On a riverbank in Texas, a master of disguise waited patiently with his accomplice, hoping that his target, an infamous horse thief, would show himself on the trail. After four days, the hunch paid off, when the bandit unwittingly walked towards the man who haunted the outlaws of the Old West. Springing from the bushes, the cowboy confronted his frightened mark with a warrant. As the desperado reached for his weapon as a last ditch effort, the lawman shot him down before his gun could leave his side.
Though the quick-draw tale may sound like an adventure of the Lone Ranger, this was no fictional event. In fact, it was one of many feats of Bass Reeves, a legendary lawman of the Wild West—a man whose true adventures rivaled those of the outlaw-wrangling masked character. Reeves was a real-life African-American cowboy who one historian has proposed may have inspired the Lone Ranger.
In 1838—nearly a century before the Lone Ranger was introduced to the public—Bass Reeves was born a slave in the Arkansas household of William S. Reeves, who relocated to Paris, Texas, in 1846. It was in Texas, during the Civil War, that William made Bass accompany his son, George Reeves, to fight for the Confederacy.
While serving George, Bass escaped to Indian Territory under the cover of the night. The Indian Territory, known today as Oklahoma, was a region ruled by five Native American tribes—Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw—who were forced from their homelands due to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. While the community was governed through a system of tribal courts, the courts’ jurisdiction only extended to members of the five major tribes. That meant anyone who wasn’t part of those tribes—from escaped slaves to petty criminals—could only be pursued on a federal level within its boundaries. It was against the backdrop of the lawless Old West that Bass would earn his formidable reputation.
Upon arriving in the Indian Territory, Bass learned the landscape and the customs of the Seminole and Creek tribes, even learning to speak their languages. After the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, abolishing slavery, Bass, now formally a free man, returned to Arkansas, where he married and went on to have 11 children.
After a decade of freedom, Bass returned to the Indian Territory when U.S. Marshal James Fagan recruited him to help rein in the criminals that plagued the land. Fagan, under the direction of federal judge Isaac C. Parker, brought in 200 deputy marshals to calm the growing chaos throughout the West. The deputy marshals were tasked with bringing in the countless thieves, murderers and fugitives who had overrun the expansive 75,000-square-mile territory. Able local shooters and trackers were sought out for the position, and Bass was one of the few African-Americans recruited.
Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, with proficient shooting skills from his time in the Civil War and his knowledge of the terrain and language, Bass was the perfect man for the challenge. Upon taking the job, he became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi.
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As deputy marshal, Bass is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gun wound, writes biographer Art T. Burton, who first asserted the theory that Bass had inspired the Lone Ranger in his 2006 book, Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.
At the heart of Burton’s argument is that fact that over 32 years as a deputy marshal, Bass found himself in numerous stranger-than-fiction encounters. Also, many of the fugitives Bass arrested were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections, in the same city where the Lone Ranger would be introduced to the world on the radio station WXYZ on January 30, 1933.
In addition to his wide-ranging repertoire of skills, Bass took a creative approach to his investigations, sometimes disguising himself or creating new backstories in order to get the jump on his targets. One such plot required Bass to walk nearly 30 miles dressed as a beggar on the run from authority. When he arrived at the home of his targets, two brothers, their mother invited Bass in and suggested that he stay the night. Bass accepted her offer, and the sons were in handcuffs before sunrise. After restraining the siblings in their sleep, Bass walked them the entire way back to his camp.
Much like his silver screen equivalent, Bass was fiercely dedicated to his position. Widely considered impossible to pay off or shake up, Bass demonstrated a moral compass that could put even Superman to shame. He even went so far as to arrest his own son, Bennie, for murdering his wife. In Bass’ obituary in the January 18, 1910, edition of The Daily Ardmoreite, it was reported that Bass had overheard a marshal suggesting that another deputy take on the case. Bass stepped in, quietly saying, “Give me the writ.” He arrested his son, who was sentenced to life in prison.
The legendary lawman was eventually removed from his position in 1907, when Oklahoma gained statehood. As an African-American, Bass was unable to continue in his position as deputy marshal under the new state laws. He died three years later, after being diagnosed with Bright’s disease, but the legend of his work in the Old West would live on.
Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,” Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.
However, Bass accomplished things that dwarf the triumphs of his fictional counterpart, in his journey from slave to one of the staunchest defenders of the very government that had failed to protect his freedom in the first place. And while the truth about the Lone Ranger may remain a mystery, the story of Bass Reeves remains an inspiration for real-life heroes to this day.