Could this man be the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger? The evidence isn’t conclusive. Regardless of the answer, Bass Reeves deserves our admiration.
How did Bass Reeves go from slave to American icon? His incredible story sounds more like a movie than real life:
In 1838—nearly a century before the Lone Ranger was introduced to the public—Bass Reeves was born a slave in the Arkansas household of William S. Reeves, who relocated to Paris, Texas, in 1846. It was in Texas, during the Civil War, that William made Bass accompany his son, George Reeves, to fight for the Confederacy.
While serving George, Bass escaped to Indian Territory under the cover of the night. Indian Territory, known today as Oklahoma, was a region ruled by five Native American tribes—Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw—who were forced from their homelands due to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. While the community was governed through a system of tribal courts, the courts’ jurisdiction only extended to members of the five major tribes. That meant anyone who wasn’t part of those tribes—from escaped slaves to petty criminals—could only be pursued on a federal level within its boundaries. It was against the backdrop of the lawless Old West that Bass would earn his formidable reputation.
Upon arriving in the Indian Territory, Bass learned the landscape and the customs of the Seminole and Creek tribes, even learning to speak their languages. After the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, abolishing slavery, Bass, now formally a free man, returned to Arkansas, where he married and went on to have 11 children.
After a decade of freedom, Bass returned to the Indian Territory when U.S. Marshal James Fagan recruited him to help rein in the criminals that plagued the land. Fagan, under the direction of federal judge Isaac C. Parker, brought in 200 deputy marshals to calm the growing chaos throughout the West. The deputy marshals were tasked with bringing in the countless thieves, murderers and fugitives who had overrun the expansive 75,000-square-mile territory. Able local shooters and trackers were sought out for the position, and Bass was one of the few African-Americans recruited.
Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, with proficient shooting skills from his time in the Civil War and his knowledge of the terrain and language, Bass was the perfect man for the challenge. Upon taking the job, he became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi.
His skill with a gun was unparalleled. His doggedness in hunting down outlaws was astonishing. But what really made him a hero was his commitment to the rule of law and his unblemished integrity.
Bass was fiercely dedicated to his position. Widely considered impossible to pay off or shake up, Bass demonstrated a moral compass that could put even Superman to shame. He even went so far as to arrest his own son, Bennie, for murdering his wife. In Bass’ obituary in the January 18, 1910, edition of The Daily Ardmoreite, it was reported that Bass had overheard a marshal suggesting that another deputy take on the case. Bass stepped in, quietly saying, “Give me the writ.” He arrested his son, who was sentenced to life in prison.
Over the course of his career, Bass Reeves brought over 3,000 criminals to justice. Though the confrontations often involved shootouts, he never sustained a single gun wound. Not only that, he managed to apprehend all but fourteen of the wanted men alive.