Friday, July 5, 2013

Who was that Masked Man?

Movie theaters seem to be replete with super heroes these days. Maybe with the onslaught of  real life villains we see pouring in on us from the airwaves, we have an instinctive wish for, not just persons of incorruptible good, but champions for right, as well. Truth is, there’re plenty of those people in the world, they’re just not bigger than the screen…nor talked about much on the news channels.

Hollywood likes to spin up these marvelous fictitious heroes, mainly because we, the buying public…well, buy into it.  And what are the attributes of these super heroes? He (or she) must be honest, trustworthy, forthright, honorable, resilient, patriotic, faithful, fearless, duty-driven, courageous, young, good-looking, fit, and, of course, invulnerable. One or more super powers can come in handy, too, but aren’t mandatory. Wit, when one lacks in overpowering ability, can serve in its place.

Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger
This summer it’s Superman and The Lone Ranger. Now, we all know about the Man of Steel. I mean, he’s like the Michael Jordon of super heroes with a dose of George Washington moral fiber thrown in. However, he’s more eastern urban than western hero, so let’s concentrate on TLR and the time-honored question, “Who was that Masked Man?”

Take a look at TLR’s hero characteristics: He was a loner; he rode with an American Indian sidekick; he concealed his identity with a black mask; he roamed “the West” bringing to justice all manner of bad guys; he had a beautiful, fast horse; he would often wear disguises to out-wit unsuspecting outlaws; he would leave a silver bullet as his calling card; he started out in Detroit.

There are those who think the tales of the Lone Ranger originated from the life of a legendary western lawman named Bass Reeves.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves worked for Judge Isaac Parker’s U.S. District Court out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas from about 1875 to 1905. Deputy marshals for the “Hanging Judge” would roam far into the rough, untamed, and lawless land called Indian Territory to arrest wrongdoers.

From its inception in 1789 the U.S. Marshals Service has lost over 200 deputies in the line of duty.
More than 120 of those were killed in Indian and Oklahoma Territories prior to Oklahoma statehood in 1907. So it’s interesting to note that during Bass Reeves’ 30 years as a lawman in one of the most dangerous areas of the old west, he received nary even a bullet wound. Several times he had his hat shot off, once a bullet ripped a button from his coat, another time a slug fired from a Colt .44 cut the reins he held while sitting astride his horse. Invulnerability? Check.

Bass Reeves, an ex-slave, belonged to a Confederate Colonel named George R. Reeves of the 11th Texas Cavalry, who brought Bass along as his personal servant on his campaigns. Some historians believe Bass fought alongside Col. (later Gen.) Stand Watie’s Cherokee soldiers at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Bass ran away from his enslavement after he and his colonel got into an altercation over a card game one night and Bass punched out his master. Fleeing into Indian Territory, he was taken in by members of the Creek Nation with whom he lived for several years.

In the back story of TLR, he was left for dead when a party of Texas Rangers, with whom he rode prior to becoming TLR, were ambushed by outlaws. But he is found by an Indian, who recognized the pre-TLR as a man who’d once saved his life, and so, nursed him back to health. Enter the famous Tonto.

Teaching a slave to read in the pre-Civil War South was considered a bad idea, so Bass was illiterate;
Bass Reeves
however, he was far from stupid. As a deputy he had to carry and serve warrants and writs for those whom he pursued. He devised astute ways to identify which writs were for which outlaw, and never arrested the wrong person, over 3,000 of them. He also got help from trusted possemen who could read. It’s believed one or two of those were Indians.

Black people in post-Civil War America were largely invisible. That is, no matter their station, no matter their accomplishments, they were ignored by the predominantly white population. Although Bass Reeves was perhaps one of the most courageous, dogged, duty-bound, and successful lawmen in terms of chasing down and bringing in bad guys, he was rarely recognized as such in news accounts. Having a black man arrest a white man, even the dirtiest of lowdown no account polecats, was highly frowned upon in “polite” society. Most times, newspaper accounts gave white deputies credit for Reeves’ arrests. Thus, his black face was his mask.

Bass would also use disguises to work his way among and arrest desperados. In one tale he put on ragged clothes, an old floppy hat, and heelless shoes then walked several miles to the home of two fugitive brothers. He looked every bit the downtrodden tramp, and told the boys’ ma he’d been running from the law, asking if he could get something to eat. She invited him in. When the brothers returned they struck up a friendship with the affable Reeves, and as the evening wore on agreed to let Bass join up with them in their ongoing outlawry, inviting him to spend the night. Once everyone was asleep, Bass slapped the brothers in cuffs, awakened them and informed them of their arrest. As he marched them off on foot back toward his distant camp, the boys’ ma followed along berating the deputy and cussing him fiercely.

Bass always had fine, fast horses. In fact, prior to his deputying days, he developed a good reputation for raising and training horses, selling many of his animals to the deputies he knew. He kept the best and fastest for himself, though. No doubt one or two were gray…or silver.

Bass didn’t use or give away silver bullets, but when he was out and about in the Territory, he would often get meals, lodging, and intel from local residents. It’s said he had a habit of leaving his hosts a silver dollar before he rode off.

As to the Detroit connection, many of the felons Reeves brought to justice were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections. Tales of the Lone Ranger began on the radio in Detroit in 1933. Maybe a tenuous connection, but it’s possible legendary stories of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves came from some of those in that Detroit jail who’d had personal dealings with that man in the black mask.

Phil Truman has authored three of what he calls, “Oklahoma-centric” novels.  Red Lands Outlaw, the Ballad of Henry Starr  a historical novel about the life and times of an Oklahoma outlaw, was a 2013 Peacemaker Award nominee and finalist for the 2013 Will Rogers Medallion for Western Fiction. His novel GAME, an American Novel is a sports inspirational about small town schoolboy football. Legends of Tsalagee weaves a tale of mystery and adventure in a small town. He has won numerous awards for his short fiction, and his western short story “Last Will for an Outlaw” appears in LaFrontera Publishing’s anthology, Dead or Alive, released June 2013.

Phil’s website is:


  1. Interesting. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for giving us the story of the "real" Lone Ranger. Great story, again demonstrating that truth is often stranger than fiction.

  3. Great blog. We just released our second historical fiction western, "Haunted Falls". It's the sequel to "The Nations". The protagonist in both novels is Bass Reeves. A true American hero.

  4. Great series of comparisons between Bass Reeves and TLR.

    Historian Art Burton once noted that, "If Reeves were fictional, he would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger."

    I'd definitely classify him as a super hero of the Old West. Thanks for a fascinating post, Phil.

  5. Ken - Thanks for the comments. Look forward to reading both your novels as Bass Reeves is my current fascination.

    Tom - Thanks. Art Burton is THE definitive authority on Bass Reeves. His book BLACK GUN, SILVER STAR has been my main resource, not only for this post, but other projects on Reeves.

  6. Bass Reeves was a very interesting person. Thanks for a great post Phil.

  7. Phil, I had heard of this before, but didn't know the connections as to why it might be possible that Bass Reeves was the model for The Lone Ranger. Very interesting post! Thanks!

  8. I always found anything I could read about Reeves fascinating. He first came across my radar about ten years ago. Your post and comparisons give a person much to think about. We may never know where our fictional legends come from, but trying to find out is where the fun begins. Doris

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  10. What a great blog post! I had NOT heard this before, so I hope one day the real story comes to film. Would be great to see that as a serious western. Thanks, Phil!

  11. Very interesting! Had no idea about this Western icon. Thanks for enlightening me.

  12. I have written two books about this amazing man's life. YOUNG BASS REEVES, which covers his life from age 12 to his entry into the Marshals service. BASS REEVES LAWMAN, which covers his times of great pursuit and arrest as the most feared lawman of his times. I am nearly finished with BASS REEVES JUSTICE, which will cover his adventures up until his death at Muskogee Oklahoma. They cover in detail the many adventures and close calls, as well as his association with Judge Parker, Pistol Pete, Bell Staff, Tom Story gang, Sam Sixkiller and many more. I feel that my description of the Battle of Pea Pea Ridge is the most complete ever written. The books are available on Kindle and Amazon.
    Fred Staff

  13. Fascinating post, Phil. I am always interested in anything to do with The Lone Ranger. I did not know about this, so thank you for this illuminating article.


  14. Nice write up Western Fictioneers and Phil Truman. Stay tune for the epic feature of: “Bass Reeves” US Deputy Marshal. In the mean time; keep telling that history:

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  15. I've been seeing this pop up around Facebook and on True West (and even on a UK website)and have discussed it a bit there, but I don't see the connection.

    Fran Striker, who did the lion's share of creating the Lone Ranger, was a frat boy from Buffalo, NY who, in his Canadian Mountie series, didn't know the difference between a Malamute and a Husky and probably never went west of the Mississippi or south of the Mason-Dixon. George Trendle was from Detroit yes, but he was a contract negotiations lawyer. I don't think he would have much contact with prisoners. I suppose it's possible that he might have heard of Reeves third hand from fellow lawyers, but tenuous is definitely the word. There are very few similarities between the fictional character and Marshal Reeves, and as is stated in the article above,

    "Black people in post-Civil War America were largely invisible. That is, no matter their station, no matter their accomplishments, they were ignored by the predominantly white population."

    I just really doubt his story would've been known to a pair of white guys like Trendle or Striker. It's more likely that, as the Wikipedia article on Striker and Trindle's Yukon adventure series Challenge Of The Yukon states -

    "Shortly before the two Trendle series aired (Lone Ranger and Challenge of the Yukon), popular author Zane Grey had a book in circulation (Lone Star Ranger) about a Texas Ranger like the Lone Ranger and a comic book series in circulation (King of the Royal Mounted) about the adventures of Sgt. King, a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman like Sgt. Preston. It could be that Trendle borrowed both ideas from Grey's work and wanted to retain the name "King" as a tribute to Grey, who died after a long illness one year following the first airing of Challenge of the Yukon."

    Reeves was an amazing personality with a storied career, and I'm not trying to belittle that at all. He does deserve wider recognition and to be idolized as the real-life hero that he was. But this spate of comparing him to the Lone Ranger feels forced and a bit opportunistic with the movie out and all. I guess whatever brings him that attention is worth it, but it just doesn't ring true for me. Of course, if concrete truth could be put forward, I wouldn't have a problem with it at all. But this feels like it's being insinuated and passed off as such, and that doesn't sit well with me.

    I don't think Bass Reeves should be forced to ride the coattails of a fictional, fantasy creation. His own considerable merits are more than enough.

  16. No apology from me. Couldn't force the venerable Bass Reeves into anything, even if that was my intent. Certainly don't have any appetite for the argument. It's just a blog post, not an academic exercise.