Love and Death on the Frontier – Finding Ben Reeves at the National Archives

Today’s post was written by Holly Rivet, archival technician at the National Archives in St. Louis.

headshot of Ben Reeves wearing a cowboy hat and collared shirt, front and profile
Mugshot of Ben Reeves from his Inmate Case File from Leavenworth Penitentiary (NAID 7861497, image 54)

In the early afternoon of June 7, 1902, a young Ben Reeves paid a visit to his estranged wife, Castella Brown, at her cousin’s house not far from their home in Muskogee, OK.  When he asked her about an alleged infidelity, she replied that it was true.  According to Ben, she was unapologetic and said she “thought more of his [John Wadly’s] little finger than she did of my whole body.”  In a rage, he murdered his wife right then and there.  In a statement he gave in February of 1903, he said, “By constant worry over her actions and the breaking up of my home, and receiving such an answer I lost all control and shot her.”[1]  It was in this statement that he confirmed that his father, the famous frontier Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, had arrested him.

gives account of crime he committed, was arrested by father Bass Reeves, agreement pledges to not to try and escape the prison
Trusty Prisoner’s Agreement, Jul 19, 1909 (NAID 7861497, image 39)

Ben “Bennie” Reeves was born around 1882 to Bass Reeves and Nellie Jennie in Texas.  His mother died in 1896 due to consumption (tuberculosis) leaving his father widowed with eleven children to care for.   Ben grew into a tall, lean man with slate blue eyes.  He became a barber and on November 20, 1900, married Castella Brown.  She was a Creek Freedwoman and a full member of the Creek Nation.[2]  On April 22, 1899, she received her land grant patent from the Creek Nation in the amount of 40 acres.   Little is known of their early relationship but in less than two years, it ended in her murder and his incarceration at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

list of names of people who are Creek Freedmen, including Castella Brown
Page 575 of the Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1907 (NAID 300320, image 579)

The Inmate Case File of Ben Reeves (NAID 7861497), contains a wealth of information about his characteristics, correspondence, and his conduct while incarcerated.  On February 13, 1903 he was received at Ft. Leavenworth Penitentiary and became Inmate No. 3282.  The majority of his violations included jovial conversation with other inmates and one for trading barber services for a toothbrush.[3]  Several people petitioned for his release including E.H. Hubbard of the U.S. Marshal’s Office, Eastern District of Oklahoma who wrote:

I have known Reeves since he was a boy. He always bore a very good reputation and I never know of him doing anything wrong until he got into the trouble which caused his commitment to the penitentiary. His father was an officer in the old Indian Territory for more than 30 years and was always considered an honest and honorable man, and I believe Ben has in his nature some of his father’s good qualities.

The Ft. Leavenworth Warden himself wrote to the Honorable Leo Bennett, U.S. Marshall for the Indian Territory, Western District, of Muskogee, OK on April 24, 1909, requesting permission to appoint Reeves as a trustee.  In this arrangement, the trustee will continue to serve time within the prison walls, but is able to stay in a dormitory, have special privileges, and spend much more time outside of confinement.[4]

asks opinion of Leo Bennett if Reeves would be a good candidate for a trusty agreement
Letter from Ft. Leavenworth Warden to Honorable Leo Bennett, Apr 24, 1909 (NAID 7861497, image 49)

Bass Reeves died on January 12, 1910 and a letter from his wife arrived at Ft. Leavenworth Penitentiary just four days later.  It is most likely that day Ben Reeves realized he would never see his father again.  The prison kept records of who sent letters and when, recording communication with his father and other relatives throughout his incarceration.  In 1906 Bass only wrote one letter to his son and received none for that whole year.  Ben kept in close contact with his sisters and their stepmother, but his relationship with his father appears to have been strained. 

On November 13, 1914, Ben Reeves’ life sentence was commuted and he was released three days later.  In a letter sent to Ft. Leavenworth, his sister A.C. Spahn writes that Reeves, “Is now at home and at work in one of Muskogee’s leading Waite[sic] Barber Shops.”

informs the Warden that Reeves now works in a barber shop in Muscogee
Letter from A.C. Spahn to Thomas W. Morgan, Dec 16, 1914 (NAID 7861497, image 51)

Ben’s release came at an additional toll on his victim’s family.  The state of Oklahoma had divided Castella’s property between her murderer and the remaining members of her family in 1904.  His lawyer, Robert P. DeGraffenried, sued his mother-in-law Cynthia Tolliver for Ben’s share.  Mrs. Tolliver was defended by the Iowa Land & Trust who argued that Reeves had no right to the land in the first place as he is not a member of the Tribe.  The dispute went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in April of 1908.  The court unanimously decided that there was no evidence Reeves murdered his wife with the intent of taking her land, therefore he was still entitled to it.  The court stated, “…therefore we hold that Ben Reeves, because of the fact that he murdered his wife, Castella Brown, is not disqualified from inheriting from her under the Creek law of descent and distribution, and therefore the plaintiff in error DeGraggenreid took, by his conveyance set forth in this cause, his entire interest in the allotment of said Castella Brown.”[5]   

On September 22, 1911, a Ft. Leavenworth clerk wrote to Mrs. Sallie Sanders of Ft. Smith, Arkansas on behalf of Ben Reeves.  He sent the deed to Castella’s land as payment for his legal fees to “obtain a pardon or commutation of sentence.”[6]

forwards deed of land belonging to Castella Brown as payment for legal services in obtaining a pardon for Ben Reeves
Letter from Chief Clerk to Sallie Sanders, Sept 22, 1911 (NAID 7861497, image 7)

Ben Reeves remained in Okmulgee and later married Fleccia Cromartie of Iowa.  He registered for the draft on September 12, 1918 at the age of 39 as was required by law.[7]  There is no evidence that he served in any branch of the military.  At this time he resided on South 2nd Street and worked as a manager at Melton’s Café.  He lists his closest relative as Zola Reeves and gives his name as Bennie Bass Reeves.

showing DOB, employment, closest relative
World War I Draft Registration Card for Ben Reeves, Sept 12, 1918 (

Further reading and information:

[1] Inmate File of Ben Reeves, image 39 (NAID 7861497), Inmate Case Files, 7/3/1895-11/5/1957; Record Group 129: Records of the Bureau of Prisons, 1870-2009; National Archives at Kansas City

[2] Index to the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory, 3/4/1907, image 579 (NAID 300320), Final Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1899–1914; Record Group 48: Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, 1826 – 2009

[3] Inmate Case File of Ben Reeves, image 1-4 (NAID 7861497); Inmate Case Files, 7/3/1895-11/5/1957; RG 129

[4] Ibid. image 49

[5] Oklahoma. Supreme Court. The Pacific Reporter, Volume, 95. West Publishing Company, 1908. Google Books. Https:// . Accessed on July 7, 2021. P640

[6] Inmate File of Ben Reeves, image 7 (NAID 7861497); Inmate Case Files, 7/3/1895-11/5/1957; RG 129

[7] Registration Card for Bennie Bass Reeves; World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Roll M1509. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. [online version available through]

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