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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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The turning point in Reeves’s life was the arrival of Judge Isaac C. Parker, a two-term U.S. congressman from Missouri tasked with overseeing the federal district court in Western Arkansas. Its base was Fort Smith, Ark., a few miles from Reeves’ house. Judge Parker’s jurisdiction covered some 75,000 square miles, including the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). To police it, he ordered his marshal to hire 200 deputy marshals, though, according to a National Park Service historian to whom Burton spoke, there were never more than 40 to 50 deputies working at any given time. Bass Reeves was one of those men, and but for a couple of interruptions, he would serve for 32 years in a career that tracked—and in many ways enabled—the evolution of the Western frontier from territory to statehood.  

Judge Parker presided from 1875 to 1896. His court was open six days a week, and of the 13,500 cases before him, 8,500 ended up as convictions, including 79 hangings (of 30 whites, 26 Indians and 23 blacks). Eighty-five percent of the crime in the district occurred in Indian Territory, Burton writes, and that is where Bass Reeves was an expert. In the Parker era, 65 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty, while in his entire career, Reeves, despite numerous attempts on his life, suffered only one shot to the knee.

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But how, you might ask, did African Americans gain such a presence in the Indian Territory in the first place? The answer might surprise you. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society website, from the late 18th century on, Native Americans in the South, like whites, owned slaves. When the U.S. government “removed” the five nations to the west in the 1830s, they took their slaves with them, so that “[b]y the time the Civil War broke out more than eight thousand blacks were enslaved in Indian Territory.” In fact, one of the reasons the five tribes were called “civilized” was that they owned black slaves.

Enslaved people accounted for “14 percent of the population” of the Indian Territory, and it wasn’t until after the Civil War that emancipation arrived for some of the slaves. In fact, as late as 1885, the governor of the Chickasaw was still protesting demands that they free their black slaves. A key distinction in Indian Territory was between blacks who were native “Indian Freedmen” and those who moved in from the U.S. as “Stateside Negroes,” as Burton explains.

But it wasn’t just that Judge Parker needed Reeves as a go-between in the territory.  As Burton quotes Reeves’s great-nephew, Paul L. Brady, a retired federal judge, as saying, Parker respected Reeves, and, in hiring him, signaled Reeves “ ‘would be in a position to serve as a deputy to show the lawful as well as the lawless that a black man was the equal of any other law enforcement officer on the frontier.’ ”  

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In his travels, Reeves rode with an “outfit” that commonly featured a posseman, guard and cook who manned the wagon (filled with prisoners on the return trip to Ft. Smith) while Reeves searched the perimeter on horseback. As Burton writes, Reeves’ favorite weapon was the Winchester rifle, but he also “wore [a pair of six shooters] butts forward for a cross handed draw,” wrote Charles W. Money in a Shawnee, Okla., newspaper. By the time he was done, Reeves estimated he’d made more than 3,000 arrests, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to haul 17 people at a time over great distances back to Judge Parker’s court, known throughout the territory as “Hell on the Border.”  

“Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the Paris (Texas), Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves,” Burton quotes D.C. Gideon as relating in 1901. “Several ‘bad men’ have gone to their long home for refusing to halt when commanded to by Bass.” There were 14 known Reeves killings, Burton says, and probably more, since others may have gone underreported because of Reeves’ race. 

But the gun was just one of deputy marshal Reeves’s tools. He also “was a master of disguise,” Charles Mooney wrote, and he would wend his way into his targets’ company dressed, for instance, as an indigent or a farmer before slapping the cuffs on. Reeves profited from outlaws (collecting fees and rewards), outmanned and outsmarted them.  

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As his daughter, Alice Spahn, recalled, in one case, Reeves even used his illiteracy to his advantage by tricking two Texas outlaws into reading a letter for him just long enough for Reeves to throttle one, draw his gun on the other and say, “ ‘Son of a bitch, now you’re under arrest.’ ” Reeves’s nickname: “The Invincible Marshal.” Of his strength, the granddaughter of one of Reeves’s arrestees, a white future lawman named Jonathan Steven Tilly, “said she heard that Bass was so tough he could spit on a brick and ‘bust it into! [sic],’ ” Burton writes.

The Outlaw Reeves Couldn’t Cuff: Jim Crow

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In his heyday, Bass Reeves befriended the likes of white female outlaw Belle Star (a former Confederate who admired Reeves enough to listen to his warning and, for the only time in her career, turn herself into the feds instead of being rounded up and shipped across the territory) and arrested those who broke the law against blacks, including, in one case, stealing a black woman’s horse. The measure was the crime, not the man. And, while the territories lasted, Reeves wasn’t the only black lawman in the saddle. In fact, the historian John Hope Franklin’s father, Buck Franklin, remembered up to 50 black lawmen before Oklahoma entered statehood in 1907; many, including Reeves, he knew personally.

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Yet, as more and more whites moved in (thanks to the safety Reeves had afforded them), the color line was more sharply drawn, Burton explains. On one occasion, Reeves had to guard the Paris, Texas, jail under threat that a mob would lynch those detained inside. On another, he had to pursue those who’d murdered a black man and white woman for living together, even though no one went to prison (the “Wybark Tragedy,” it was called). And in one standoff with a white outlaw in public, Reeves realized the only way to restore order was to let his target surrender his weapons to a white man. 

In the play world in which I grew up, there were “white” cowboys and “red” Indians. In Reeves’ world, everything was more mixed. Yet, after Oklahoma became a state on Nov. 16, 1907, there was black and white, and without the “need for a large force of federal police, the men who had helped bring law and order to the territory,” Burton explains, “[t]here would be no more African American deputy U.S. marshals until late in the twentieth century.” 

Not only were black lawmen at greater risk after statehood, with white criminals taking their chances by shooting first, “Negro policemen” were largely relegated to black towns where they could only arrest other blacks. Turns out, the one outlaw Reeves couldn’t cuff was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the law.

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Bass Reeves retired from the marshal service in November 1907. Two months later, he joined the Muskogee police department, walking a beat with a cane, though, as the Western Age put it on Jan. 2, 1908, Reeves was “as quick of trigger … as in the days when the gun men were in demand.” 

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On Jan. 12, 1910, Reeves died at home due to complications from Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder. He was 72. To this day, the location of his grave is unknown. In 1927, J.M. Hall was the last to mention Reeves in a book, Burton writes, until 1971, when William L. Katz released The Black West and Kaye M. Teall published Black History in Oklahoma.  

The Lone Rangers

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On Jan. 30, 1933, The Lone Ranger premiered on American radio. But, despite the similarities I outlined at the top, in the same 1939 story for the Saturday Evening Post, J. Bryan III explained how George Trendle, the impresario who conceived of The Lone Ranger for his struggling, Depression-era radio station, WXYZ Detroit, apparently “pictured him as a composite of Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro.” And in the creative meetings with his staff, including Fran Striker and James Jewell, one writer spontaneously suggested a white Arabian horse, while another dreamed up silver shoes for it based on the aluminum wrapped around a penny.

There were other meaningful distinctions between the two fabled lawmen. While the Lone Ranger was noted for avoiding killing, Reeves not only had his slate of 14 but also went to trial for having (accidentally) shot his cook, William Leach, on the trail. While the Lone Ranger’s family had all but been wiped out by the Butch Cavendish gang, Reeves had an extensive family life, including a first and second wife and a bevy of children. And whereas the Lone Ranger spoke proper Eastern U.S. English as if he’d attended a fancy college, Reeves succeeded without learning to read or write.

On a deeper level, though, I, like Burton, cannot escape sensing a deeper affinity between Reeves and the Ranger. Even if the writers of the series weren’t aware of him, Bass Reeves had, through his decades of service, worked the image of the frontier lawman into the American consciousness, to borrow from my late friend Al Murray. There, he gave us stories and archetypes, true even if masked. Though people certainly knew where Reeves lived (he stated it countless times in court documents), he was an outsider on the boundary between state and territory, law and lawlessness. Still, his fidelity to the law was so great he even arrested his own son, Ben Reeves, for murdering an adulterous wife, not to mention arresting the minister who baptized him.

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Despite not knowing Reeves or the Ranger fully behind their “black masks,” white audiences looked to them as role models in a dangerous world. “ ‘I wanted a good, clean show to keep the Parent Teacher Association off our neck,' ” George Trendle is quoted in a posthumous profile in the New York Times on May 12, 1972. “ ‘My programs always stressed good American principles.’ ”

Reflecting on those principles 62 years before, the Muskogee Phoenix, in spite of its prejudices, tied them to Reeves after his burial: “Black-skinned, illiterate, offspring of slaves whose ancestors were savages, this simple old man’s life stands white and pure alongside some [of] our present-day officials in charge of affairs since the advance of statehood. To them duty, honor and respect for law are by-words, and their only creed is ‘get what you can and stand in with the Boss.’ … Black though he [Reeves] was he was too white for that … And it is lamentable that we as white people must go to this poor, simple old negro to learn a lesson in courage, honesty and faithfulness to official duty.”

“I doubt we would be able to prove conclusively that Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger,” Burton concludes in Black Gun, Silver Star. “We can, however, say unequivocally that Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.”

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Today, there is an equestrian statue of Reeves at Fort Smith, and in 1992, he was elected to the Hall of Great Westerners. Could casting someone who looked more like him have saved The Lone Ranger remake this year? If Morgan Freeman ever gets his Bass Reeves biopic to screen, we’ll find out.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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