History Minute: Bass Reeves, the original Lone Ranger

For generations, the Lone Ranger has charged the imaginations of millions around the world with tales of western adventure and the pursuit of justice. But a number of historians now believe that the Lone Ranger was possibly based on a real person, an escaped Texas slave turned U.S. Marshal named Bass Reeves. Regardless of any possible link to the Lone Ranger stories of the twentieth century, the story of Reeves is as remarkable as any western legend.

Reeves was born in Crawford County, in Northwest Arkansas, around 1838. His family was owned by the prosperous and politically well-connected family of William Reeves, an early Arkansas legislator. While Bass Reeves was still young, the family left Arkansas for Texas. They settled near the Red River in Grayson County around 1846. George Reeves, the son of William Reeves, would grow up and serve as Grayson County Tax Collector by 1848 and county sheriff by 1850 and would play an important role in the future lawman's life.

Bass Reeves eventually became the property of the younger son and adopted the last named of Reeves, neither of which was unusual among slaves and slave-owning families at the time. When the Civil War began, his owner took Reeves with him to serve as a valet. The cavalry unit which George Reeves commanded often fought in areas of the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) as Confederate forces attempted to convince the Native American tribes of the area to side with the South.

At one point, Reeves saw his chance to escape. Several biographers suggest that an argument over a card game erupted into a huge fight between George and Bass Reeves in which Bass got the better of him and decided his days as a slave were over. He escaped, disappearing into the deep expanses of the Indian Territory. He came to live with the different Native American tribes, learning their languages and cultures and gaining their respect.

After the Civil War, Reeves became a farmer and father of ten, briefly returning to Arkansas as a free man and a landowner. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious "hanging judge," became the federal judge based in Fort Smith, overseeing the Indian Territory. Parker named James F. Fagan as U. S. Marshal and ordered him to start hiring deputies to bring law and order to the area. Fagan had heard of Reeves and his gift for language and sought him out. The appointment of Reeves as Deputy U.S. Marshal was an almost-unheard of position for an African-American at the time.

Reeves energetically took on the responsibilities of the position. He went to extraordinary lengths to capture fugitives, including using his expert tracking skills over long distances and wearing a variety of disguises. His skills as a horseman allowed him to outride virtually anyone. He routinely enlisted the help of Native Americans to help track outlaws. He became known for his sense of honor and fair treatment of victims and the accused alike. He was generous to the needy, sometimes giving them money.

In his long career, he brought more than three thousand criminals to justice. He found himself in shootouts with several suspects but was never wounded himself. Judge Parker often praised Reeves and his skills. In 1893, Reeves returned to Texas to serve as U. S. Marshal for the federal district court in Paris. He never learned to read, but he was able to memorize warrants read to him and could almost always track down suspects with his dogged determination and respect for the law. After 32 years as a federal law officer, he stepped down.

Reeves served for two more years with the Muskogee Police Department in Oklahoma before retiring in 1909 at age 70. His health in decline, he passed away in January 1910. He was widely celebrated across the West before his death and in the years afterward. Stories sprang up and expanded based on his legendary exploits, apparently inspiring the Lone Ranger stories, though other lawmen may have been responsible. The Lone Ranger first appeared on radio in 1933 in Detroit, Michigan, just a generation after his death, followed by the popular TV series that ran from 1949 to 1957 as well as several movies and comic books. Today, a statue in Fort Smith commemorates the amazing life of Reeves.

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