The True Story of How The Lone Ranger Became African American

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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.”

lone ranger

TV version of The Lone Ranger, with masked man, Tonto, and 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”:

  1. The Lone Ranger wore a mask. Burton claims Reeves sometimes used disguise to track fugitives. (No source provided.)
  2. The Lone Ranger had Tonto as his partner. Burton says that when in unknown territory, Reeves often hired an Indian as a guide.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
lone_ranger_blue

Recent film version of The Lone Ranger

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.

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Early Western actor Tom Mix

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.dime novel

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.dime novel2

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.

The Craziest Meal I Never Had

dinner party

Not long ago, I was goofing around on YouTube, and I landed on an interview with a particular musician.  One of the interview questions was: “If you could have dinner with any three people, who would you invite?”

I think the interviewer was a high school student (probably on assignment for the school paper).  My first reaction was This is cute, but silly.”  Then I thought about it. Second thought, that’s a pretty good question.  It’s a fun way to identify a person’s root influences, especially if the interview subject decides to elaborate.  But I was a little shocked at one of the musician’s choices for dinner guest.

His first choice was John Lennon.  OK, I can agree.  Songwriting genius, witty, well-informed, candid, gift of gab.  If Lennon was my guest, I could easily see us (once I stopped trembling) enjoying our marshmallow pie while trading views on Brexit and sarcastic jibes about Sir Paul.

His second choice was someone I know nothing about.  But the third choice had me scratching my head: Miles Davis.

For those unfamiliar, Miles Davis was a legendary jazz trumpeter.  He was a gifted composer and improviser who broke musical barriers and influenced a generation of jazz musicians.  But despite being the king of “cool jazz,” he was reputedly as unpredictable as a white cop with a hemorrhoid.

Why would you invite a ticking time bomb to a dinner party, an occasion that’s supposed to be about relaxation and light repartee?  I can envision the exchange:

“Mr. Davis, I’m a big fan of yours.  In fact, Kind of Blue is my all-time favorite album.”

Then the sound of soup being slurped, with a few droplets splattered onto Davis’s oversized sunglasses. Followed by a string of raspy, mumbled curse words.

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Herman Melville

I mean, come on.  He’s a superb musician, yes, but isn’t this a waste of a dinner choice?  Then, of course, I thought about whom yours truly would invite.  And I have to admit: one of my choices would make Miles Davis look like Martha Stewart.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick and other heavy shit).  He’s my favorite writer.  I’d love to probe Melville’s oceanic mind about the whiteness of the whale and Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsessions.  Maybe I could conveniently work into the conversation Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’d also invite Billy the Kid.  Even though he was a cold-blooded killer, the Kid was also a party animal with a great sense of humor.  He loved a good game of faro, and had an eye for the ladies.  And there’s only one authenticated photograph of him, so I’d like to see if he’s as buck-toothed and scatterbrained as he looks in the photo.

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Billy the Kid

But my third choice might send Herman and the Kid scurrying toward the door long before dessert is served: Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (aka Tasunke Witko) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and helped fertilize the Montana hills with the bodies of Custer and the 7th Cavalry.  He was one of the last Plains Indians to surrender to the U.S. Army, and only did so because his people were starving.  Very spiritual, he experienced visions, and refused to allow his photograph to be taken.  He died in 1877, bayoneted in the back while being led to an army jail on a trumped-up charge.

Crazy Horse, for me, was a person of great integrity.  After all, he died for his people’s survival.  And since no one knows what he looked like, our dinner together would give me the opportunity to stare at him a lot.  Does he look like Rafael Nadal?  Or more like Ed Ames?  I can almost guarantee whom he doesn’t look like: smiling Chief Wahoo, the controversial cartoon mascot for the Cleveland Indians.

But how would our conversation go?  Assuming he understands and speaks English – and Herman and the Kid approve of his presence at the table – it would probably be very stilted.

So while my ever-tolerant wife serves the cocktails… whiskey for the Kid, rum for Herman, cold spring water for Crazy Horse, and Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir ale for me… I begin to live out a longtime fantasy:

“Mr. Horse… I mean Mr. Witko… uh, sir… it’s truly an honor to sit with you.”

Silence.

“I don’t have any Indian pipe tobacco, but maybe after dinner we could dip into my humidor.  I think I still have a couple Cohibas from my excursion to Nogales a few years ago.”

More silence, as he gulps his water from a bison-hide flask.

“Ya know, I’ve heard that you have visions.  That’s really cool.  I don’t have any pharmaceuticals on hand, but my son lives in Colorado, and he might be able to parcel post a special package – ha-ha, if you know what I mean – for our next get-together.”

He glares at me, expressionless, without responding.  I feel a drop of perspiration roll from my armpit.

“Sir, I know you don’t like having your picture taken.  But my squaw has this gadget called an I-phone, and if I take your photo and you don’t like it, I can immediately delete it.”

He turns his head and gazes out the window at our autumn blaze maple.

Maple Tree

Autumn blaze maple tree (Acer rubrum)

Desperate for some assistance, I glance toward the Kid.  But his face is bright red, and his shoulders are shaking, as if he’s stifling laughter – and doing a poor job of stifling.

Then I pivot in my chair and glance toward Herman.  But Herman’s sitting erect, stroking his massive beard, and he appears buried in deep thought.

So before Herman has a chance to excuse himself to return to his kerosene lamp and his notes for “Billy Budd,” and before the Kid embarrasses me by doubling up with laughter and accidentally firing his Colt single-action revolver, I decide to divert attention from Crazy Horse.

“Hey, guys,” I carefully and surreptitiously maneuver.  “Whaddaya say we head into the den to check out my baseball card collection?”

But I quickly decide that this, too, is a bad idea.  I never imagined that entertaining my heroes for dinner could be so stressful.

“Honey, could you bring us another round of drinks… please??”

black hills

The Black Hills, South Dakota, where Crazy Horse lived and is (supposedly) buried