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Did Bass Reeves Know Wyatt Earp?


Regarded as one of the most infamous figures from the American West, Wyatt Earp was a lawman who is known for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which saw the deaths of three outlaws. Earp made a name for himself during the lifetime of Bass Reeves, one of the first black deputy marshals. Paramount+’s Western series ‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ sheds light on the Wild West of the time through the lives of not only Bass but also other figures like Jim Webb. Earp is a notable absentee since he doesn’t feature as a character in the period drama despite living in the same period!

Bass and Earp’s Paths Likely Never Crossed

Bass Reeves and Wyatt Earp most likely did not share an acquaintance despite living during the same period. They might have learned about each other’s existence and tales of bravery, especially since Earp lived in Kansas for a considerable while and Bass lived not far away in Arkansas. But there are no reports that suggest the two lawmen ever met. Historian Art T. Burton’s ‘Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves,’ one of the most acclaimed biographies of Bass, does not mention that they knew each other personally or professionally. It is unlikely that Burton missed such a significant meeting between the two lawmen if it ever happened.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Bass’ legacy as a black deputy marshal and “manhunter” was overshadowed by the fame of Earp. As far as Burton is concerned, Bass is the best among the two. “Bass Reeves was nothing like the more famous Wyatt Earp. In reality, Reeves was a much better lawman than Earp, real or imaginary. While doing research for my book, one old Black man in his nineties from Coweta, Oklahoma, told me, ‘Wyatt Earp couldn’t have been a patch on Bass Reeves’s pants leg,’” reads his book.

Burton considers Bass superior to Earp also because of the former’s longer career as a lawman. “Wyatt Earp was a lawman for four years. For Bass Reeves to be a lawman 32 years in the most dangerous area of the Wild West is amazing,” the historian told NPR. “He [Bass] walked in the valley of death every day for 32 years and he was able to come out alive. Many outlaws, when they found out Bass Reeves had the warrant on them, would turn themselves in rather than get tracked down by Bass,” he added.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If at all Bass and Earp did meet, the same must have happened in Texas. Their obligations as lawmen had taken them to the state. Bass even worked in the Eastern District of Texas, located in Paris, roughly from 1893 to 1897. However, by that time, Earp moved to California, the state where he died. Since documents concerning Bass’ life in Texas are scarce, even Burton hasn’t been able to explore the same in detail in his biography. The writer, however, is committed to unearthing more material about Bass’ Texas chapter. “I’m still finding out new information about Reeves and his work in Texas, but it’s difficult to piece some of this together,” he added in the same May 2023 NPR interview.

Bass’ most eventful period as a lawman has to be the 1880s. During the majority of the decade, Earp lived either in Idaho or California, which further indicates that they possibly never managed to meet. In 1884, Earp arrived in Eagle City, Idaho, after gold, silver, and lead were discovered in the Coeur d’Alene area, as a gold miner. When the mining venture in the region came to an end by 1887, he moved to San Diego, California, and started living in San Francisco in 1891. Therefore, it is safe to say that Earp was living far away from Bass for them to form an acquaintance.

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