By Hannah Eddy
This summer Walt Disney is set to release The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. The story, of course, is nothing new. The Lone Ranger today is an icon of the 20th century. His story represents a romanticized version of the “Wild West” with all its rough and tumble glory. The Lone Ranger is a hero, saving the lives of innocent settlers and catching outlaws with the aid of his faithful friend, Tonto. Yet the image of the Masked Avenger that movies and TV have painted in our mind may not be entirely accurate. In the past, men like Clayton Moore, Chad Michael Murray, and now, Armie Hammer, have played the leading role of the Lone Ranger. A closer look at the historicity of the Lone Ranger’s story however, suggests the possible inspiration for the legendary figure to be Bass Reeves, an often forgotten former slave and U.S. Marshall in the Indian Territory in the years preceeding the Civil War.
Bass Reeves was born in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, a child of slaves. He grew up in Grayson, Texas after his owner, William S. Reeves relocated. During the Civil War, Bass claimed to have fought under the leadership of William Reeves’ son, Col. George Reeves in the Battles of Pea Ridge (1862), Chickamauga (1863), and Missionary Ridge (1863). Bass Reeves’ family however, claims an alternative story which suggests that between 1861 and 1862, Reeves attacked his owner in an argument over a card game and escaped into Indian Territory. Though the truth has yet to be determined, historians consider it unlikely that Reeves ever served in the last two battles. Regardless, after the war, it is understood that Reeves served as a guide for U.S. government officials as they passed through Indian Territory.
In 1875, Reeves began his career as a deputy U.S. Marshal under the guidance of Federal Judge Isaac Parker of the Western District of Arkansas. Roaming a 75,000 mile area in what is now mostly Oklahoma, Reeves was responsible for chasing and apprehending criminals. To do his job, Reeves employed a number of clever tricks and techniques all too reminiscent of the well known Masked Avenger. As a 6’2″ man, Reeves learned from the Native Americans how to make himself appear smaller on his strong white and grey horse. At times he would surprise outlaws by adopting their clothing and mannerisms. Just as the Lone Ranger gave out silver bullets, so too did Reeves give out silver dollars as calling cards. Reeves was also often accompanied by one particular Native American, whose name is unfortunately unknown to historians at this time. According to contemporary reports, Reeves apprehended more than 3,000 outlaws and killed 14 during his time as a marshal. Many of the criminals he apprehended were sent to Detroit to serve their time. Interestingly enough, it was in Detroit that the Lone Ranger radio program first aired.
What the Lone Ranger did in movies, Bass Reeves did in real life. Known for wielding a rifle along with two pistols on either hip and being a dangerously accurate shot, Reeves no doubt had an intimidating presence. It was his unwavering dedication to his job however, that gave Reeves his serious reputation throughout the West. Despite his success, Reeves was forced to retire in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state due to the strict Jim Crow laws. Sadly, his larger than life persona has since been lost in the annals of history. While the story of the fictional Lone Ranger comes back time and time again, the true story of Bass Reeves continues on without much notice.
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