Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man?

He's been called the "real Lone Ranger" by some and an American hero by many, Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense.

Bill O'Reilly while appearing on the Tonight show, tells the story of Bass Reeves. Reeves was an escaped slave who became the first black U.S. Marshal. The white TV character, "The Lone Ranger", portrayed by Clayton Moore was based on Reeves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington. Bass Reeves and his family were slaves of Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. Bass Reeves may have served William Steele Reeves' son, Colonel George R. Reeves, who was a sheriff and legislator in Texas. He was a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.

During the American Civil War, Bass parted company with George Reeves, perhaps "because Bass beat up George after a dispute in a card game." Bass Reeves fled north into the Indian Territory. He lived with the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek Indians, learning their languages, until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.

As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas, with whom he had eleven children. Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory.

Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. He recruited him as a deputy; Reeves was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River.

Reeves was initially assigned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Indian Territory. He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas for a short while. In 1897 he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory.

Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and became one of Judge Parker's most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. Once he had to arrest his own son for murder.

His son, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Deputy Marshal Reeves was disturbed and shaken by the incident but allegedly demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released and living the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen.

Bass Reeves was falsely accused of murdering a posse cook and served two years in jail before being acquitted in a trial before Judge Parker. Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend.

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves claimed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He is said to have shot and killed fourteen outlaws to defend his own life.

bass reeves police
Bass Reeves (front row left with cane) as member of Muskogee Police Department

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department He served for two years before he became ill and had to retire. Reeves' health began to fail, and he died of Bright's disease (nephritis) in 1910. He was a great-uncle of Paul L. Brady, who was the first black man appointed as a Federal Administrative Law Judge (in 1972).

Similarities Between the Fictional Lone Ranger and Bass Reeves

  • Reeves rode a white horse throughout almost all of his career, at one point riding a light grey one as well.
  • The Lone Ranger's last name was "Reid" very similar to Reeves.
  • He preferred to bring outlaws in alive to face justice rather than kill them, even though many were wanted dead or alive.
  • Reeves was described as a “master of disguises” and used those disguises to track down wanted criminals
  • Reeves’ companion was a Native American posse man and tracker who he often rode with.
  • Reeves kept and gave out silver coins as a personal trademark of sorts, instead of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets. Reeves used the coins win over the people wherever he found himself working and collecting bounties. A visit from Bass Reeves meant a dangerous criminal captured and a silver coin if you were lucky.
  • A large number of the criminals Reeves captured were sent to the federal prison in Detroit. The Lone Ranger radio show originated in 1933 on WXYZ in Detroit where the legend of Bass Reeves was famous.

The Bass Reeves Legacy Monument, mounted on its base at Ross Pendergraft Park, Fort Smith, ArkansasThe Bass Reeves Legacy Monument, mounted on its base at Ross Pendergraft Park, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series