Was the Lone Ranger Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The character’s story is strikingly similar to that of 19th-century lawman Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 59: Which former slave became a deputy U.S. marshal and a renowned symbol of law and order in the Wild West?

Imagine if Morgan Freeman, Jamie Fox, Will Smith or Denzel Washington had been cast to play the Lone Ranger alongside Johnny Depp’s Tonto this past summer (and, coincidentally, out on DVD next Tuesday). I’m not kidding. According to Art T. Burton, author of the 2006 biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, the real-life analog of America’s iconic black-masked lawman may have been a black man named Bass Reeves, a deputy U.S. marshal who, for more than 30 years, patrolled the western territories hauling in outlaws of every stripe—and race. “Considering his long service and remarkable dedication to duty,” Burton writes, “had Reeves been a white lawman it is quite possible he would have been as popular as any ever written about during the late 19th century.” 

Seizing on the parallel between Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger (whose “real” name in the original radio show was John Reid), Burton notes how both at one time rode white horses, rode out with Native American sidemen and relied on disguises and, while the Lone Ranger made silver bullets famous, Reeves handed out silver dollars. Equally striking, the men who ended up in deputy marshal Reeves’ custody, if convicted, were taken to the Detroit House of Corrections, the same city where The Lone Ranger premiered on radio in 1933.

If that’s not enough, Burton quotes a contemporary, D.C. Gideon, who in 1901 wrote, “Bass is a stalwart Negro” who “weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet and two inches in his stockings and fears nothing that moves and breathes.” Funny, because in an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1939, Fran Striker, a principal writer for The Lone Ranger series, is said to have “beg[un] by visualizing the Ranger as just over six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds—a good working build for a Western hero.”

So, despite the obvious dissimilarity of skin color, you might ask, “Who was that masked (black) man?” And, coincidences aside, was he really the model for the Lone Ranger?

Bass Reeves, ‘The Invincible Marshal’

Bass Reeves was born a slave in Crawford County, Ala., most likely in July 1838, Burton suggests. His owner was a white man, William S. Reeves, a war veteran and legislator who decamped to North Texas when Reeves was 8. While Williams Reeves refused to teach young Bass to read the Bible, he did let him learn the ways of the gun.

During the Civil War, Reeves, in his early 20s, accompanied his owner’s son, Colonel George Reeves of the 11th Texas Cavalry Regiment, on the Confederate side (a fact he later used to put whites at ease). At some point, Bass fled into Indian Territory, where, among the five (so-called) civilized tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Indians), he became so immersed in Native American culture he learned to speak Muskogee. In 1870, Reeves, by then married with four kids, moved to Van Buren, Ark., making his way as a farmhand, horse breeder and territory scout and tracker. By the next census in 1880, he and his wife, Jennie, had eight kids between the ages of 2 and 16, with more to follow.