This week’s excerpt from my book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Journey Across America brings Miles Dean to Arkansas where he remembered the black US Deputy Marshals.
From Ch. 13: Imagining Bass Reeve
After crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas, Miles entered the Wild West where his childhood heroes, the black US Marshals, upheld the law against bandits, bank robbers, cattle thieves, whiskey peddlers, and other unsavory sorts. In his eyes, the marshals – the nation’s first law enforcers- fought the real “bad guys.”
President George Washington appointed the first United States Marshals in 1789. Created as a civilian law enforcement agency to execute orders of the federal courts, the marshals continue to transport prisoners, protect witnesses, and apprehend fugitives.
After the Civil War, the once peaceful territory of five Indian tribes became overrun with lawbreakers. The area, mostly in Oklahoma, fell under the jurisdictionof the US Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the Indian Territory border. Judge Isaac Parker arrived in May, 1875, taking control and earning the nickname “the Hanging Judge” because of the many felons he sent to the gallows.
Shortly after being sworn in, Parker recruited blacks to serve as Deputy US Marshals. They patrolled the area from Arkansas north to Kansas and south to Texas. Though the exact number of black US Deputy marshals is unknown- many had temporary assignments and records were not kept- the majority of black marshals served under Parker at Fort Smith.
Former slave Bass Reeves was among the first African American to join Parker’s team. At 6’2”, 180 pounds, Reeves could shoot a pistol or rifle with either hand. He used his bare hands if needed to subdue criminals and captured 19 horse thieves at one time. Known for his commitment to the law, he arrested his own son for murder. Records show he arrested more than 3,000 felons by the time he retired in 1907…
Read more about the heroic feats of Samuel Walters, Zeke Miller, Rufus “Rufe” Cannon, Neeley Factor, Robert Fortune, Grant Johnson, Crowder Nicks, and Isaac “Ike” Rogers, in the book, available as a paperback or ebook.
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America combines Dean’s memoir- his dreams of becoming a cowboy, his years as a high school and college athlete, and his cross-country journey, with the historical figures, many unsung, he visited as he traveled.
It’s non-fiction and a perfect book for book group reading or to share with middle school and high school students or to read aloud to younger children. I wrote an Educators’ Guide that includes cross-disciplinary activities in writing, art, drama, geography, math and a character education platform, “The Horseman’s Creed.”
Read last week’s excerpt here.