Standing in a co-worker’s office recently, the following conversation took place:
Co-worker: “I’ve noticed that photo of Martin Luther King that you use as your Skype identifier. I’m assuming you admire him?”
Me: “I do.”
Co-worker: “Ever hear of the black lawman Bass Reeves? I read about him in my NRA magazine.”
(I’m not sure how Bass Reeves relates to Martin Luther King, Jr., other than both men were black. I’m also not sure why he specified his NRA magazine, other than he knows I despise that gun organization. But I immediately thought “There’s some psychology going on here.” Regardless…)
Me: “No, never heard of him.”
Co-worker: “He was a former slave who became a lawman in Oklahoma. Arrested his own son. He’s also the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.”
Me: “Really! Well, hi-yo Silver.”
My co-worker then pulled up a Wikipedia bio of Reeves and read aloud from it. I returned to my cubicle. Work being non-existent, I did my own research on Bass Reeves (1838-1910). It took me all of ten minutes of internet clicking to get the lowdown.
In 2006, a professor and historian named Art T. Burton published a biography of Reeves entitled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (Race and Ethnicity in the American West) (University of Nebraska Press). In his book, Burton cited a 1997 book by John W. Ravage that asks the question “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?” Burton wrote that, although Ravage’s claim cannot be “conclusively” proven, Reeves “is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” (Burton, p. 14).
Burton made five “suggestions” in his book’s first chapter to back up his claim that Reeves is “the closest real person”:
- The Lone Ranger wore a mask. Burton claims Reeves sometimes used disguise to track fugitives. (No source provided.)
- The Lone Ranger had Tonto as his partner. Burton says that when in unknown territory, Reeves often hired an Indian as a guide.
- The Lone Ranger always left a silver bullet as a calling card. Burton says that while tracking the Dalton Gang, Reeves paid for a meal, and tracking help, with two silver dollars. (Source: family lore.)
- The Lone Ranger rode a white horse (“Silver”). Burton says that Reeves—at one time—rode a grey horse, which “can look anywhere from near black to near white” (Burton, p. 13).
- The Lone Ranger story began on Detroit radio in 1933. Burton says that many of the fugitives captured by Reeves were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections.
Since his book came out, some people have taken Burton to task for questionable research and nuanced writing. The nuance arises from the fact that Burton doesn’t outright say Reeves is the prototype, just that the two strongly resemble each other; but his implication is apparent, especially when taken in conjunction with his use of the Ravage quote. One who delved into this implication is an award-winning radio and television historian named Martin Grams, Jr., who did his own research for a 2018 publication, “Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth.”
Regarding the first two of Burton’s suggestions—and assuming they’re true—Grams notes that Reeves would not have been unusual among frontier lawmen in concealing his identity while hunting fugitives. Nor was he unusual in employing Indian scouts; both lawmen and the U.S. Army did this. And one doesn’t have to be Judge Judy to see how tenuous Burton’s last three suggestions of resemblance are.
But the most damning argument against Burton’s implication are typewritten letters Grams uncovered from 1932-33 by Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting Corporation, the company that created The Lone Ranger for radio. These letters specifically mention fictional character Zorro and cowboy movie star Tom Mix as sources for The Lone Ranger.
There is no mention of Bass Reeves in these letters. Would radio writers and executives have even known about Reeves, considering that in the 1930s most black cowboys and lawmen were barely footnotes?
Here’s the real problem, though: if Burton’s book had sold copies like my blubber book had, his cavalier conjectures would have been lost in the ether. But unlike my book and Ravage’s pre-internet book, Burton’s was read and discussed by a lot of people. Soon, like a prairie brush fire, a myth spread that The Lone Ranger was modeled on an African American, exploding on blogs, consumer book reviews, reference sites like Wikipedia, and magazines…including certain publications by certain lobbyist groups (see above). Burton even managed to sell his implication to the highly regarded Old West magazine True West.
Compounding the problem of an unsubstantiated rumor “going viral,” many readers of Burton’s (carefully chosen and suggestive) words lack the discernment to separate conjecture from fact. Still others, anxious to further a cause, set aside any doubts and enthusiastically embraced a kernal of wild speculation, turning a fiction into their own fact and proceeding to sound the trumpets.
For many years when I was younger, there was a myth that television character Wally Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) was played by glam rock star Alice Cooper. That myth was silly, but fun (except perhaps to actor Tony Dow, who actually played Wally Cleaver). This myth is more sinister, because it pushes American history closer to dime novel territory.
As Grams writes, “Historians are expected to present only the facts to avoid spawning rumors, misconceptions and myths that ultimately take decades to debunk.” Mr. Burton violated his responsibility as a historian by deviating from fact and making a reckless speculation. In many people’s minds, now, The Lone Ranger was modeled on a black man. A probable fiction.
This story interests me because it not only deals with U.S. history, but also ties together many disturbing social trends: the prevalence of fake news, political (in)correctness, racial emotionalism, historical revisionism, the power of social media in fueling myth, and an increasing lack of critical analysis by readers, listeners, and viewers. My co-worker seems like a smart guy, despite being an NRA member, so he should have been more careful.
Most historians and academics are trained to use reliable and objective sources that can be verified. Their peers expect this and will go to great lengths to verify truth is being disseminated (or as close to truth as is possible). I would have never been able to sell my blubber book to an academic press had I not done the nitty-gritty and been conscientious of reliable bibliography and footnotes. And a good editor would have bled red over any conjectural passages.
It’s an unfortunate fact that American history has been horribly skewed (to put it mildly) against ethnic minorities: blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and—without a doubt—native Americans, who not only had to deal with U.S. government-sponsored ethnic cleansing, but John Wayne movies as well. But if we don’t adhere to truth, we’re a boat without a rudder, careening from one rocky shore to the next.
Bass Reeves is a fascinating historical figure; a black law officer in the American West who defied stereotype, and who deserves to be known by more people. His story is interesting enough without being embellished by a well-meaning but overzealous historian with socio-political concerns.
Postscript: later in the day, I presented this information to my co-worker. With a straight face he said “Well, if they based The Lone Ranger on Tom Mix, and since Tom Mix lived out west while Reeves was still alive, Mix may have known Reeves, and he might have told those radio guys about Reeves, who then created The Lone Ranger partly based on Reeves.”
I returned to my cubicle.