Bynum Colbert: From US Deputy Marshal to a one year stint in Leavenworth
Immortalized by history --and memorialized by a statue in downtown Fort Smith that faces west into the Indian Territory -- Bass Reeves is certainly the most famous of the African American's served under Judge Issac C. Parker for the Western District of Arkansas.
But he wasn't the only one.
Bynum Colbert was a Choctaw Freedman and U.S marshal based out of Fort Smith and is best known for an impressive case success rate. In fact, he may actually have been more successful in securing evidence that led to more convictions than his more famous counterpart.
Unlike Reeves, however, Colbert's reputation was sullied by a scandal after a 35-plus year career as a soldier and lawman.
Born 1850 in Kiamitia County, Choctaw Nation, Colbert’s mother’s name was Easter Colbert. A slave to Sim Folsom, she died in 1865. His father’s name was Ben Colbert, a slave owned by a widow woman named M. McGilberry and lived in Skullyville County.
In 1863 he entered military service at Ft. Gibson at the age of 23 as part of the all-Black 2nd Arkansas Volunteer Infantry. Towards the end of the year the regiment became the 54th United States Colored Troops Regiment.
After seeing action throughout Indian Territory, Kansas, and Arkansas, the 54th headed to Ft. Smith and remained there until the end of the war
Ft. Smith was important as the recruiting ground and base for a number of black lawmen of the period. While he would come to work under Judge Parker, he got his start as a deputy U.S. marshal under Colonel Edward Needles Hollowell in 1872 while living in Skullyville.
The first newspaper account found on Colbert acting in the capacity as a deputy U.S. marshal was found in the Fort Smith Elevator.
On December 17, 1880, the newspaper reported that Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Huffington, with Ben Ayers, John Reutzel, George Maledon, Valair Merchand, Bynum Colbert, Deputy Marshal Farr and T. J. Hamnett, as guards, had left on the train last Tuesday morning with twenty-one prisoners.
Twenty of the prisoners were destined for the Detroit House of Corrections and one for the Little Rock penitentiary. This transfer of prisoners left the Fort Smith federal jail with fifty-nine prisoners in house.
Sometime after marrying his wife Bettie Brown in 1882, Colbert was Ft. Smith, Arkansas’ first police officer of color.
He was involved in several posses and many dangerous cases. One of the best-known posses was one that involved Reeves in late 1883. The objective was the hunt down the killers of deputies Addison Beck and a posseman by the name of Merritt.
US Deputy Marshal Addison Beck