Everyone knows the Lone Ranger as the fictional masked man who fought outlaws in the old American West with his Native American sidekick, Tonto. Wearing a black mask, and frequently atop his iconic horse, Silver, the Ranger character was first introduced in a 1933 radio series, followed by numerous television and film iterations.
But what inspired the character in the first place?
At the time of its creation, there was no shortage of vigilantes in masks catching bad guys in popular fiction, from Zorro to Robin Hood. But one particular claim has made traction over many years, with numerous articles and blogs claiming that a real life Black lawman named Bass Reeves may have been the original inspiration for the character.
Some of those claims appear to have originated from misinterpreting sections of the first and most definitive historical account of Reeves’ eventful life, “Black Gun, Silver Star: the Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves,” by Art T. Burton.
Historian Martin Grams Jr. argued that Burton’s words were frequently cited, and misrepresented across the internet, “Casual readers overlooked the precise and nuanced wording that Burton employed, and were led to a false impression regarding the facts. As a result, it is estimated that over 100 blogs and websites on the Internet today are reprinting the false connection between Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger, with many going so far as to report the story as factual.”
The book started as an attempt by Burton to chronicle the underreported and exciting exploits of Bass Reeves, a marshal in the American West who was Black and a former slave. Reeves was known for catching bad guys in feats that seemed larger than life, many of which were mirrored in the fictional Lone Ranger’s story.
Burton speculated about the origins of the Lone Ranger and his similarities to Reeves in the early section of the book:
Much of what we know today about Bass Reeves persisted in oral stories told by individuals and families whose origins are in frontier Oklahoma […] I thought about the uncanny similarities between Bass Reeves and the tv and radio character, the “Lone Ranger.” Federal law mandated that deputy U.S. marshals have at least one posseman with them whenever they went out in the field. Oftentimes the men who assisted Reeves were Native Americans, like the character Tonto who assisted the Lone Ranger. It was common practice for Reeves to work in disguise while trying to capture fugitives from justice, a la the Lone Ranger, who wore a black mask. Many times the white settlers in the territory didn’t know Reeves’s name and called him the “Black Marshal”; likewise, many didn’t know the name of the Lone Ranger. For most African Americans during this time in American history, their dark faces became a black mask to white America—they became “invisible.”
The similarities continued with the Lone Ranger’s calling card:
According to D. H. Brown, Reeves showed up one day at their prairie dugout home with a posse of two white men and a Pawnee Indian on the hunt for the Dalton gang. Reeves hired D.H., who was about fourteen at the time, to show Reeves and his posse where abandoned dugouts and caves were located near the Cimarron River. Before they went out on the hunt the posse ate breakfast and Reeves paid for the meal with a silver dollar. The family told Reeves a silver dollar was way too much money for the meal. Reeves told them it was quite all right, he would get reimbursed later. After being out all night with D.H. and finding recently used campsites but no outlaws, Reeves paid D.H. with another silver dollar. We all know that the Lone Ranger’s calling card was the silver bullet. Quite possibly Reeves’s was the silver dollar.
Even Reeves’ horse was allegedly similar to the Lone Ranger’s:
In another interesting similarity to the Lone Ranger, Reeves may have ridden a white horse during one period of his career. During the trial of Bass Reeves for murdering his cook, which will be discussed at length in chapter 8, witnesses testified that the cook threatened to shoot Reeves’s gray horse. A gray horse can look anywhere from near black to near white, so it was possible that Reeves rode a horse that appeared to be white.
And finally, one of the most tenuous connections to the Lone Ranger came from a geographical proximity:
Another possible connection, though tenuous, is that the original story of the Lone Ranger began on the radio, in Detroit, in 1933. Many of the fugitives arrested by Bass Reeves and later convicted at Fort Smith, Arkansas, were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections in Michigan.
Reeves’ own life came with more challenges than this alleged fictional counterpart. He was born into slavery and later became the first Black deputy U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi. He was forced by his former owners to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He managed to escape to Indian Territory during his service, and learned the customs and languages of the Native American tribes there. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, he went to Arkansas to start a family, and soon after was recruited as a lawman to return to the Indian Territory to help reign in criminals.
He was a master of disguise, who once confronted a bandit with an arrest warrant after waiting patiently for him on a riverbank in Texas. The bandit was about to draw his gun, but Reeves shot him before the gun could even leave the bandit’s side. In numerous anecdotes, Burton detailed Reeves’ skills with the gun:
Reeves could draw and shoot from the hip with great speed and accuracy if necessary, but he favored the slower, even more accurate method of taking his time, planting himself solidly, and drawing “a bead as fine as a spider’s web on a frosty morning.” When he shot this way, “he could shoot the left hind leg off of a contented fly sitting on a mule’s ear at a hundred yards and never ruffle a hair.” But Reeves claimed to be “only fair” with a rifle. This characteristic modesty belies the truth, for Reeves was truly an expert with a rifle. For example, he once rode over the crest of a rise, way out on the fringes of the Kiowa-Comanche country, and interrupted six wolves as they were in the process of pulling down a steer. Shooting at the wolves from the back of his horse with his Winchester rifle, causing them to scatter in all directions, he killed six with eight shots. True, he broke one wolf’s leg and “gut-shot” another, thus missing a clean, one-shot kill. But he did stop them both, using a second shot only to end their suffering. Eight shots for any six kills that are moving targets is fine shooting in any man’s language.
A Texas Monthly investigation into the resurrection of Reeves’ lost legacy found that the lawman was widely considered a “real life Lone Ranger,” but whether he inspired the character is a tenuous claim at best. The report argues that numerous lawmen at the time used disguises and relied on Native American guides to help them navigate the territory. Tonto also didn’t show up in the original radio show until episode 11 when the creators realized the Lone Ranger needed someone to talk to. The report adds that even the silver dollar Burton compared to the silver bullet was simply standard currency at the time.
Grams went to the Detroit Public Library to find the archives of producer George W. Trendle and author Dick Osgood who extensively interviewed the people behind the show. Grams found:
The earliest historical document for the development of The Lone Ranger is dated December 28, 1932, when radio director James Jewell at radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, wrote a letter asking [the writer Fran Striker] to write up “three or four wild west thrillers using as the central figure the Lone Ranger including all the hokum of the masked rider, rustlers, killer Pete, heroine on train tracks…”
Through a series of letters exchanged between Jewell and Striker, rough sketches and various drafts of radio scripts were submitted, changes were suggested and implemented, and finally on January 21, 1933, a letter from Jewell advised Striker that the new series would start the following Monday, January 30. The same letter made a few suggestions before concluding, “I hope the above suggestions won’t cramp your style. I realize they have changed the character you have created… but only in a minor way…” (Jewell, Appendix B). The same letter from Jewell to Striker added, “Continue to use the silver bullet and silver horseshoe gag – it’s good.” As verified through this letter, it was Striker who created the silver bullets and silver horseshoes. The creation of the faithful Indian sidekick, however, originates with Jewell.
On February 18, Jewell told Striker, “It might be a good idea, also, to have an Indian half-breed who always stands ready by his command to help him make his changes.” In a response dated February 20, 1933, Striker wrote: “You will notice the birth of Tonto… carrying a certain mysterious background. I have tried to work into this script the suggestions you sent. By the way, the name Tonto may not be as good as some other name so if you rechristen him I’ll try and catch it on the air.” Fran Striker was able to pick up Michigan radio stations on certain evenings at certain hours. Whatever revisions Jewell made to the scripts during rehearsals and airtime, Striker made note to incorporate those changes into the next script.
He also posited that the clearest inspiration for the Lone Ranger was Tom Mix, a Hollywood movie star known for popularizing Westerns. Based on a January 1933 letter from Jewell to Striker, in which Jewell said, “We are going to publicize the fact that the Ranger is a Tom Mix type.”
Burton himself wrote that it would be difficult to “prove conclusively that Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.” He did, however, believe that “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.”
Burton reiterated this in an article for True West: History of the American Frontier, listing out all the similarities between the real Reeves and the fictional Lone Ranger, and qualifying it with how his story had been erased from history: “When The Lone Ranger debuted on the radio in Detroit in 1933, racism was at a zenith in the United States. That the story could have possibly originated with an African American could never be published or talked about publicly.”
Regardless, it was highly unlikely that the white men behind the Lone Ranger had even heard of Reeves. According to the Texas Monthly investigation, “Most likely, the three white men who conjured the Lone Ranger from pulp magazines and Hollywood tropes had never heard of Reeves. Apart from a few passing mentions of Reeves by elderly white marshals recollecting their glory days to local newspapers, not much was written about Reeves from his death, in 1910, until a few academic articles appeared starting in 1971. It wasn’t until Burton came along that folks in the general public became aware that the lawman had even existed.”
While there is no denying that Reeves was a historic larger-than-life lawman, with a legacy marred by racism and erasure, historians have not been able to uncover any evidence that he was the inspiration for the famous character.
Burton, Art, and Mark Boardman. “Once And For All, Is The Lone Ranger Based on Bass Reeves?” True West Magazine, https://truewestmagazine.com/article/once-and-for-all-is-the-lone-ranger-based-on-bass-reeves/. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Burton, Art T. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006, https://archive.org/details/blackgunsilverst00burt/page/n9/mode/2up. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Grams, Jr. , Martin. Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myths. 2018, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/41b57b_65fd2f2e944846ddbfa937d8449a43cf.pdf. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Morgan, Thad. “Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man?” HISTORY, https://www.history.com/news/bass-reeves-real-lone-ranger-a-black-man. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Reilley, Mike. “Hy-Yo Silver!! The Lone Ranger Was Pretty Much a Real Person!” News for Page Lake Powell Arizona, 8 Feb. 2021, https://www.lakepowelllife.com/hy-yo-silver-the-lone-ranger-was-pretty-much-a-real-person/. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Taylor, Carol. “TREE CLIMBING: Black U.S. Marshal from 1800s May Have Inspired ‘Lone Ranger.’” Herald-Banner, https://www.heraldbanner.com/news/lifestyles/tree-climbing-black-u-s-marshal-from-1800s-may-have-inspired-lone-ranger/article_48a216e2-2d33-11ec-913c-5f2b5e2389cc.html. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
“The Lone Ranger May Have Been A Black Lawman Named Bass Reeves.” Ranker, https://www.ranker.com/list/the-truth-about-the-lone-ranger-bass-reeves/melissa-sartore. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.
Wallace, Christian. “The Resurrection of Bass Reeves.” Texas Monthly, 22 June 2021, https://www.texasmonthly.com/being-texan/the-resurrection-of-bass-reeves/. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021.