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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: The "other" African American US Deputy Marshal - Bynum Colbert

Immortalized by history, the subject of a modern day television mini-series, 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 who 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, and possibly his place in history, 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 McGilberry who lived in Skullyville County.

In 1863, Bynum 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 a recruiting ground and base for a number of black lawmen of the period. While Colbert 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's 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 deputy Addison Beck and a posse man by the name of Merritt.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Addison Beck

Deputy U.S. Marshal Addison Beck and his posse man Merritt was killed in October of 1883. Bynum Colbert was included in a posse of eleven men under the leadership of Special Deputy U.S. Marshal C.C. Ayers to go after the killers of the lawmen.

The posse was able to locate and seriously wound one of the outlaws who killed Beck and Merritt.

The Elevator also reported on March 20, 1885 that Colbert had "arrested a black man named Charles Drew for murder. Drew had killed another young black man at a dance that took place at Sand Town, Cherokee Nation".

A few months later on July 10 the newspaper reported Colbert arresting another black man named Joseph Pierce for assault with pistol and whip. The article again referred to Colbert as a special deputy U.S. marshal.

Records that can be found show Colbert received a commission as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Fort Smith Federal Court on June 10, 1889 and again on June 1, 1893.

The 1889 papers commissioning him as a US Marshal are interesting in that Colbert signed an x for his signature, which could mean that Colbert, like Reeves, was illiterate and couldn’t read or write.

Judge Isaac C. Parker’s signature is on both commissions.

His career was very lengthy, continuing until February 1895 when he was charged for perjury and false claims on $75 account for an arrest. Bynum Colbert claims he traveled almost 200 miles to and from Chaney, Kansas and the courts ruled that he falsified that information.

That summer he was convicted and sentenced to one year at Leavenworth Prison. He was released in the spring of 1896 his career was listed as “soldier” and not “deputy U.S. marshal.”

Census records show that he was living in Wagoner County up until 1910. There’s no documentation as to when he died but his wife Bettie Colbert was listed in the 1920 Census as a widow.

It is speculated that Colbert was buried in an unmarked grace on his Wagoner County property.

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