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?