Was the real Lone Ranger African American? Most likely, yes – and his name was Bass Reeves.
Bass Reeves was born into slavery in 1838 in Arkansas but later became one of the most successful and respected lawmen in the American West. This real-life Lone Ranger was a skilled gunslinger with integrity and ingenuity that outmatched criminals and other lawmen alike. The man was an imposing presence on the landscape. He stood over six feet tall and 200 pounds, and he wore a large hat.
Reeves became a legendary character in the Indian Territory – feared by criminals and revered by locals. He set the foundation for the masked man of Western popular culture fame.
Maybe "sidekick" isn't the best word to describe him, but the Native American deputy marshal Grant Johnson was a colleague and a friend to Bass Reeves. Johnson was a free Creek Indian who, like Reeves, was hired because he knew the land and the languages needed to traverse Indian Territory.
The two men often worked together and were known for their successful arrest records. They may have given rise to the Lone Ranger and Tonto legend.
Over the course of his 32-year career in law enforcement, Bass Reeves was supposed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He was known to be fearless, walking right up to some of the men he was after and telling them "I've come to arrest you." It was also common for Reeves to bring in more than one criminal at a time, including a group of 17 on one occasion, using trickery if necessary.
His letter trick was a common ruse for Reeves, one he used when he was kidnaped by two Texan criminals. The Texans tired of keeping Reeves with them and gave him a chance to relate his final words before they killed him. Reeves told them he had a letter from his wife that they should read, and, after they dropped their eyes to read it, he pulled his gun on them and arrested them.
Exactly how Bass Reeves was able to free himself from being a slave is unclear, but at some point during the Civil War, he was able to flee to Indian Territory. In one version of the story, Reeves accompanied George Reeves, his master's son, to Texas where George fought for the Confederacy.
At some point, George and Bass may have gotten into a dispute over a card game, one that led to Bass beating George up and fleeing. In another telling, Bass simply saw freedom as a possibility and fled when he had the chance.
While out on patrol in April 1884, Bass Reeves shot his cook, William Leach, in the shoulder. Leach later died from his wounds, but, after an inquest, no charges were brought against Reeves. In 1886, a new US Attorney revisited the case and charged Reeves with murder.
Perhaps as a result of a racially and politically motivated arrest, Reeves was held in jail for three months before going to trial. Some witnesses at Reeves's trial stated that Leach and Reeves had been fighting over a dog while others testified that it was an accident, and his gun misfired. The media surrounding the trial was intense, and Reeves had to sell his house to pay for his defense. He was acquitted, but his reputation suffered for years after the trial.