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Was The Man Behind 'The Lone Ranger's' Mask A Black Man? (In Theaters Tomorrow, 7/3)

by Sergio
July 2, 2013 10:25 AM
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Bass Reeves

Editor's note: A repost, since the film opens in theaters tomorrow...

Because of my recent piece regarding The Great Gatsby which opens this week, and the theory, according to one scholar, that Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book was actually a black man passing for white (read HERE), I’m reminded of another major summer blockbuster and the secret history behind it, that I recall reading about a few years ago.

I’m talking about the Jerry Bruckheimer produced new version of The Lone Ranger, with the very bland as to be practically nonexistent Armie Hammer as the Ranger, and the very charismatic, no-doubt-is-going-to-steal-the-film Johnny Depp, as his trusted Indian sidekick Tonto.

But was the Lone Ranger actually based on the exploits of a real life black hero? The evidence points to a resounding yes.

That person was Bass Reeves (the gent pictured above with one helluva mustache) who, not surprisingly, was written out, or purposely overlooked in histories of the West, by historians, until recently, and who was the subject of a long overdue book written a few years years ago by Art Burton, titled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.

Naturally born a slave in 1838, Reeves’ master brought him along as his personal servant when he went off to fight with the Confederate Army, during the Civil War. And seeing an opportunity when it presented itself, Reeves escaped for freedom after, reportedly, beating up his master following an argument over a card game.

Reeves fled to the then Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma) and lived among the Seminole and Creek Indians. After the war, he married and eventually fathered ten children.

He became a Deputy U.S. Marshall working in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (the first black one ever) when the existing U.S. Marshall, James Fagan, who himself was a former Confederate Army officer, needed deputies to establish law and order in the region, and had heard about Reeves, who knew the area well and could speak several Indian languages. Fagan made him a deputy.

So where does the Lone Ranger connection come in? Well, according to Burton, like the Ranger, Reeves was a master of disguises which he would use to track down wanted outlaws, and even adopting their clothes and mannerisms to blend in with them.

According to Burton, Reeves also gave out silver coins as a sort of personal trademark, which is not too dissimilar from the Lone Ranger who uses silver bullets.

Also, like the Lone Ranger, Reeves was an expert crack shot; So good, in fact, that he was barred from participating in shooting contests being that he had an unfair advantage. And Reeves always rode a white or grey horse like the Ranger.

Also Reeves had his own Tonto of sorts - an Indian posse man and tracker he often rode with, when he was out capturing bad guys (close to 3000 in all, during his years as a marshal, 14 of them he killed).

But Burton also draws the connection between Reeves and the Lone Ranger with the fact that many of the outlaws Reeves captured were sent to a federal prison in Detroit. And by some strange coincidence, The  Lone Ranger was first introduced to the public in 1933 on a weekly radio show broadcast from WXYZ in Detroit.

Perhaps the stories about Reeves told by those convicts in that Detroit prison, circulated around for years and eventually reached the ears of the creators of The Lone Ranger, who used them as the inspiration for their fictional creation.

Sadly, Reeves' years as a deputy came to an end in 1907 when the territory became the state of Oklahoma and the state, strictly following the Southern states segregationist Jim Crow laws, took away his badge and he retired. He died three years later in 1910, to be totally forgotten... until recently.

And that’s the story of American history isn’t it? Just barely scratch the surface and you’ll always find a black man underneath.

And yes, I know. Wouldn’t a film about Reeves make one helluva movie?

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  • Grendel | August 21, 2013 10:15 PMReply

    The Lone Ranger was based on an actual Sheriff named John Hughes. And in 1915 a book written by Zane Grey named " The Lone Star Ranger book" was based on John Hughes. The original writer stated is was based on John Hughes.

    This is Afrocentrics at it's best, trying to re-write History.

  • Michael Ray FitzGerald, PhD | January 19, 2014 1:27 AM

    What is your source for the Ranger's being based on Hughes? David Rothel, who interviewed some of the writers of the series, says the character was based mostly on Zorro, and Clayton Moore said the same in his own book about the series. BTW, one of the reasons Trendle selected Moore to play the Ranger is because Moore had recently starred in film as Zorro.

  • Meta | October 9, 2013 8:22 AM

    And what if Zane Grey knew about Mr. Reeves. It isn't unlikely and it's very uncomfortable to know that people steal stories and spin them however they need to to make a buck. It doesn't take away from the Lone Ranger tales. So don't get your panties in a bunch. But it does speak to the fact that some folks will best the truth for an ethnocentric lie.

  • meo0624 | July 16, 2013 7:05 PMReply

    If a movie should ever be made, a good fit for the lead character, would be Edie Murphy to play Bass Reeves.

  • Metafly | October 9, 2013 8:23 AM

    Absolutely not.

  • Michael Ray Fitzgerald, Phd | July 7, 2013 2:18 AMReply

    Trendle told his staff members that Robin Hood and Zorro best embodied the qualities he was looking for in this new character (Rothel 28). There is still some confusion as to who actually created the Lone Ranger character. Accounts of former employees indicate that it was collectively conceived during a brainstorming session at WXYZ’s offices in 1932 (Rothel 28; also see Bickel 120-121). However, Mike Healy, a Buffalo, N.Y., columnist insisted that the ranger character had appeared full-blown in Striker’s "Covered Wagon Days" on WEBR as early as 1929 (Mike Healy, “Hi-Ho, Buffalo! The Lone Ranger Originally Rode from Our City.” Buffalo Courier-Express, April 14, 1975, cited in Rothel 54). Perhaps the most viable scenario is this: Striker had already created a rough sketch of a similar character; then, when he found out Trendle wanted something like it, he went back into his files to retrieve it; the character was then modified according to Trendle’s specifications.

  • Michael Ray Fitzgerald, PhD | July 7, 2013 2:08 AMReply

    I suggest you do some research before speculating in print. There are books about the creation of the series, the most authoritative being Who Was That Masked Man? by David Rothel (1981), who interviewed members of the show's staff. Not to denigrate the man's accomplishments, but I seriously doubt the creators of the series had ever heard of Mr. Reeves. The show's producer, WXYZ owner George Trendle, wanted a hero modeled on Zorro. The series' initial writer, Fran Striker, I have read, had already created a masked-vigilante hero in his own series "Covered Wagon Days," which aired on WEBR (Buffalo, NY) ca. 1930. He sold all his rights to Trendle.

  • Barbara Renick | July 5, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    Scientists claim that the human species developed in NE Africa near present-day Ethiopia. We are all related, yet racism remains with us, with all its destructiveness and hatred. The cultures that man develops speaks best. Our violence, greed, casual violation of The 10 Commandments was brought to America where Natives had built cultures that revered Mother Earth and protected her for centuries before.

  • stumpzian | July 4, 2013 8:09 PMReply

    Anybody read Fran Striker's "Lone Ranger" novels from the 1930s? I loved them as a kid. Loved Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, too. If Bass Reeves was the inspiration, OK, but it seems like a stretch. By the way, Striker also created the Green Hornet, who was the Lone Ranger's nephew.

  • Debrah Ross | July 4, 2013 2:58 PMReply

    Is this so hard to believe? In the days of the Lone Ranger and Marshall Bass Reeves, how closely were records kept? Had the U.S. Census even begun? I think it had, but probably more for people who had an address, occupation, spouse and/or offspring. Bass was born a slave, but in ratio to the number of blacks say in the 1850's, to the number of Black-Americans today whose ancestors were slaves, there were probably more fair-skinned blacks around than previously suspected (if at all considered). This is a fascinating story that I believe is entirely conceivable. If you look at his picture, this is a man who probably moved among whites, Native Americans with ease, and whose only purpose was to carve out a life for himself and his family.

  • Meta | October 9, 2013 8:25 AM

    i would agree with that Debrah. Good assessment of the issue. During that brief moment when we weren't being hunted, which was just about never, he made a difference. This would be a fantastic movie. But someone would unfortunately (or fortunately) keel over at the idea.

  • YogiJake | July 3, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    I like the description The African Diaspora. It succinctly describes a fundamental truth that is rarely acknowledged. One that may well reference all of humanity under current scientific thought. I too am an American member of a diaspora community that is a lot older and way smaller; I recognize that this affiliation is stamped on the core of my essential nature, even if it is not as obviously evident on my face. I thank for teaching me a new way to comprehend humanity in toto as well as my own humanity. Namaste

  • Lavetta Cannon | July 2, 2013 9:57 PMReply

    I heard Morgan Freeman in an interviewing, talking about his decade long struggle to bring Bass Reeves story to the big screen. Perhaps, if the character shows up in a tv series, the idea can then be brought to a big screen...I'd love to see a film on it!!!

  • No | July 2, 2013 11:21 AMReply

    From what I've read there seems to be no real connection between Bass Reeves and the fictional character The Lone Ranger. There seems to be a lot of conjecturing based on wish fulfillment in this posting.

  • Meta | October 9, 2013 8:29 AM

    If it's more comfortable for you not to see the similarities, then that's cool. It isn't often that the truth of the lives of non-white people is accepted in general society. It's hard for those that created the lies or masked the truth to stomach the fall out. Cool

  • and so ... | July 5, 2013 11:52 PM

    How do you know what you read is actually valid? Perhaps your post reveals a need to diminish the contributions of people of color for whatever reason.

  • byrd | July 2, 2013 10:47 AMReply

    Am I the only one who noticed the striking resemblance between Bass Reeves and Reg E. Cathey (Norman Wilson from The Wire)? Do an image search on Google since I can't post links here.

  • david | May 21, 2013 8:01 AMReply

    i had just read an article on this site that black people are always saying that an idea was always stolen from them by white america. I am speaking of Sophia Stewart, and this is the second article i read. smh.

  • Meta | October 9, 2013 8:57 AM

    Arich you are asking a silly question. If you have been colonized, then those that were here before the whites 'established' anything will be put down. That is common knowledge. Everyone knows that to be the truth. Remove your head from that dark place. lol

  • arich | August 9, 2013 3:45 PM

    Notice how all accomplishments or alleged accomplishments by blacks always take place in nations established by whites? Where are the lone rangers in Africa? This story, like hilarious stories of black inventions, will probably turn out to be nothing more than fantasy of some lily white kosher liberal.

  • Miles Ellison | May 21, 2013 9:00 PM

    It's usually true. Sophia Stewart being one of the rare exceptions.

  • Sergio | May 21, 2013 8:46 AM

    So if you have trouble with all this then... STOP READING US if it gets your lily white sensibilities panties all tied up in a bunch

  • Fred Staff | May 16, 2013 3:47 PMReply

    If you would like to read more about Bass Reeves adventures I have finished two books of a trilogy of his life, YOUNG BASS REEVES and BASS REEVES LAWMAN. The third is nearly complete. You can find them on all book outlets.

  • Teri Foster | July 6, 2013 4:47 PM

    Fred, I've checked with Amazon and eBay and can't find YOUNG BASS REEVES and BASS REEVES LAWMAN available in print (ebook only). Can you tell us if they will be reprinted?

  • Francine | May 15, 2013 11:47 PMReply

    If there was a Lone Ranger prior to Clayton Moore and jay Silverheels asTonto there could have been. I don't have any knowledge of there being though I knew them personally. Johnny Depp is Native descendent. He is embraced by the Native people who star with him and Hamer. It should be good. I'll be there. (also Native)

  • Murph | May 15, 2013 9:51 PMReply

    "Naturally born a slave in 1838"
    I think there is a multitude of ways to better phrase that statement. I do not think anyone reading this believes that because he was of African descent and born in 1838, that his enslavement was "natural."

  • Bobcat13 | May 16, 2013 6:20 PM

    A natural born slave was a child born to an enslaved woman.

  • sergio | May 15, 2013 11:05 PM

    You're a black person born in the South before 1865, "naturally" you're a slave. What else are you going to be?

    You can't be THAT obtuse

  • jeni | May 15, 2013 5:22 PMReply

    Awesome story. I would even be happy to see it as a miniseries, a' la "Hatfields and McCoys." #ratings

  • MediaPanther | May 14, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    Is Johnny Depp Native American? Not sure if the subject has been mentioned before about him being cast as Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger film. It's bad enough that the character is the sidekick of the lead, but it looks like even the sidekick is being whitewashed. Weren't there any Native American actors (Adam Beach) available to play the part or were they too busy with all the numerous projects presented to them?

  • Donella | May 14, 2013 11:44 PM

    Maybe none of them wanted to dwell inside a character named "tonto." Spanish for stupid.

  • Miles Ellison | May 14, 2013 11:08 PM

    Maybe Native American actors didn't want to be bothered. Surprising, given the sensitive and balanced portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood films. The only hope is that Depp's Tonto gets his ass kicked as regularly as Jay Silverheels' Tonto did.

  • sergio | May 14, 2013 2:06 PM

    He's always claimed that he's part Cherokee

  • starry118 | May 14, 2013 11:00 AMReply

    Yes, a movie about Bass Reeves would make one helluva movie ... let's get a Kickstarter campaign going!

  • Doc Boyle | May 12, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    from Old West Daily Reader: 01/12/1910
    Died in Muskogee, OK: Bass Reeves, age about 72; born a slave in 1838. He escaped and lived in the Indian Territory with Seminole and Creek Indians for a time. Appointed a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1875 by Judge Issac Parker, he served 32 years. He arrested over 3,000 felons, including his own son (for murder). By his own count, he killed 14 men in the line of duty but was never shot himself. Reeves retired as a U.S. Marshal in 1907. A statue in his honor stands in Ft. Smith, AR. TYH!
    I might add: Bass does not appear on Bill O'Neals list (33 noted) of Western gunfighters in "The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters" 1942. No doubt, at all, because he was black. If he had been on that list, he would clearly have been #1.

  • Fred Staff | May 16, 2013 3:57 PM

    It is a grealy know fact that Morgan Freeman wants to make a movie based on Bass Reeves life and great exploits. I have been contacted by a production company that want to use my books, but I insist that the movie be made in Oklahoma and Arkansas and that seems to be a sticking point.
    I also believe that True Grit was a disaster because they did not use the beauty of Eastern Oklahoma and Western Arkansas for the shotting.
    I am an Oklahoman and have never seen country that would do more justice to the many settings than that beautiful region. I strongly believe that if you are going to make a historical based movie that by all means the setting should be as close to accurate as possilbe. Many of the sites such as the Court house in Fort Smith still exist and should be used and if they make the movie from my books they will be.

  • Miles Ellison | May 11, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    The only way Hollywood makes a movie about Bass Reeves is if Ryan Gosling plays him in blackface. Or Tyler Perry plays him in a dress and a fat suit.

  • Visha | May 16, 2013 11:19 PM

    **Dead** ROFL how true. A movie like that can only be done if the lead is caucasian. Maybe they can feature him in the Lone Ranger 2 (There's bound to be a sequel if Johnny Depp's involved) and cast everyone's favourite black man Will Smith.

  • DM | May 15, 2013 4:22 PM

    Tyler Perry has the money to do it.

  • Mica | May 11, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I am so not surprised one bit. If Whites can get away with turning Africans in history into Europeans, etc... Egyptains, Hannabel into an Arabian, and Queen of Shebe into a Persian I'm not a bit surprised. They are even trying to turn Crispus Attacks into a Native American. All of the Black heroes in America's history have been white-washed literally or hidden and ignored altogether. Blacks are to be nothing more than slaves in American History. Anything else might give them a higher status and admoration and we just can't have that. Blacks might actually start being proud to be Black.

  • sergio | May 22, 2013 10:21 AM

    Just because Vin Diesel wanted to play him in movie mean that Haniibal looked like him. How do you know what he looked like? He could have been the splitting image of me

  • Said in Los Angeles | May 22, 2013 12:26 AM

    Crispus Attucks was half Native American; Hanniabl was North African and looked like Vin Diesel.

  • dee | May 13, 2013 12:01 PM

    So True

  • AccidentalVisitor | May 11, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    I read Burton's book on Reeves a couple of years ago but I never saw the Lone Ranger comparison. I never got the impression that Reeves was using disguises, instead I saw it more as him going "undercover" and pretending to be someone other than he was in order to catch the criminals. Perhaps I should pull the book out again and take another look.

    Speaking of books I would also recommend Burton's first book : "Red, Black and Deadly" which focused on black, Native American (or a mixture of the two) lawmne, outlaws and scouts of the Old West (particularly in Indian Territory). That book was where I first learned about Reeves.

  • JMS | May 11, 2013 12:32 AMReply

    Not surprised ...

  • Nadia | May 10, 2013 8:34 PMReply

    First The Count Of Monte Cristo, then The Great Gatsby, and now The Lone Ranger. Damn. All thee films that could've starred black actors.

  • Erich Hicks | May 10, 2013 8:30 PMReply

    Stay tune for the epic feature of: “Bass Reeves” US Deputy Marshal. In the mean time; keep telling that history:

    Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, where Buffalo Bill Cody meets a Buffalo Soldier, the greatest fictionalized 'historical novel’ ever written. This is the greatest story of Black Military History...5 stars Amazon internationally, and Barnes & Noble, the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers. The website is Rescue at Pine Ridge dot com Youtube commercials is the title.

    Rescue at Pine Ridge is the epic story of the 9th Cavalry from its Congressional conception in 1866, to the rescue of the famed 7th Cavalry by the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, 1890. The 7th Cavalry was entrapped again, after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. This story is about, brutality, compassion, bravery, gallantry, reprisal, heroism and redemption.

    I know you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote the story that embodies the Native Americans, Outlaws and African-American/Black soldiers, Buffalo Soldiers, from the east to the west, from the south to the north, in the days of the Native American Wars with the approaching United States of America.

    The novel was taken from my mini-series movie with the same title, “RaPR” to keep the story alive. The movie so far has the interest of major actors in which we are in talks with, in starring in this epic American story.

    When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at the title, Alpha Wolf Prods dot com and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for the United States Postal System in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.


  • wendall amy | May 10, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    I like stories that tell the truth from the common myths

  • savagedarky | May 10, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    BTW that thing on Reeves face ain't a's known as a "Beaver Brush" ya'll ladies know what I'm talkin' about! Open wide and let the beaver get a brushin'!

  • savagedarky | May 10, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    Man, I just ain't feeling the movies this summer. I decided to get off the carousel. I haven't gone to see Iron Man, probably because it has a 3 on it. I probably won't go see Gatsby or The Lone Ranger or anything else excreted from the crack of Hollywood's ass. Maybe next year. Maybe never. I'm a movie drop out.

  • urbanauteur | May 10, 2013 12:29 PMReply

    Bump! Marvel Comics, this brother here is the REAL DEAL!.

  • Aaron | May 10, 2013 11:48 AMReply

    "Wouldn’t a film about Reeves make one helluva movie?"

    Hmmmm. I'm down, I need to do some research on this ancestor of ours.

  • Brenda | May 10, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    I remember reading about him on this blog awhile back ( Any update on Freeman's involvement with a film?

  • Erik W | May 10, 2013 10:28 AMReply

    It would make one hell of a movie. However, the studios would never go near this. Too positive, too strong and an authority figure who WON at what he did? No.

    Now, if he were a BUTLER, his story would be optioned right now with pre-production on the horizon.

  • D | May 25, 2013 9:16 AM

    Ummm...You ever hear of this little movie called...Django?

  • Donella | May 10, 2013 5:04 PM

    Would likely have to be a British production, directed by and starring Brits, funded by Kickstarter or Nigerians. Would be too much for Hollywood focus groups to handle.

  • sthn | May 10, 2013 1:28 PM

    lol! Yes sergio, Morgan Freeman's been talking about this for probably over 7 years. A cowboy butler. $$$$$ be rollin in!

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