Saturday, July 13, 2019

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth, Part 1

Welcome to another edition of the Western Magazine Digest. In this issue, Martin Grams, co-author of the up-coming ‘The Lone Ranger: The Early Years, 1933-1937, debunks the myth that the radio and television phenomena, The Lone Ranger, which aired from 1933 through 1957, was, in fact, inspired by Bass Reeves. For those who are not familiar with the aforementioned allegation, Reeves, former slave of Arkansas statesman, William Reeves (~1846), became a Deputy U.S. Marshal after being emancipated in 1865 when slavery was abolished by President Abraham Lincoln (Rep).

This is part 1. You can read part 2 now: click here!

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth, P1

By Martin Grams Jr., Historical Writer

Readers can spot the difference between historical writing and artistic imagination, even if they cannot explain the difference between them. A good historian begins with chronology, crafts the biography, and sprinkles anecdotes throughout. The best historians are known for consulting historical archives and presenting only the facts, but perhaps the toughest undertaking is deciding what to leave out.

One such example is a misconception about the exploits of an African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal named Bass Reeves, triggered by recent folklore influenced by racial bias brought about by false beliefs and a genuine lack of concern for factual verification. Besides documenting the true accomplishments of Reeves, a book published a decade ago caused unnecessary confusion by falsely suggesting he was the inspiration for the fictional character of The Lone Ranger.

Historians are expected to avoid the pitfall of mistaking folklore for facts, in large measure through the avoidance of speculations. However, the author of the Bass Reeves biography ultimately – and unintentionally – misled tens of thousands of readers into believing a falsehood.

Editor's Note: It's always good to acquaint yourself with the other side of any argument. In this video, you will learn about the former black slave turn one of the greatest lawmen of his time. The case is presented in an extremely convincing manner, but in the end, the narrator admits that there is not an airtight case that proves that Reeves was the inspiration that fueled the Lone-Ranger legend.

The Bass Reeves Narrative

A number of recently-published books about Bass Reeves have increased popularity for the historic figure. His career was extensively – and impressively – documented in Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, published in 2006 by University of Nebraska Press. The author, Art T. Burton, consulted census records and a large number of second-hand accounts, reflections and insights to compile a 346-page tome documenting the life and career of Bass Reeves.

“Much of what we know today about Bass Reeves persisted in oral stories told by individuals and families whose origins are in frontier Oklahoma.” The author devoted much of the first chapter of his book reprinting numerous recollections from people who never met Reeves personally, documenting facets of Reeves’s life as it was passed down to them from someone who claimed to have met the lawman.

The author admits in his book that the majority of people who personally knew Reeves had passed on, so the stories reported in the book could never stand the standard scrutiny of historians who are diligent in separating fact from fancy, or reality from rumor. The entire book, with the exception of the first chapter, was properly researched according to accepted historian practices.

Among Burton’s suggestive claims in that first chapter was that the fictional Lone Ranger, a radio and television property that gained popularity through sponsorship and mass merchandising starting in the 1930s, was based on the historic exploits of Bass Reeves. Through carefully-selected wording Burton assured readers that his statements were merely theories, with no facts on which to base his conclusion.

Creating the Myth

Failing to follow proper guidelines, such as the avoidance of printed speculation, Burton ultimately created a modern-day myth of interminable proportions. Casual readers overlooked the precise and nuanced wording that Burton employed, and were led to a false impression regarding the facts. As a result, it is estimated that over 100 blogs and websites on the Internet today are reprinting the false connection between Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger, with many going so far as to report the story as factual.

Leading up to the theatrical release of The Lone Ranger in 2013, produced by The Walt Disney Company, Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil production company, Burton’s claim that Bass Reeves might have been the inspiration for The Lone Ranger reached the news media and numerous bloggers. Word spread like wildfire on the Internet regarding what appeared to be an injustice to Bass Reeves.

Blogs and websites with an economic rather than academic agenda failed to verify the facts before they went to print and ran with the story. Blogs and websites providing a platform for feedback gave readers an opportunity to voice their opinions. This, in part, detracted from the good name of Bass Reeves as readers focused not on his exploits and accomplishments, but instead on the fake Lone Ranger connection for which readers were primarily fixated.

5 Coincidences That Connects Reeves with The Lone Ranger

Burton’s book provided five specific “coincidences” in what the author claimed was a direct connection to The Lone Ranger.

#1 The first was Burton’s contention that Reeves worked in disguise in an effort to get close enough to fugitives to apprehend them. To claim this component of Reeves’s career could have inspired the script writers of The Lone Ranger to wear a mask and disguise is a stretch. Masked vigilantes were commonplace among pulp fiction, from Johnston McCulley’s Zorro in The Curse of Capistrano (1919) and Russell Thorndike’s Dr. Christopher Syn, alias the Scarecrow (circa 1915), to The Shadow (beginning in 1931) and the daring adventures of Robin Hood. Surely those fictional characters, among hundreds of others, were not all inspired by the escapades of Bass Reeves on the basis of his disguise?

#2 Burton claims that Reeves, when he ventured into uncharted territory, was accompanied by an Indian guide. “Federal law mandated that deputy U.S. marshals had at least one posseman with them whenever they went out in the field.” Pioneers, hunters and bounty hunters commonly took along an Indian colleague for both protection and as a guide. Overlooking this fact, Burton suggested that the creation of Tonto, the fictional and faithful Indian sidekick for The Lone Ranger, was one of five reasons why Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger radio program.

#3 In one account, he related that Reeves, while hunting down members of the Dalton gang, paid for his meal – and the meal of the possemen – with a silver dollar. “Before they went out on the hunt the posse ate breakfast and Reeves paid for the meal with a silver dollar .... We all know that the Lone Ranger’s calling card was the silver bullet. Quite possibly Reeves’s was the silver dollar.” How this one-time incident could be a unique trademark borrowed for use on The Lone Ranger, as suggested by Burton, remains unclear. At that time silver dollars were commonly used as a standard form of currency. The United States Mint produced dollar coins made of silver as early as 1794 and substantially increased production during the years 1836 to 1873.

#4 Burton’s strongest supporting statement to connect the two men was that “Reeves may have ridden a white horse during one period of his career” and elaborated on his statement by describing an incident in which “witnesses testified that the cook threatened to shoot Reeves’s gray horse. A gray horse can look anywhere from near black to near white, so it was possible that Reeves rode a horse that appeared to be white.” Over 100 breeds of horses and mustangs were used for military, farming and transportation during the 1800s, all varied in color from black, paint, gray and white. Reeves would have had more than one horse in his lifetime. Through Burton’s own admission the color of Reeves’s horse cannot be verified as white – another tenuous connection to The Lone Ranger.

#5 Because The Lone Ranger was of muscular build, had an Indian guide named Tonto as a sidekick, often wore a black mask to prevent his true identity from becoming known, used silver bullets as a trademark calling card, and rode a white stallion named Silver, Burton attempted to lay out a strong suggestive claim that The Lone Ranger was based on the daring exploits of Bass Reeves.

There's more, but you'll have to tune in Sunday, July 28th, when we’ll feature part 2 of the Martin Grams Jr. story.


Martin Grams Jr. is the author and co-author of numerous books about old-time radio and retro television. Winner of numerous awards in the Best Book categories, author of more than 100 magazine articles and co-author of the up-coming THE LONE RANGER: THE EARLY YEARS, 1933-1937.

Editor's Note: If you have a question or comment for Mr. Grams, please use the Comment utility below, or email it to

Read Part 2 of Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth: click here!

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1 comment:

  1. Based on available information...I don't believe it's possible to prove OR disprove that Bass Reeves was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. What ever you shall it be.


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