If you’re like me, you remember watching the popular television show, The Lone Ranger, where it depicted a white man who wore a disguise on a white horse and had a Native American counterpart with him named Tonto. The story we are most familiar with started out as a radio show, then a popular television show that ran from 1949 to 1957, then comic books, and several cartoons and big-budget movies.
But like many things during slavery, history may have been obscured and the actual “Lone Ranger” seems to have been inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves. Reeves had been born a slave but escaped West during the Civil War where he lived in what was then known as Indian Territory. He eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse. Historians say there was a short period of time, where he rode a white horse as well. His story was not unique however.
In the 19th century, the Wild West drew enslaved Blacks with the hope of freedom and wages. When the Civil War ended, freedmen came West with the hope of a better life where the demand for skilled labor was high. These African Americans made up at least a quarter of the legendary cowboys.
Black cowboys were often expected to do more of the work and the roughest jobs compared to their white counterparts. They were typically responsible for breaking the horses and being the first ones to cross flooded streams during cattle drives. In fact, it is believed that the term “cowboy” originated as a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands.”
At war’s end, Reeves married, began raising his children and worked as a farmer as well as an occasional scout for lawmen tracking criminals. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker hired him as one of 200 Deputy Marshals in the Oklahoma Territory sent out to tame “Indian Country.”
At a time when the average man was about 5’6”, Reeves stood an tall 6’2.” He was said to possess superhuman strength but that was because he relied on home remedies he had been passed down for different ailments and was also bent on gaining better strength so he did exercises that pushed his body to the limit.
As the first black lawman west of the Mississippi, Reeves cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style.
He gave out silver dollars as a calling card.
Reeves became famous among criminals for his skills and relentless pursuit. Although shot at many times, he remained untouched by a single bullet, and because of this he was called “The Indomitable Marshal,” so tough he could “spit on a brick and bust it.”
A newspaper of his times reported, “Place a warrant for arrest in his hands and no circumstance can cause him to deviate.”
The Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal reported, “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is.”
Another newspaper reported Reeves had brought in 3,000 living felons and 20 dead. He corrected the record, saying that during his storied career he had killed 14 men in self-defense.
One story passed down through the ages was when three men he was pursuing managed to get the drop on him and ordered him off his horse. The leader approached, gloating that the “Indomitable Marshal” was about to die.
Showing no fear, Reeves calmly took out his warrants and asked the three men, “What is the date today?”
The leader of the three asked, “What difference does that make?”
Reeves explained that he’d need to put the date of the arrest on the paperwork when he took the three of them in — dead or alive, their choice.
And just as he said that, Marshall Reeves used the distraction to grab the barrel of the leader’s gun. One of the men opened fire, but Reeves drew and shot him dead. He then killed the leader by bashing his skull with his pistol. The third man was wise enough to submit to the arrest.
Just like the TV show, Reeves was also famous for his disguises. While in pursuit of two criminals, he discovered them hiding in a cabin that would be difficult to approach safely. He shot three holes in his hat, changed into tattered clothes, and hid his handcuffs in a bag.
He tied up his horse out of sight and walked up to the cabin, appearing exhausted. Reeves told a tale of harrowing escape from the custody of U.S. Marshals. The two bad guys were mesmerized as Reeves showed them the bullet-riddled hat, confirming the tale. The gullible criminals invited him to join them in their next planned robbery.
While the wanted men slept Reeves quietly handcuffed both of them, and then let them sleep through the night. In the morning he told them he’d let them sleep so they would be rested for their long ride back to the jail in Fort Smith.
Reeves retired from Federal Service after 32 years, the last and longest serving of Judge Parker’s Marshals. He took a position with the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department until his passing in 1910 of natural causes.