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Tumbleweed Wagons

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the U. S. Deputy Marshals would take a wagon, or several wagons, and make their rounds through Indian Territory collecting federal prisoners for transport to Ft. Smith to stand trial.  These wagons were called “tumbleweed wagons” since they seemed to aimlessly meander across the prairie in their journey through the territory.

In the late 1880s, the frenzy of railroad building, criss-crossing the territory brought an end to the tumbleweed wagons and prisoner transport by wagon.

The deputy marshals, who collected and hauled these prisoners, were the most fearless, capable and quick with a firearm that the Ft. Smith court could hire.  Bill Tilghman, Chris Madsen, and Heck Thomas were so well known for “getting their man” that they became known as the “Three Guardians”.  The outlaws such as Ned Christie, Dick Glass and Rufus Buck were extremely dangerous and would kill you for the gold in your teeth.

During Judge Isaac Parker’s twenty-year tenure on the Ft. Smith bench, he had over two hundred deputies who “rode for Parker”.  Of these two hundred deputies, sixty-seven deputies paid with their lives while in the line of duty. 

Riding the tumbleweed wagons was an extremely dangerous mission and it took a “tough-as-leather” lawman to do the job.  These prisoners were a duke’s mixture of robbers, murders, rapist, whiskey peddlers and rustlers.

The tour around the territory often took two or three months to collect all the prisoners.  During this time, the prisoners were chained to the floor of the wagon.  At night, camp was made and the prisoners were chained to a tree or if no tree was available, they were chained to the wagon wheels.

The entourage consisted of a cook’s wagon and cook, one or two prison wagons, a teamster for each wagon, a small remuda for the deputies and the draft animals and sometimes an extra deputy or two.  It was quite a site for the isolated communities when the tumbleweed wagons passed through town.  The procession looked much like a circus parade entering town and the locals gathered along the street to see the prisoners.

One of the most famous deputy marshals of this time was Bass Reeves.  Reeves was born into slavery in Texas in 1840.  Chosen to be the companion of his master’s son, Reeves parted ways with his master in his early years and escaped across the Red River into Indian Territory and settled in the Creek Nation.

Here he lived for several years learning the language, customs and the lay of the land.  Reeves became proficient with both his fists and guns.  Reeves got into an altercation with a man here and killed him in the fight.  Fearing the Creek Lighthorsemen, Reeves fled to Arkansas and settled near Van Buren where he became a successful farmer and stockman.

In 1872, when Parker became judge of the Western District of Arkansas, he needed men who knew the Creek and Seminole Nations.  The white deputies either did not want to go to this area or they had little success, as the local Indians and blacks would not help the marshals.

Parker heard that Reeves was familiar with this area and sent for him.  When Parker asked Reeves to take the position of marshal for the Creek and Seminole Nations, Reeves refused.  Parker then told him that he knew about the charge of murder in the Creek Nation and he would immediately arrest Reeves and try him for murder if he did not take the job.  Reeves decided that he might give the job a try.

In May of 1884, Bass Reeves and his tumbleweed wagons were headed back to Ft. Smith and had camped for the night in the Chickasaw Nation.  That night, the cook had finish supper and the prisoners were fed and chained.  As the cook was cleaning up, a stray dog came into camp and the cook fed the dog the scraps out of the cooking pot.  This irritated Reeves and he told the cook, William Leach, not to feed the dog out of the pot in which he cooked everybody’s meals.

There was some good natured jesting when Reeves said he was going to shoot the dog.  The cook told Reeves if he did he would shoot Reeves horse or Reeves himself.  As Reeves was about to shoot the dog a cartridge hung in his Winchester.  Reeves crouched to the camp fire to pry the cartridge out and the gun went off.  Leach was leaning across the campfire and was struck in the neck by the bullet.  He collapsed into the fire.  Reeves quickly pulled Leach out of the fire and administered what aid he could.

In the band of prisoners was a whiskey peddler named Grayson.  Grayson’s wife Mary had accompanied the wagons toward Ft. Smith.  As it was night fall, Reeves unchained Grayson and told him to take a horse and go to the nearest town for a doctor.  Reeves kept Grayson’s wife as collateral.  In several hours, Grayson returned without the doctor.

The next morning Reeves and the wagons started for the closest town with a doctor.  Here, Reeves left the cook, who had a serious wound but not life threatening, with the local doctor.  He told the doctor to send him the bill at Ft. Smith.  Reeves did receive the bill and paid it but the doctor never mentioned that Leach had died. 

Reeves was arrested for the murder of Leach in late 1884.  Two years passed with Reeves continuing the job of traveling around the territory collecting prisoners.  He made seven more trips collecting prisoners.  During the next two years he personally arrested seventy-four more federal fugitives.

In 1887 Reeves trial began.  It took this long to collect all the witnesses who were at the site of the shooting.  Most of the witnesses were convicts in federal prison whom Reeves had arrested.  Nine of the eleven witnesses who were prisoners testified that Reeves killed Leach in a fit of rage over the dog.  Two of the prisoners testified that there were no ill feelings at all between the two men and it was only good natured kidding.

Mary Grayson, the whiskey peddlers wife, testified that it was an accidental shooting and Reeves did everything possible to aid the wounded cook.  After three days of trial, the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict

During the years that Reeves served as deputy marshal, he killed fourteen men.  Reeves had his gun belt shot off in one gunfight, in another he had his hat brim shot off, in another he had the buttons shot off his coat and yet in another he had the reins of his horse shot out of his hand.

Bass Reeves was known as being very neatly dressed, polite and courteous.  Reeves, it is said did not like “going after white folks” but he seemed to do his job quite well. 

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the U. S. Marshals in Indian Territory came to an end.  In 1907, Reeves became the first black police officer in Muskogee, OK.  In 1909 he developed Bright’s disease and died quietly at home in his own bed on January 13, 1910.  Bass Reeves had served in law enforcement for thirty-two years.

© - Contributed by Dennis Muncrief - November, 2003