to establish institutions really from scratch. Now, you write about Frank Canton, you write about William Grimes, judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, who probably deserves his own book as well, and folks like Samuel, he's a really interesting one. And Samuel Six Killer, who has the most amazing name I think I've ever read. Yeah. What was it like for these early judges, officers of the peace, federal marshals coming into the territories, trying to create something from nothing?
[00:23:37.810] - Jonita
Well, of course, Isaac Parker had this huge task when he was appointed to the bench at the Fort Smith court, because at that time he was tasked with cleaning up the territories, and it was huge. So he began to hire marshals. He particularly wanted African American and Native American Marshalls, which was different from what you would have found in just about any other court. So Parker was very unique in that respect. He hired a lot of blacks and a lot of Indians to go into the territory. He believed that the native people, predominant people in the territory, were more trusting of their own people, Indians or even of blacks, than they were of white officers, and would cooperate more fully with those people of color. Then you had someone like Sam Six killer who was Cherokee, and he was tasked, of course, with trying to clean everything up. Even before Isaac Parker was starting to get involved, he was captain of the Indian Police. He worked in Muskogee, unfortunately died himself being shot while he was buying presents for his children on Christmas Eve. His story is just an amazing story, but he was so well respected that when he passed away, his funeral was largely attended.
And he was credited with really trying to get a lid on the bootlegging, which was really bad, I claim, and I think I can support it, that the term bootlegging actually began in Indian Territory because everybody was trying to smuggle whiskey or something into the territories because they were dry, they were temperance territories. They all had temperance laws. And so they would put the alcohol and slim little flask and then they would slip that flask into the leg of their boots. So as they were coming in, they could sneak that whiskey in. And bootlegging became the term that there was used about smuggling illegal alcohol. And I'm pretty sure it started right here in Indian Territory. So that was a major problem for them. I have often said that if the temperance movement and the Prohibition Amendment, if those folks had looked at Indian Territory and saw how impossible it was to regulate and enforce temperance, they probably would not have ever passed the 19th Amendment, because it just was not enforceable. And it wasn't enforceable in Indian Territory. There was just too much liquor flowing. So a lot of the crime is all related to that flow of alcohol.
[00:26:19.690] - Ben
We have had several guests on over the past several months who have given us a view onto Prohibition in other southern states. And the consensus absolutely is it was basically unenforceable anywhere she went, which is not that surprising if you think about it. I was struck by when you write about, say, Judge Isaac Parker, for our listeners who may not recall, fort Smith is actually on the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas. And at that time it was the seat of justice for the territories. And it was like you had the seat of justice on the eastern border, the eastern side of the territories, and Judge Parker was Deputizing Marshalls going westward into the territories. Right. But he held court back at Fort Smith, which technically is actually an Arkansas city today, isn't it?
[00:27:20.110] - Jonita
Yes, it is, although I believe it actually should be in Oklahoma. I think there's an old chocolate treaty.
[00:27:29.630] - Ben
Yeah, I'll let you make that case. I mean, it sounds plausible. Yeah.
[00:27:36.990] - Jonita
If you visit the fort Smith historic site, you will see that all of the history that they interpret there is Indian territory history. They have very little about Arkansas in Fort Smith because Fort Smith was so focused on Indian territory and law enforcement here, even from when the fort, the actual first fort, was established in 1817, it was about trying to keep the peace in Indian territory. So from the very beginning, from the get go, for Smith's existence, it was all about trying to keep peace in the Indian territory. The Marshalls headed west, and they had west and then bring all those prisoners back to fort Smith.
[00:28:21.430] - Ben
That must have been a journey, bringing these guys back cuffed and bound over hundreds of miles, and they don't want to go. What was really interesting about your account of these early lawmen, though, Janita, is a really intriguing sort of angle here, is that you write that many of them, many of these deputies, marshals, such as Frank Canton, had actually started out as criminals. They had actually started out on the other side of the law, and they had had these kinds of wake up calls or come to Jesus moments, or had realized they were in over their heads, and they had turned from their criminal ways and decided to put on the badge. I thought this was really fascinating because that's not a narrative that you hear quite as often in the modern age, but it seems to be very common in your account.
[00:29:18.430] - Jonita
Yes, it was very common. I mean, you don't think of Wyatt Earp as being someone who is stealing horses in the Cherokee nation, but there is evidence that he was. And so Wyatt Earp, who is very famous marshall, started out as a criminal, as a thief, stealing horses. And a lot of the other Marshalls were that as well. Good number of these men remember, they would have been probably ex soldiers from the civil war. And when I've heard some speakers say that the civil war is really what gave rise to the wild west, because you had all these young men coming out of the war, some of them probably suffering from PTSD and other things of that nature, they all know how to handle again, they all own a gun, and they're probably a little jaded, a little cynical. They've seen death, they've taken lives, and they're a little bit hard. And so coming out of that environment, they were probably wandering around trying to find their way for a good number of years, and some of them resorted to making a living stealing other people's money or other people's property. And then they got enough, far enough away from the war and all of that horror that they did have that come to Jesus moment when they said, this is not how I want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, being pursued by other law men.
I'm going to straighten out and try to do better. And so some of them, they had the gun skills, they had the ability to shoot if they had to. And so they were individuals that the citizens were looking to have the courage to stand up to the criminal element. And so they turned to some of these men who were looking for a change and wanted to do something else with their lives.
[00:31:16.630] - Ben
Really fascinating. I was so struck by that aspect. There's one more question I have for you before we turn to the baddest cat himself, bass Reeves, but I wanted to ask you, you get the sense in your account of Oklahoma in this period of the frontier very clearly. I think what struck me about the visibility or the sense of the frontier was that so many of the men you described, these men who ended up becoming law enforcement officers and so forth, nearly all of them moved there from outside. They came from Texas, they came from Nebraska, they came from Kentucky. There's this sense of being on the leading edge of something, of entering into the unknown that appeals, I think, yes, to our sense of adventure and sort of excitement and so forth. But actually it also speaks directly to the way in which people at that time saw opportunity in the far unknown of the american territories. It struck me that nearly every law enforcement officer that you write about was not at all from oklahoma. They all came in from outside and they were moving there in search of something.
[00:32:47.570] - Jonita
Exactly. Of course, oklahoma in a way became the last frontier. Much of the west had been settled because of the homestead act, and the government had really, due to the request of the railroads, had really tried to push people into settling the west. But oklahoma was indian territory and non indians weren't allowed in for the longest time. And so it was the last frontier, was the last opportunity to go in and claim some land and start over. A lot of individuals who made the land runs, who came to oklahoma to try to seek some of this land that the government was giving away, were coming out of the south and coming out of the shambles that the civil war had left the south. And they were looking for a new opportunity. And it was opportunity for blacks as well as whites. There was a huge influx of african americans freedmen who couldn't survive in the south because of everything that was being felt and taken care of there. And so they saw oklahoma as this land of opportunity. And it brought a lot of good people as well as the criminal element, a lot of people just looking for a chance to start over.
And oklahoma offered that almost one of the last places that you could go to get some land and start over and make a different life for yourself and your family.
[00:34:17.210] - Ben
Well, that brings us naturally, to the baddest cat in the west. I'm so excited. What do we know about Bass Reeves early life and his family? Was Bass born a slave or was he born free and then captured or sold into slavery?
[00:34:42.090] - Jonita
He was born a slave. He was born in Crawford County, Arkansas. His beginning is very sketchy. Even from interviews with Bass himself, he spoke very little about his life as a slave. Some family lore has been passed down. And he had a great nephew who wrote a book about him that mostly centers on the stories that family told about him. But, yeah, we don't know a lot about his beginning years, but he was born into slavery. His mother was a slave. Her name was Perily. There's some speculation that maybe his father was white, maybe the master at the plantation. Bass never said, so we don't really know who his father was. That situation was not unique back in the day. The family, the Reuse family that owned the plantation moved to Texas when Bass was about eight. We know that. And he was assigned to work with the blacksmith on the plantation. So he learned how to handle horses and he learned how to handle guns. And those two things, of course, would serve him very well later on in his law enforcement career.
[00:35:58.630] - Ben
So what do we know? Escape. You write that he made a sort of sudden flight north into the Creek Nation. Do we know much about what that transit from Texas into Oklahoma looks like?
[00:36:20.030] - Jonita
We don't. And again, this is something that Bath did not discuss much. And so while we know of it, we have gathered from children's stories and different things that maybe he told them and they related later to biographers. Apparently, he had been made what we would have called a body servant for the son of the plantation owner, a man named George Reeves. George joined the Texas Cavalry at the outset of the Civil War on the Confederate side. I've recently read, and this was something that I had missed earlier in that George Reeves, as a part of the Texas Cavalry, had come into Indian Territory very early in 1861 to try to bring all of the tribes into the Confederate camp. And the Texas Cavalry was sort of muscling everybody into the Confederate camp. So Bass Reeves likely would have been with George. And so it may not be that he escaped from Texas into the Indian Territory. He may have already been in the Indian Territory. He just did like a lot of outlaws did. He went out and hid in the hills and managed to elude capture the Muskogee nation was unique and muskogi.
[00:37:41.820] - Jonita
I used muscoge interchangeably with Creek. It's a term that the nation today is preferring. That's their native word for their name.
[00:37:51.480] - Jonita
Muskogee tribe had a policy of not allowing bounty hunters into their nation to capture slaves. So it's not well documented, but it's very clear that the Muscogee Nation at least was a part of the Underground Railroad. And there were probably a number of different slaves who managed to get into the Miscovia Nation and avoid capture. That's perhaps new about this because those stories get told through the plantations. Everybody knows where you run, if you're going to run. And so he probably knew Muskogi Nation is a possibility as a place where if you can get to it, you can hide out at it. And so he made his move very early in the Civil War. What he did while he was living in the nations during the Civil War, we're not exactly sure. Again, he's very silent about that in his interviews. Some have suggested he was a scout for the Union, some suggested he may have even fought for the Union. We just really don't have a lot of details on that. But he would have spent those years during the war somewhere likely in the Muskogi Nation or somewhere in the Indian Nations. He was a bright young man.
He was probably about 23 years old at this time. He learned the Muskogi language. And the Muskogee language is a language that is spoken in some iteration by four of the five Tribes. So being proficient in Muscoulke meant you could probably talk to a Chicksaw or a chocolate or a Seminole as well as a Musky member. So it gave him an advantage to know that language and he used that skill later on in his law enforcement career.
[00:39:40.850] - Ben
It really is fascinating to think about him sort of hiding out, picking up these skills, sort of laying low, keeping his head down, but also with a view towards he knew the war would have to end and he knew that he would have to make his own way. And so he's sharpening his sensibility, right, throughout all this time, not necessarily knowing what's coming next, but amassing kind of a body of knowledge and expertise. And I was really struck by this sort of portrait that you paint of him doing that in and around this, as we were talking earlier, this lawless region, right? And so there's this kind of tension, isn't there? You have the flip side of the lawlessness in the territories where criminals and outlaws can go in and not be arrested. Well, if you are a fugitive from slavery, if you are an escaped slave like Pass Reeves, you are also subject to the kind of immunity right, that these erstwhile criminals and outlaws are also subject to. And you're kind of intermingling with a crowd that really teaches you to toughen up and to keep your wits about you. And what an incubator, right?
I mean, what a time and place in order to hone one's faculties. As a law enforcement officer, I was just enthralled by imagining who Bass was meeting during this time and who he was rubbing shoulders with. I doubt he was much of a drinking man or a gambling man, but if he walked into a saloon, there weren't saloons quite that same way. But if he was engaged in no, you wouldn't. But you know what I mean. There's a sense of who was he encountering? And it was very definitely the kind of folks who were also in flight from some aspect of persecution that would have just really changed the person's outlook. So fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Genetic.
[00:41:51.150] - Jonita
And of course, when he's trying to lay low, he's learning. He's learning all of the hideouts. He's learning where those caves are in the hills. He's learning where the hollows are that you can slip down there to a stream and camp for a while and no one will come by and see you. And during this time period, actually, Indian Territory was kind of emptied out, if you want to know the truth of it. The Indians were forced to choose sides, one side or the other. And so those who supported the Union, a lot of them, fled to Kansas, and those who supported the Confederacy fled to Texas, and they literally abandoned Indian Territory. So what you had were soldiers and any escaped slaves or maybe a few fugitives from the surrounding states. But it would have been a wide open territory very much during the war years.
[00:42:46.330] - Ben
So you write that his career in law enforcement really kind of comes into focus officially begins around 1875, when Judge Isaac Parker, who we mentioned over in Fort Smith, begins to deputize marshalls across the territories. Now, I want to ask you about that, but right before I do, I want to ask you, what do we know, if anything, about the period between 1865, the end of the Civil War, emancipation, et cetera, and 1875, when Bass becomes a federal marshal? So does he come out of hiding in 1865 when bounty hunters or folks retrieving escaped slaves are no longer able to do that kind of work, given the end of the war? What do we know about that moment in his life?
[00:43:41.110] - Jonita
We don't know a great deal, but we do know that he did leave Indian Territory, and he settled in Van Buren, Arkansas. He bought a farm there. He married. He brought his mother and a sister from Texas. So apparently he'd been able to reconnect with them, which I'm sure he hadn't been able to during the warriors, but he was able to find them, bring them to live there in Arkansas, which is where he started his life. And probably had family, other family in that area. He owned a farm, built a beautiful house. From all accounts, it was very nice house, raised horses, had a patch of kids, I think eleven total children. So he was a family man for sure. And he actually started serving as a scout for the Marshalls that were going into Indian territory trying to make those arrests. He knew the land, and so he would be a scout for them. And that's kind of how he worked his way into being considered for the job of Marshall.
[00:44:52.190] - Ben
Judge Isaac Parker says, we've got to get a handle on this. And so he starts handing out badges, right? Bass gets a badge. And I was curious. Does Parker approach Bass, or does Bass approach Parker?
[00:45:08.750] - Jonita
I don't know the answer to that. I'm not sure. He may have been recommended to Parker by some of the men that he had served, but this time, he was being used as a posse man, which is usually a civilian that gets temporarily deputized to go out and help with making an arrest or something. And so he was scouted and possibly man. He had proven his abilities. And so I would guess that someone that he had worked with had said to Parker, this is a man you want you might want to consider. He's got some good skills, and he can do the job.
[00:45:50.070] - Ben
Now, this is the fun part. It's all fun, but this is the really fun part. Tell us how good of a Marshall he was. Tell us just how bad this cat was.
[00:46:01.990] - Jonita
Janita well, of course, he was a man who managed to serve for 32 years in the Marshall service as a deputy. And in this time period, typically a marshal lasted about five years. Either they were killed, wounded badly enough that they couldn't continue, or they just burned out and said, I can't do this anymore. So five years was the typical length of a Marshall's service at this time. For someone to last for 32 years, you've got to be tough and you've got to be smart, and you've got to be fast with your gun, and you have to be committed to the idea of justice. And that, I think, is key to Bass, is that he just truly believed in the justice system. He shared that with Isaac Parker. And they actually became good friends because they both had a strong sense of justice and of wanting to see the law served. And so that kept him committed and kept him going back into the territories year after year after year. He made nearly 3000 arrests in that time period, plus serving subpoenas for people who are being called to testify. He did that as well.
So he was just a prolific marshal and did a massive amount of work in cleaning up Indian territory.
[00:47:25.090] - Ben
So I did the math just out of curiosity. I couldn't resist 32 years in the service from 1875 to 19, seven nearly 3000 arrests. You run the numbers, and that is an arrest every 3.89 days. That's an arrest nearly every four days. He's bringing somebody that's 3000 perks who are trying to get away with their crimes of their cattle rustling their bootlegging to make their own great escapes and he shut every last one of them down. I mean, this guy did not play around.
[00:48:01.810] - Jonita
No, he did not. And of course the remarkable thing about it, and we need to mention it, is in all of this, he was not educated. To our knowledge, he could do very little in the way of reading or writing. If he needed to write a letter, he had to have someone write it for him. He would memorize the warrants that he carried just from looking at the picture or the name and he could pick them out of the sheaf of warrants that he had because he had such a sharp mind. And he did all of this with that handicap of being illiterate. And so I think he probably taught himself a little bit to read or write. He was just too smart not to do that. But basically he had no formal education. So he gets the mode of operation was for a marshall to pick up his sheath of warrants at the court house to hire a cook and a guard and maybe a posseman or two headed into territories with a wagon and some chains so that he could bind his prisoners. And then he would go and serve as many of these warrants as he could and then haul them back to Fort Smith.
So after he had arrested them, sometimes shot them in the course of arresting them, then he had to bring them back to Fort Smith, which in itself was a major undertaking. So you didn't just go out and shoot a guy and take him over to a few blocks away to the jail. You had 103 hundred mile trip to get him back to the courthouse to Fort Smith.
[00:49:36.970] - Ben
Which when you look at that statistic of an arrest nearly every four days, I mean, you just think this guy is on the road, he's just like a one man kind of caravan. Just like extraordinary that level of activity. Now let me ask you this. How fast on the trigger on the draw was Bass Reeves?
[00:50:01.090] - Jonita
I don't know that anyone ever timed it, but no one ever could out draw him, that's for sure. And he had to on occasion whip that gun out pretty fast. Stories are that he was amidextrous and he would carry a gun on both hips. Sometimes he had a gun stuck in his waistband at the small of his back, but his favorite weapon was the Winchester rifle which he would carry in a scabbard on his sorrel horse. But he was fast and he was fast with his hands. He had huge hands from all accounts. And he could grab somebody by the throat and if he had to do that, that's what he would do. And he could do it really quick and then have the gun out pointing at the chest of the man that he grabbed by the throat. And so nobody got the drop on bass Reeves. He was quicker than just about anybody out there.
[00:51:00.210] - Ben
As you were researching, I mean, it really is incredible. I only wish we had sort of greatest hits album of his top ten arrests. But as you were researching, was there any one case of his that we know about that struck you as particularly noteworthy, whether it was for its drama if there was kind of like a big shootout, or on the flip side, more for its significance in restoring law and order to a troubled region. Any one particular case that you really thought, wow, this is something special?
[00:51:44.010] - Jonita
I think probably the attempt to arrest. Actually, he did arrest a man named Jim Webb, last called him Mexican. We don't think he actually was. He might have said that because people had a real problem with African Americans arresting white people, likely with a named Jim WebP. He probably was white. He was a ranch foreman for a chicken stall rancher and just committed some crimes and had a worn out. So Bass and his posse men went down to this ranch to make the arrest and Jim the outlaw was very suspicious of Bass. And so he kept a gun in his hand the whole time that Bass was there trying to talk to him and get him to drop his guard so he could arrest him. He finally just had to grab him by the throat. And then when he looked away just briefly and grabbed him and managed to get his gun out and make the arrest at that time. Took him to Fort Smith and Jim Webb escaped. And so he returns to Chickasa Nation Baskets. The warrant again goes back. At this time, he's aware of just what Jim Webb is. Jim was pretty slick himself and pretty fast for the guy and not afraid to use it.
And so the second time he had to go back for him, jim did fire at Basaltime, came pretty close to killing him. He shot a button off of his coat, shot the bridle of his horse, and so it was close, but Bass did in fact, shoot and kill him. He lay dying, according to Bass. Bass went over to check on him and he knew he was dying, jam dead. And he said, Harry, I want to give you my gun. You are the best shooter I have ever come across her face, and I want you to have my gun. And so he kept Jim Webs coming as a trophy for having made that arrest. He came pretty close. That's probably one of the moments in time when he came closest to himself being shot.
[00:53:54.730] - Ben
Well, it strikes me too, really good way to piss somebody off is to shoot at their horse. Don't do that. Don't shoot a man's horse, right. Don't do it.
[00:54:07.570] - Jonita
Always had a dog with him too, and he drives his dog. So there is a statue, really Smith and the dog and the horse are in the statue. So if you go to Fort Smith and National Historic Site, you will see Bass Reeves on his horse, heading into Indian territory with his dog and his horse and his rifle.
[00:54:29.620] - Ben
How about that? Now, there is this extraordinary statistic in your book. A statistic is maybe the wrong word for it, but extraordinary observation in your book that late in his life, after he retired from the Marshalls, he's right that he became a police officer just in Muscogee, sort of a little bit quieter of a beat, so to speak. But he was so feared and respected as a lawman at the turn of the century. We're really in kind of the early 19 hundreds. Now, that in the town of Muskogee, where he spent his last years. You write that there was, and I'm just going to say this the way that you write it, because I don't think there's any dressing up or dressing down that is required. There was no crime on his beat. None. People did not even think about stealing a chicken, much less knocking up a hardware store or turning over a train. I mean, none.
[00:55:38.890] - Jonita
Exactly. This is a story that circulated, Miss gogee, for years. You did not cross Mass Reeves. He was 70 years old at the time. He walked with a cane. And yet his reputation was so large that nobody wanted to mess with him. Nobody was going to tankle him. Nobody was going to risk him pulling out that gun and pointing it at him. And so everybody just minded their own business and minded their manners and did not consider committing a crime when Bass was on duty.
[00:56:15.110] - Ben
I mean, it's kind of like with all of his skills of intuition and speed and his language proficiency and his sources on the inside, he could hear you thinking about stealing that chicken from halfway across town. Right.
[00:56:33.050] - Jonita
He could they say his marksmanship was remarkable. He could see so well. He could shoot at great distances. And I'm sure that he could spot anybody out on the street when he was walking his beat. And he kept the beat. His beat was the black business district. Tulsa is famous for his black business district of Greenwood. But Muskogee had an equally large and prosperous black business district, and that was Bassett's beat. And I'm sure that he could keep his eyes running to and throw up and down that street and knew everybody who was on the street, why they were there, whether they should have been there. And I'm sure that everybody knew. Bass is watching you. You better behave.
[00:57:20.430] - Ben
It'S like we need to rewrite the Christmas song to be about naughty or nice. You better not cry you better not shout santa Bass is coming to town he's got his eye on you so you're right that Bass passed away in just a couple of years after Oklahoma actually did achieve formal statehood. I wanted to ask you, what is his legacy today? This is a very large question, I understand, but he broke an enormous barrier as the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi, and he has had a revival in recent years in film and TV depictions. I was so surprised to see him show up on the HBO series The Watchman, which actually has a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre, which of course, is one of our nation's great tragedies, but that reached an audience across the world to that show. Right. And so here they had a sort of fictionalized, but not entirely fictionalized, drew on sort of aspects of his legend version of Bass's career as a law man and thrust into global prominence. Right. So what would you say really is kind of his legacy at this moment?
[00:58:49.450] - Jonita
I would like to see his legacy be not just focused on the arrests he made or the shootouts that he took part in, but in this commitment that he had to law and order, to his sense of justice. From all accounts that we have gleaned from people who told the stories and passed them down, he was this consummate gentleman. So I don't see him as being this hard fisted, hard drinking, foulmouthed womanizer that he probably will get portrayed by somebody sometime sooner or later. I think he was this quiet gentleman. He was a gentle giant, and he managed to do his job without having to prove himself by being bad and acting out. I think he went about his job very quietly, very efficiently. He had a certain respect even for the outlaws he was arresting because he had himself in a fugitive. So he got that. He got what it was about. He just went about his job in a respectful way, and people respected him and that's that the reputation he built was not just that he could shoot you, but that he understood you. And people respected what he was and what he stood for.
And if we could have that in law enforcement today, I think we'd be a lot better off as a nation. Just be respectful.
[01:00:24.410] - Ben
It sounds like just a consummate professional. And frankly, if I were breaking the law, I'm not sure what would be worse, being shot or being understood.
[01:00:37.130] - Jonita
Exactly. You know, the story goes that he wanted to be a preacher. He wanted to be a preacher. He asked if he could learn to read so he could read the Bible, and was denied that opportunity. But he would preach to his prisoners as he was hauling them back to Fort Smith. You need to turn your life around. He would preach to them. And so I imagine that talking to was probably as bad as facing the gun. Yes, I'm sure he probably had a few tears.
[01:01:10.050] - Ben
That sounds excruciating pun. Not intended. I'm a church going man myself, but the thought of being preached at for, I don't know, four straight days while I'm bound and cuffed in the back of a wagon heading to Fort Smith. Sounds like the worst possible punishment I could endure.
[01:01:30.390] - Jonita
Don't let it be Bass who arrest me. I'll have to listen to a server.
[01:01:36.150] - Ben
Anyone but Bash. Anyone but Bass. Let me ask you this. I have just a couple more questions for you, Jeanine. This is so rich and detailed and marvelous. In lieu of an epilogue, what I want to ask you about actually, was your sources often, so often figures from the Wild West, if I can be a little cavalier with that term, they do grow more in legend than in fact. And the good sources that we have tend to dry up as fast as a creek bed underneath that Texas sun. For figure in law enforcement, though, there must be more of a paper trail, right? I mean, we would have arrest records, we would have warrants, we would have letters or court documents or commissions of some sort, right? So I am curious for researchers out there, for students of Oklahoma history, or people who are passionate about Bass Reeves, who are maybe wanting to get to know his story a little bit better, and I will ask you about this society is devoted to him. But let me ask you this. What do we have materially as far as sources on Bass and how do we make sense of it all?
[01:02:56.550] - Jonita
Well, Fort Smith Court, of course, does have a lot of documentation of his arrests and the court cases, his testimony, because he often was called upon to testify about the arrest or about what he knew of the crime. So we have all of that documentation, and he was very much written about in the newspapers. Muskogee Phoenix covered him extensively, and then other newspapers from Chicago to New York to the Dallas Morning Times would also run those articles that they would pick up from Fort Smith or Van Buren or Muskogie. So he was read about all over the country during his lifetime. It was after his lifetime that he became forgotten. During his lifetime. There was a lot of it might just be a little short paragraph baseries brought in twelve men today, but they would report on who he brought in at the Fort Smith Court almost every four days, I assume, and be very much a known figure. And he's always referred to as the notable marshal or the prolific marshal or the stellar Marshall very much. You wouldn't think an African American then, in this time frame would have gotten that much of a knot of respect that he did because of the job that he did.
And so it was written about in a lot of newspapers. And you can, of course, go online and find those newspaper stories. And then there have been a number of biographies written about him. Art Burton's Black Gun, Silver Star is probably considered the best of them. But there are others as well that are out there.
[01:04:39.970] - Ben
Okay. So a lot to look into for folks who want to get to know him better. There are resources available, yes, but of course, we want to tell us a.
[01:04:50.550] - Jonita
Little bit about doggy.
[01:04:55.550] - Ben
Doors open, folks. Doors open. You all come on over. Tell us about the society that has been founded in honor of his legacy.
[01:05:08.030] - Jonita
Well, we're not technically a society. We are a group of enthusiasts, volunteers. We work with Three Rivers Museum who has his monument, what we call ourselves The Posse because we're not even technically a nonprofit organization. We're just a group of people passionate about Bath and about telling his story. And so we as The Posse, we The Posse, put on a conference every July. It will be coming up at the end of this month. And we invite people to come and learn more about Bass Reeves. So we have a group of reenactors. Not all the Posse members are reenactors, and not all of the reenactors are Posse members, but we have a group of reenactors who will portray individuals who are contemporaries of Bath who would have known him or known about him at least, and they will tell his story. I lead the tour. We could get on an air conditioned bus so you don't have to worry about sweating through some awful Oklahoma July. And we got on a bus and we drive his beat when he was a police officer. We go to the location of the courthouse and the jail and where he lived and where he walked and where he went to church and all of these wonderful sites in downtown Muskogee that are connected to Bass.
So if anyone's interested in attending this conference, we still have a few seats available on the bus. You can check our website, bassreaseconference.com, to get your tickets. And we would love to have you come. We would love to have you come, Benjamin, and say hello and learn a little bit.
[01:06:45.870] - Ben
Oh, wouldn't that be a treat?
[01:06:47.130] - Jonita
Would you be interested in learning about it's?
[01:06:50.750] - Ben
The baddest cat in the west? Yes, he is the baddest cat there was. I'm telling you, you can't find anyone. I have not found a single soul that has topped him as far as just I swear, Janita, I am never going to even think about stealing a chicken ever again for the rest of my mortal days because I know that even the spirit of Bass Reeves, he will be watching me. He's going to be right behind looking over my shoulder. And I swear, I think my days as an outlaw and a fugitive are done. I think I am done. One last question for you. Thank you so very much for joining us and sharing such an extraordinary story. This has been such a pleasure. What is next for you, Janita? What do you have on the desk at the moment? What kind of projects?
[01:07:47.750] - Jonita
I am currently writing my 6th novel. This is the story of the Chop Tall because they're leaving Mississippi and traveling west to Indian territory and the hardships that they endure, it's kind of a continuation. I tend to write series. I'm kind of OCD. I like to write in chronological order, and so my novels are all in chronological order, and so this is taking place in the 1830s. I'm also collecting research right now. I may do a book called The Road for Parker and just feature some of the marshalls. I could do a little more on Bath than I was able to do in Oklahoma originals, and of course, get some of the other men and women who were a part of the Marshal service in this Wild west era.
[01:08:39.770] - Ben
Yeah, I mean, if there isn't already a biography of Isaac Parker or at least a fuller account of the life and legacy and what he brought to the territories at that time, and it sounds like it is absolutely warranted.
[01:08:54.230] - Jonita
Yes, I think there are at least one biography of Parker and probably more than that. He was a very large figure in old west history, served for a long time on the bench, which is another record. I mean, most judges on the bench were there for presidential term, and then they got booted out from the next president, appointed somebody else that he wanted, and he owed a favor, too. So for a Parker to have lasted as long as he did is also a remarkable record.
[01:09:25.710] - Ben
Well, all the very best to you in the research and the writing, and I just cannot thank you enough for joining us and for teaching us all never to steal chickens or even think about it.
[01:09:36.450] - Jonita
Don't even think about it.
[01:09:40.630] - Ben
Thank you, Janita. We will see you soon.
[01:09:43.210] - Jonita
Thank you, Benjamin. Appreciate it.