The story of Bass Reeves and the legend that he is the inspiration for The Lone Ranger character isn’t too far of a stretch, although largely unconfirmed. What is known is that Reeves was the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi and a bullet-dodging lawman who became larger than life.
Reeves was born into slavery in July 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. He and his family were owned by a state legislator who later moved to Grayson County, Texas. The owner’s son possibly owned Reeves, who allegedly beat up the son after a card game and escaped into the Indian Territory where he learned the languages of the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek Indian tribes.
Because of those language skills, Reeves was hired as a marshal and ordered to police the Western District of Arkansas. Prior to police work, Reeves returned to his home state to become a farmer and had 11 children with his first wife, Nellie Jennie. Reeves was later reassigned as a marshal to Paris, Texas and then again the dangerous Indian Territory.
Several attempts were made on his life and marshals often lost their lives in the territory in their fight to clamp down on criminal activity. Reeves was a legendary crime-fighter who reportedly shot dead 14 people in self-defense although some accounts believe those numbers may have been higher. By his own accounts, Reeves arrested over 3,000 people.
The Lone Ranger connection has been a persistent rumor over the years but no historical evidence of this fact exists. However, some speculate that the Lone Ranger comparison happened because of historian Art T. Burton’s claim that Reeves was the closest thing to the fictional character in Burton’s 2006 book, “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.”
Reeves remained a lawman for many years and at the age of 68, he became an officer for the Muskogee Police Department in Oklahoma, retiring due to illness at the age of 70. He passed at the age of 71 due to Bright’s Disease in 1910.
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