Was the Lone Ranger Black?
Art T. Burton believes so.
The longtime biographer was the first to pose the theory of Bass Reeves being the inspiration behind the fictional Western hero in his 2006 book, Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Burton’s reasoning behind the comparison is over his 32 years of service, Reeves found himself often in countless encounters he shouldn’t have escaped from like his fictional counterpart. Reeves, however, was anything but fictional. A Black superhero more truth than a fable? Absolutely.
“Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,” Burton wrote.
Born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County Arkansas, Reeves’s owner was William S. Reeves, a cotton farmer and prominent politician in the area. When Bass was around eight in 1846, William relocated to Paris, Texas, just as the Lone Star State would be brought into the Union. During the Civil War, Bass was a servant for William’s son George, a colonel in the Confederate Army. Before he was declared a Freedman by the Emancipation Proclamation, Reeves fled to Indian Territory, known today as Oklahoma. The region was ruled by five Native American tribes — Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw and within these tribes, Bass found kinship. He learned the landscape, the customs, and languages of the Seminole and Creek tribes despite being illiterate due to it once being illegal for Black men, women, and children to be able to read. Bass would return to Arkansas after the end of the Civil War, wed, and have 10 children. Before he died, he would bring two more children into the world with his second wife.
Bass worked as a farmer, rancher, and horse breeder. He also became an expert sharpshooter and was so good, he was allegedly ambidextrous and could shoot accurately with either hand. Standing six-feet-two inches and weighing around 200 pounds with large hands, he was an imposing figure who liked to carry two .45 caliber six-shooters with the handles facing forward. He also served as a guide into the Indian Territory for Deputy U.S. Marshals who were looking for outlaws, planting the seeds for being the “Lone Ranger.”
In 1875, Bass returned to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma wouldn’t achieve statehood until 1907) to assist in capturing thieves, murderers, and fugitives who had overtaken the “Wild” west. U.S. Marshal James Fagan, under the direction of Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, hired 200 deputy marshals to enforce the law through the 75,000-square-mile territory. Bass was one of the few Black men recruited for the position and became the first Black deputy United States Marshal west of the Mississippi.
Due to his illiteracy, Bass would recall suspects’ names by how they appeared on paper and matched them with the way they sounded. According to Burton, the former slave arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws without being shot once.
“Reeves would round up dozens of outlaws at a time — 12, 15, 16 — while most deputy marshals brought in four or five at a time,” Burton told The Washington Post.
He employed several tactics to get the job done such as disguising himself and creating backstories to arrest his targets. In one tale, he dressed up as an old farmer and rode into town in a cart pulled by oxen. When he got to the house where six outlaws were staying, he pretended the cart got caught on a stump. When the outlaws came out of the house to investigate, he pulled out both of his guns and arrested all six of them.
A report by the Daily Arkansas Gazette in 1891 on Bass stated, “Bass Reeves is the most successful marshal that rides in the Indian country. He is a big ginger-cake colored negro, but is a holy terror to the lawless characters in the west. … It is probable that in the past few years he has taken more prisoners, from the Indian Territory, than any other officer.”
Despite his larger than life exploits, Bass still endured racism and bigotry within the position of marshal. In Black Gun, Burton wrote how Bass was unsuccessfully tried for murdering a Black cook, a charge no white deputy would have ever faced. He worked to arrest whites who committed crimes against African-Americans even if the charges amounted to nothing. Burton alleges Bass lugged around two white men in a prison wagon for two months after they were accused of murdering a Black man. He also rounded up instigators of a race war. A man of integrity, it was deemed impossible to bribe or threaten Bass, to the point he arrested his own son, Bennie after he murdered his wife.
When Oklahoma was admitted into the Union in 1907, it adopted the same codes of Jim Crow and other Southern states before it took into law. He was fired from his position, unable to continue to be considered a deputy. The so-called “Lone Ranger” passed away in 1910 from Bright’s Disease, a revered hero and legend of the west.