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Book review: “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves” by Art T. Burton

It is important that there is a book such as Art T. Burton’sBlack Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves to ensure that the memory of this important and distinctive African American lawman will continue in the 21st century.

As Burton, a retired history professor at South Suburban College in South Holland, writes:

“Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, the former slave from Arkansas and Texas, is a frontier hero for all Americans and a role model for those who work in law enforcement today.  If Reeves were fictional, he would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger.”

Indeed, Burton notes that he isn’t the only one who thinks Reeves, a federal and local lawman in the Indian Territory and later in the new state of Oklahoma from 1875 through 1910, might have been the prototype of the Lone Ranger, hero of radio, television and movies.  Reeves, he asserts, is “the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier in the nineteenth century.”

Over the past decade, Reeves has certainly appeared as a character in a variety of television episodes and series as well as in several movies, one of which, the poorly reviewed Hell on the Border (2019), centered on him. In addition, Burton’s publisher, Nebraska Press, is in the midst of bringing out a trilogy of novels about Reeves by Sidney Thompson — Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves (2020), Hell on the Border (2021) and The Forsaken and the Dead (to be published in October).

What all of them share, I suspect, is a reliance, to a greater or lesser extent, on the original edition of Burton’s book from 2006.  The new edition not only gives the book renewed visibility for the general public and a visually striking colorized photo of Reeves on the cover but also adds a 15-page afterword.

Not a novel

I mention all this to make clear that Reeves is the sort of hero who has been a staple of American legend, novels and films for more than a century.  His story — overlooked or ignored for most of that time because of his race — provides the essential elements that Hollywood and actors such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck turned into rousing adventure stories and melancholic morality tales.

I mention all this because Art T. Burton’s Black Gun, Silver Star isn’t that sort of book.

To be sure, Reeves had many rousing adventures in his life and faced many moral quandaries and physical challenges against the elements and against those he was trying to bring to justice, and Burton reports them.  But his book isn’t a novel and doesn’t read like a novel.

In fact, it’s essential to recognize before picking up this book — as significant and valuable as it is — that it’s not a page-turner and wasn’t written to be a bestseller.

This is a book about history with all its nuts and bolts that was written for historians and for fans of the nitty-gritty of western history.  This is filled with a lot of raw documents — court transcripts and newspaper articles — that researchers love to have.  (The new afterword is a collection of many such documents that Burton found since his book was initially published.)

“Bust a brick in two”

Indeed, Burton fills most of his pages with long excerpts from these documents, providing a bit of interpretation but not much.  The testimony and the news reports are presented by Burton as he found them without his stepping in between them and the expert reader — that historian or fan of western history.

This is raw history, and, for a certain audience, it’s golden.  For the general reader, though, it’s a bumpy ride that may be experienced as frustrating.

Even so, peppered in those documents and in quotations from obscure books and research about Reeves are some memorable descriptions of the lawman, such as the comment from the granddaughter of one of his contemporaries: 

“My mom always said she heard that Bass was so tough he could spit on a brick and ‘bust it in two.’ ”

At one point, Reeves arrested the famed outlaw Belle Starr and an accomplice.  She was convicted and later, after prison, became the lawman’s friend.  The son of a local doctor who knew both of them wrote:

“He was one of the first to fearlessly enter the nefarious Corner Saloons alone, where he had more than once been ‘called out’ for a shoot-out by drunken gunslingers who doubted his skill and accuracy with his two six-shooters.  He started holstering his pistols butts forward in 1885, the same year Belle Starr changed to this method.  They both agreed this cross-body draw gave them quicker access to their deadly weapons, especially when riding horseback and a split second edge meant life or death.”

“Reached under his pillow”

One of the most vivid stories about Reeves comes in the book’s new afterword in an account from the Tablequah Arrow on February 3, 1906, reporting that the 67-year-old marshal — from his sickbed, “dangerously sick with pneumonia” — arrested a knife-wielding man threatening murder.

It started with Evelyn Brown fleeing her husband Frank through the streets of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and ended when she ran into the Reeves home for help:

“Brown followed her….not knowing that he was butting into the domicile of a fearless deputy marshal.  Reeves reached under his pillow and secured his ever trusty revolver, with which he soon persuaded the wife chaser that he was under arrest.”

The life of Bass Reeves was the stuff of legends, and Art T. Burton’s book is the raw material for the telling of those legends.

Patrick T. Reardon

3.16.23

This review originally appeared on 2.13.23 at Third Coast Review.

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