cover image Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves

Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves

Arthur T. Burton, . . Univ. of Nebraska, $24.95 (346pp) ISBN 978-0-8032-1338-8

Aside from a few fluff films (like Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles ) and a smattering of lesser-known scholarship, the African-American presence in Wild West history has been severely underrepresented. Against this backdrop rises Burton's painstaking account of U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave who negotiated the boundaries between whites, Indians and blacks in the lawless Oklahoma and Indian Territories, and emerged with a sterling law enforcement record after 32 years of service, despite remaining illiterate. Readers expecting a narrative will be disappointed, however, by Burton's focus on separating myth from fact in conflicting testimonies, tall tales and breaches in the written record. The book is primarily a compilation of written and oral texts about Reeves's ambidextrous skill with pistols and rifles, and his mastery of disguise, which allowed him to arrest as many as 10 prisoners and hold them in an open wagon as he went about his business. Rigorous and impartial, Burton is less concerned with entertainment than faithful research—no small task given the Old West's diverse and troubled racial climate, in which black accomplishment often went overlooked. But dedicated readers will become acquainted with a brave, resourceful lawman and the patchwork of homesteaders, murderers, horse thieves and bootleggers he governed. Two maps. (July)