Sunday, July 28, 2019

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth, Part 2

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 2, and you can read part 1 first if need be: click here.

By Martin Grams Jr., Historical Writer

Few people bothered to review George W. Trendle’s production and legal files to verify the true origin of The Lone Ranger, which is why Burton’s claims were rarely debunked academically. The following are major bullet points for proving Bass Reeves was never the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.

The name of Bass Reeves appears in relatively few printed reference guides prior to Burton’s book; the earliest was published in 1971, almost forty years after the premiere of The Lone Ranger on radio.

No books referencing the name Bass Reeves, other than those listed in Appendix A, have been found to predate Art T. Burton’s biography. With but one exception, the common denominator among these reference guides is the exclusion of any reference to The Lone Ranger and/or a connection to Bass Reeves.

That one exception was John W. Ravage and his book Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the Northern American Frontier, asking the question, “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?” The author posed the question with no supporting facts, providing only an offhanded and facetious comment for the amusement of his readers.

Art T. Burton and Bill O'Reilly's Work

Art T. Burton wrote in his book, “I doubt we would be able to prove conclusively that Reeves is the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. We can, however, say unequivocally that Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.”

In addition, when I questioned the validity of Burton’s theory on my blog in April of 2015, the author himself commented: “In regards to Bass Reeves being the inspiration for the Lone Ranger fictional character, I never said that it was definitive, but coincidental similarities.”

In 2015, Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: The Real West was published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC, featuring 12 profiles of American legends of the western frontier. The sixth chapter, “Bass Reeves,” borrowed liberally from Burton’s book, in an attempt to “dig deep, uncovering facts that illuminate the legends and debunk the lies that have somehow become folklore.” What O’Reilly’s book accomplished, along with the filmed documentary series of the same name, however, was the exact opposite.

Nothing Conclusive, Only Comparisons

Page after page the career of Bass Reeves was documented with repeated comparisons to the fictional adventures of The Lone Ranger, culminating in paragraph form the following summary: “Did he serve as the model for The Lone Ranger? There is no specific evidence that he did, and the men credited with creating the character in 1933 never spoke about it.” Yet, the accomplishments of Bass Reeves was overshadowed in the book with the suggestion that racial injustice was served upon the legendary lawman, adding fuel to a fire of controversy, and once again pushing Reeves’s credible accomplishments to the sidelines.

It should also be noted that anchorman and political commentator Bill O’Reilly merely lent use of his celebrity status to the book that bore his name on the cover. As revealed within the contents of the book, David Fisher, a journalist and New York Times bestseller, was the author. Through Fisher’s own admission he consulted Art T. Burton’s Black Gun, Silver Star biography and three blogs found on the Internet. It should also be noted that no other books documenting the career of Bass Reeves, published in the last decade, reprinted any reference of the Lone Ranger myth.

The Lone Ranger Radio Program

The origin of The Lone Ranger radio program, on the other hand, is well documented with nothing to indicate Bass Reeves was in any way the inspiration for the fictional character. The earliest historical document for the development of The Lone Ranger is dated December 28, 1932, when radio director James Jewell at radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, wrote a letter asking Striker to write up “three or four wild west thrillers using as the central figure the Lone Ranger including all the hokum of the masked rider, rustlers, killer Pete, heroine on train tracks...”

As a former theatre owner, Trendle knew Westerns were among the most popular movies and certainly the most profitable. Jewell created a western of his own, but it failed to impress the boss and lasted only a short time before he chose to contact Fran Striker. Striker, then a resident of Buffalo, New York, was already scripting on a regular basis a radio program titled Warner Lester, Manhunter, and had proven to Jewell that he was capable of meeting the strictest of deadlines.

Letters Show No Mention of Bass Reeves

Through a series of letters exchanged between Jewell and Striker, rough sketches and various drafts of radio scripts were submitted, changes were suggested and implemented, and finally on January 21, 1933, a letter from Jewell advised Striker that the new series would start the following Monday, January 30. The same letter made a few suggestions before concluding, “I hope the above suggestions won’t cramp your style. I realize they have changed the character you have created... but only in a minor way...”

The same letter from Jewell to Striker added, “Continue to use the silver bullet and silver horseshoe gag – it’s good.” As verified through this letter, it was Striker who created the silver bullets and silver horseshoes. The creation of the faithful Indian sidekick, however, originates with Jewell.

The character of Tonto was brought into the series beginning with episode 11 of The Lone Ranger. He was born out of theatrical necessity. With just the singular hero and his horse, the narrator was required to play too big a role in explaining the plotline of the episode to the listening audience. In radio plays, dialogue served the dual purpose of telling the story and describing the background of the scenes and the actions of others. In theater and television productions, audiences can see what is happening, but on radio’s audio-only format, it had to be described. Jewell asked Striker to create a sidekick.

On February 18, Jewell told Striker, “It might be a good idea, also, to have an Indian half-breed who always stands ready by his command to help him make his changes.” In a response dated February 20, 1933, Striker wrote: “You will notice the birth of Tonto... carrying a certain mysterious background. I have tried to work into this script the suggestions you sent. By the way, the name Tonto may not be as good as some other name so if you rechristen him I’ll try and catch it on the air.” Fran Striker was able to pick up Michigan radio stations on certain evenings at certain hours. Whatever revisions Jewell made to the scripts during rehearsals and airtime, Striker made note to incorporate those changes into the next script.

8 Months Into the Radio Program

It should also be noted that until November 1933, eight months after the premiere of The Lone Ranger, George W. Trendle was never aware the radio scripts were written by Fran Striker. Trendle knew of Striker’s ability to churn out scripts for Warner Lester but he was under the false assumption that Jewell was typing the scripts himself. From December 1932 to February 1933, Jewell participated in story conferences with George W. Trendle, regarding the direction and formation of The Lone Ranger, then relayed that information to Striker for execution. The elements that made up the characteristics of The Lone Ranger were borne from pulp magazine fare.

A letter from Jewell to Striker, dated January 21, verified Trendle’s request for a happy-go-lucky, laugh- at-danger masked vigilante similar to The Mark of Zorro. Jewell provided suggestions that worked with the physical demands of daily radio drama, Striker provided the rough sketches. The Lone Ranger working in disguise originated from this letter as a result of Jewell’s reference to The Mark of Zorro. It should also be noted that the radio program depicted a different type of masked vigilante than the one we are accustomed to today. Throughout 1933 and the early half of 1934, The Lone Ranger fool-heartedly laughed at danger just as Zorro and Robin Hood ridiculed their combatants before and after swordplay.

When Trendle learned of Striker’s involvement a few days before Thanksgiving, he contacted him personally to offer a permanent job at the station in Detroit. By May of 1934, Striker accepted and months later moved his family to Detroit. It remains a flimsy argument for Art T. Burton to claim three people, one living two state borders away, to have conspired against the legendary Bass Reeves, with no reference to any true-life historical figure among all of the archival correspondence, especially since the name Bass Reeves was never featured in any published reference books prior to 1971. Moreover, multiple letters and telegrams established that fiction literature of swash-buckling fare and masked vigilantes were the true inspiration for the character.

Ranger Patterned After Movie Star?

The greatest influence on the formation of The Lone Ranger was Tom Mix, evident in a letter dated January 21, 1933, in which Jewell told Striker, “We are going to publicize the fact that the Ranger is a Tom Mix type.” Tom Mix was a Hollywood movie star who defined the genre of Westerns during the early days of cinema. Mix was an icon young children admired and Jewell was attempting to mirror that same success story.

The connection between Bass Reeves and the fictional Lone Ranger is questionable at best, in part because the author employs Transmedial Migration; i.e. the adaptation of the properties of fictional characters to real-life historical figures. Burton chose to find a connection from fiction to real-life, not the other way around as most historians would insist. For decades in colleges and universities across the country, history professors have instructed their students to avoid this pitfall.

Respected historians also avoid printing theories with no facts to back up their belief, knowing that many readers mistake assumptions for fact, thus creating “false beliefs.” Thus, the first chapter of Burton’s book diverts attention from the admirably outlined chronicle of Reeves’s accomplishments as documented in the remaining chapters. Bloggers today, however, continue to reprint the misconception that Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. No one has, as of today, found any historical documents to prove such a connection between the two. Yet, multiple historical documents have disproved the myth.


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

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1 comment:

  1. I was doing some geneology research on my great grand father Burgess Reeves and found the interesting stories about Bass Reeves. My family tree went back to the 1400's and I found my family in Pendleton District, S.C. also near the same time a William Reeves was living there. Thanks for your research. Linda Lockwood


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