BLACK HISTORY (6)—BASS REEVES—LONE RANGER??
Amazingly, it was the 1st Black Deputy U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi–BASS REEVES (1838-1910) — who tamed the Wild West, not Wyatt Earp (the most famous White lawman of all). This discussion, written by Sharon Bingaman, concerns the creative genius of Reeves, who brought in a new concept of capturing outlaws, using subterfuge (disguises) so as to avoid shootouts and otherwise needless violence. Born to an Enslaved woman and a free Black father, Bass worked in the fields as a youngster. When he got older he carried water buckets for the Enslaved in the fields and then, as he was noted to have a talent with horses, he was taken from the fields to be a helper to the blacksmith. He was developing some fine muscles with the work, was more than 6 feet tall and his hands were said to be so big that he could pick up a melon with one hand. Bass had such a sharp mind and was so good in his work that he was made companion to his enslaver. This allowed Bass to go everywhere with his enslaver and to hear and see things so new to him. He was in the presence of a lot of White people and he listened and watched as they spoke. He increased his vocabulary, learned the meaning of words and found he had a skill for memorizing. He asked his enslaver if he could learn to read some of the books available, but his enslaver angrily refused, realizing that you could not keep a man a Slave if he had education. His enslaver, however, did not mind Bass becoming very skilled with the gun and that skill gave Bass a real sense of self-confidence. And more and more his thoughts turned to his freedom.
Secretly, he became more involved with abolitionists (those who were against Slavery) and as he traveled all over with his enslaver he was able to pass along important information, such as local conditions and people who could help those planning to escape. One night he was brought home beaten and bloodied by the “paterollers” (heavily armed White men formed to regulate conduct of the Enslaved). His life had been spared only because of his enslaver. This then set in motion a situation between Bass and his enslaver that no one is sure about but Bass did escape into Indian Territory. After escaping he lived with the Indians and learned to speak a number of the languages, among them Creek. From the Indians he would learn how to read the signs of Nature for tracking and stalking which would prove very valuable later for him. While living with the Indians, he participated in the war over Indian territories, as the Indians had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. They were being cheated out of their native homes and pushed into smaller and smaller territories. But, of course, when all was over, the federal government was in charge.
Bass found that after the Civil War he was able to purchase land to settle down with his intended bride. He had also, by some means, been able to keep in touch with his mother and siblings and brought them to live with his new family. However, the situation in the Indian Territories was very dangerous and the government needed a law man who had the qualities the Indians prized–such as honesty, courage and honor and Bass fit the bill. In addition, his scouting and tracking abilities made him perfect for the job. Bass and his wife, Jinny, knew each other well and just as Bass knew Jinny would be worried for his safety, Jinny knew that Bass was restless–plus she knew he could do the job of making the territory a safer place to live. So, he took the job as 1st Black Deputy Marshal. It was 1875 and some thought, “Was a time, many knew, when the thought of a Black man walking around carrying a gun, much less arresting people was unheard of.”
A problem of Bass Reeves’ was an inability to read or write. But he didn’t let that get in the way of not being able to read or serve warrants. He had the court clerk read them to him and he memorized them. Out in the territory he had the suspects read them and if they couldn’t read, he relied on friends to do it. The record shows that Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves served several thousand warrants and never served the wrong person. And we know that his skill with guns and rifles was legendary, as one story goes that Bass allegedly could shoot the hind leg off of a fly sitting on a mule’s ear and never disturb the mule. The tools of his job were a good strong horse, guns and the use of the disguise. Bass knew that most people did not expect a Black man to be a Deputy and so he used the invisibility of the Black man at the time to work in his favor.
At other times he might pose as a drifter, a cowboy, outlaw or farmer. Along with his ability to use disguises, Bass also used the help of Indians he had made friends with when he first came to the territory because they knew he was a man of honesty and true to his word. Bass Reeves’s career as a Deputy Marshall lasted 32 years. He retired as Deputy Marshall and took a job as a municipal police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma for 2 years before his health forced him to retire again. When he retired from the police force, it was said there wasn’t even a minor law infraction on his beat. In that time he did his best to uphold the law, never shot at a person unless they shot first, and kept his word. At his death a newspaper article described him as “a unique character and absolutely fearless.” Bass Reeves had his own sense of self, was not afraid to strike out into unknown territories, and used his wit, imagination and creativity to get a job done.
Let’s just stay with Bass Reeves and think about him. Detective skills, super strength and supreme horsemanship – does that sound familiar? –leaving a silver dollar when he left and, at times, having an Indian scout as a side kick? As one historian put it–Reeves could have been the real-life inspiration behind one of America’s most beloved fictional characters — the Lone Ranger. Historian Burton points to similarities–such as their gray horses, penchant for disguises, use of American Indian trackers, and unusual calling cards–Reeves gave folks a silver dollar to remember him by, while the Lone Ranger left silver bullets. As for the iconic black mask, the link is more symbolic. “Blacks at that time wore an invisible mask in a world that largely ignored them–so in that societal sense, Reeves also wore a mask,” said Burton, a lecturer at South Suburban College in Illinois. “When the Lone Ranger first started appearing in comic books he wore a black mask that covered his entire face. Why would they do that? Then there’s the Detroit link.
Many of the thousands of criminals captured by Reeves were sent to the House of Corrections in Detroit–the same city where the Lone Ranger character was created by George Trendle and Fran Striker. “It’s not beyond belief that all those felons were talking about a Black man who had these attributes and the stories got out,” said Burton. “I haven’t been able to prove conclusively that Reeves was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, but he was the closest person in real life who had these characteristics. “Many of Reeves’ personal attributes and techniques in catching desperadoes were similar to the Lone Ranger but because he was a Black man his story has been buried. He never got the recognition he deserved.” He died in 1910, at the impressive age of 71, just as segregation laws were starting to take effect in his home state. Historian Burton says “even today, nobody knows where Reeves is buried — I like to tell people he’s still in disguise.” jabaileymd.com