Was the real Lone Ranger a former slave?
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“It seems that the real life inspiration for the Masked Avenger of the Western Plains may have been an amazing giant of a man who really was the fastest-drawin', toughest, smartest lawman ever seen in the Indian Territory--and he had been born a slave.
Bass Reeves was the name of this American hero, a name that has somehow been omitted from the pantheon of Wild West legends. But author Art T. Burton has sought to correct that oversight in the well-researched book, "Black Gun, Silver Star", published by the University of Nebraska Press.
Reeves was a Deputy U.S. Marshall working out of Fort Smith, Arkansas in the years just after the Civil War, when the Indian Territory in what would later become Oklahoma was a no man's land of desperados, horse thieves, murderers, and outlaws. Reeves' career thus occupied the same time and space as that of the fictional Rooster Cogburn of True Grit fame. But Bass Reeves did in real life what John Wayne only play-acted at, and he did it in a way that combined elements of a number of fictional characters that would later loom large in our imaginations.
Like the Lone Ranger, Bass Reeves would sometimes employ clever disguises as he sought the wanted men who haunted the Indian Territory. He learned from the Indians how to make himself look smaller in the saddle (he was 6'2" at a time when the average man was considerably smaller) and would adopt the clothing and mannerisms of the outlaws themselves to take them by surprise.
According to Burton, Reeves also sometimes gave out silver dollars as calling cards (as opposed to the silver bullets of a certain masked man) and often rode a powerful white or grey horse. He was also often accompanied by an Indian posseman as he made his way through the dangerous wilderness that was this lawman's "beat". Burton also points out that many of those arrested by Reeves served their time in the Detroit federal penitentiary. And it was in Detroit that the Lone Ranger was first created, as a local radio show. So was Reeves at least partially an inspiration for the Lone Ranger? Burton suggests it might be so.
What cannot be doubted is that Reeves was, in reality, the kind of larger-than-life hero that we tend to think of as only being possible in fiction. He was famous for being the greatest crack shot in the Territory, both with rifle and pistols (he wore his pistols with the handles facing out, by the way--Reeves swore that the cross-handed draw was the fastest way to get your pistols out and into action.) Reeves was such a good shot that he was routinely barred from participating in turkey shoots. For us city types who have heard the phrase but don't know the history, those were contests where a live turkey was hung by a leg, and participants would try to shoot its head off while riding at full gallop.
Reeves skills were not just for show, though. In his thirty-two years as a Marshall, Reeves brought in some of the most desperate criminals of his time (some 3,000 in all) and had to kill fourteen of them. Reeves established a reputation as a straight-arrow lawman who never wavered in his duty, including the time when he had to arrest his own son for murder. In a time when not all lawmen in the Indian Territories were viewed as exemplars of personal fortitude, Reeves stood out as the best of the best.
He was a tough man in a tough world, but he could also exhibit an amazing ability to calm and soothe animals--a sort of "horse whisperer" of the frontier.
Burton takes an historian's approach to his subject, providing substantial documentation from source documents to establish that Reeves' exploits were more than just tall tales. In a part of the West that was far tougher, dirtier, but also fairer and less race and class conscious than we would think, Reeves flourished as a fair, clever, and honest lawman. Not bad for a man who had begun life as a slave, and who had been dragged off to the Civil War as the servant of his Confederate master. (During the course of the war, Reeves took abrupt leave of his "master" and never looked back.)
"Black Gun, Silver Star" paints a detailed picture of the life and times of this overlooked American hero, and reveals much about our history--both then and in more recent times. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, this amazing lawman was forced to leave the Marshall's service, as Jim Crow laws were enthusiastically enacted by the new state. And in the years and decades that followed, while the names of lesser men were dramatized in ways great and small, this dedicated and heroic figure was neglected and ignored.
• Only now has some limited recognition of the life and achievements of Bass Reeves begun to be made. "Black Gun, Silver Star" is an excellent way to start making amends for all these years when we've been cheering for make believe heroes instead of the real thing.”
See: Burton, Arthur; Art T. Burton (2006). Black Gun, Silver Star: the Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.