If you grew up in the 1950’s, you knew who it was, or at least you knew it was the Lone Ranger, if not his actual name. He and his faithful sidekick Tonto tracked down the bad guys in the Old West and they always got their man! The Lone Ranger was known for riding his white stallion named Silver and for his silver bullets.
That was just the television show. It was predated by a 1933 radio show and before that, there was the book written by Zane Gray in 1915 titled “The Lone Star Ranger.” Generations of kids grew up idolizing that bastion of law and order and everyone knew that Kemo Sahbee was a term that reflected the best in a human being.
So you might be surprised to know that the real Lone Ranger was a black man by the name of Bass Reeves. His life was the basis for the legend of the Lone Ranger. While history has overlooked the fact of his race, there have been a few books written about the man and his times. One of them, penned by Vaunda Michaux Nelson, titled Bad News For Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Award for best author. Another book by Arthur Burton, Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves was published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Reeves was born into slavery in 1838. He was brought along by his master as a personal servant when the slave owner went to fight with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After losing to Reeves at a game of cards, the slave owner attacked Reeves and Reeves beat the guy to a pulp. Some say he killed him. After doing so, Reeves knew he had to escape or face death for the beating he administered to his “master.” He fled to the Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma, and lived among the Seminole and Creek Nations.
After the conclusion of the Civil War, Reeves went on to father ten children and made his living as the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshall in Arkansas and the Indian Territory. According to the Burton account, this is where the Lone Ranger story originated.
Reeves was known as a “master of disguises” (there’s that mask!) and although he didn’t garb himself in a mask and a white riding outfit, he did use disguises to track down and apprehend wanted criminals. Much like the undercover cops of today, he dressed and adopted the mannerisms of the people he was looking for so that he could infiltrate the groups and locations where they hung out.
Like the Lone Ranger, Reeves rode a white horse and was a crack shot. Legend has it that shooting competitions banned him because he was just too good! He didn’t shoot silver bullets, but he did hand out silver coins as a way to trademark himself as well as to ingratiate himself to people where he was searching for criminals. So when the “Lone Ranger” came to town, the people knew that he would get his man, the town would be made safer and somebody would be the lucky recipient of a valuable silver coin. His frequent traveling companion was a Native American posse man and tracker, and together the two apprehended almost 3,000 bad guys. Since a large number of those apprehended were sent to the federal prison in Detroit, it isn’t surprising that WXYZ in Detroit is where the first radio program originated in 1933, where Bass Reeves, the “Lone Ranger,” had gained fame just a couple of years earlier. Neither is it surprising that the minor detail of his being African-American was conveniently left out of the story. So now you know. Hi ho Silver and away!