Police History: Was U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves the real Lone Ranger?
The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves rode a big gray horse, wore a black hat, and gave out silver dollars as a calling card
Some say U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves was the inspiration for “The Lone Ranger.” If he was, you might say he lived a life more dangerous and interesting than the legend that rose from it.
In 1838, Bass Reeves began life as a slave in Crawford County, Arkansas. During the Civil War he accompanied his master — Colonel George Reeves — as the Colonel joined the Confederate Army. After hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Bass proclaimed himself to be a free man and escaped.
His flight landed him in Oklahoma Territory, where he was embraced immediately by the Cherokee. It was here that he learned to ride, track, shoot, and speak five Native American languages fluently — all skills that would serve him well.
Bass Reeves, Deputy Marshal
At war’s end, Reeves married, began raising his children and worked as a farmer as well as an occasional scout for lawmen tracking criminals. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker hired him as one of 200 Deputy Marshals in the Oklahoma Territory sent out to tame “Indian Country.”
At a time when the average man was about 5’6”, Reeves was a towering 6’2.” He was broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hips, and said to possess superhuman strength. The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, Reeves cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style.
He gave out silver dollars as a calling card.
The “Indomitable Marshal”
Reeves became famous among criminals for his skills and relentless pursuit. Although shot at many times, he remained untouched by a single bullet, and because of this he was called “The Indomitable Marshal,” so tough he could “spit on a brick and bust it.”
A newspaper of his times reported, “Place a warrant for arrest in his hands and no circumstance can cause him to deviate.”
The Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal reported, “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is.”
This was never truer than the case where three men he was pursuing managed to get the drop on him and ordered him off his horse. The leader approached, gloating that the “Indomitable Marshal” was about to die.
Showing no fear, Reeves calmly took out his warrants and asked the three men, “What is the date today?”
The puzzled leader asked, “What difference does that make?”
Reeves explained that he’d need to put the date of the arrest on the paperwork when he took the three of them in — dead or alive, their choice.
The three men laughed at the absurdity of the thought, and Marshal Reeves used the distraction to grab the barrel of the leader’s gun. One of the men opened fire, but Reeves drew and shot him dead. He then killed the leader by bashing his skull with his pistol.
The third man wisely submitted to the arrest.
A Lawman Until Death
Reeves was also famous for his cunning disguises. While in pursuit of two criminals he discovered them hiding in a cabin that would be difficult to approach safely. He shot three holes in his hat, changed into tattered clothes, and hid his handcuffs in a bag.
He tied up his horse out of sight and walked up to the cabin, appearing exhausted. Reeves told a tale of harrowing escape from the custody of U.S. Marshals. The two bad guys were mesmerized as Reeves showed them the bullet-riddled hat, confirming the tale. The gullible criminals invited him to join them in their next planned robbery.
While the wanted men slept Reeves quietly handcuffed both of them, and then let them sleep through the night. In the morning he told them he’d let them sleep so they would be rested for their long ride back to the jail in Fort Smith.
In the twilight of his career, a newspaper reported Reeves had brought in 3,000 living felons and 20 dead. He corrected the record, saying that during his storied career he had killed 14 men in self-defense.
Reeves retired from Federal Service after 32 years, the last and longest serving of Judge Parker’s Marshals. He took a position with the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department until his passing in 1910 of natural causes.
The lengthy and glowing obituary for this universally respected former slave turned U.S. Deputy Marshal described him as “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.”
It almost doesn’t matter if Reeves was the basis for the Lone Ranger character — Reeves was clearly a lawman of the highest order. As you set out on your next patrol shift, perhaps you’ll have in the back of your mind that righteous call of the Lone Ranger: “Hi, yo, Silver! Away!”