It’s past time to set the record straight.
Bass Reeves, the legendary lawman who was the first black man to serve as a U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, is not nor ever has been the inspiration for the fictional hero of yesteryear known as The Lone Ranger.
That urban legend is believed to have started in 2006 when it was speculated by author Art. T. Burton in his biography entitled “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves” that the real lawman was the inspiration for the fictional one. In his book, Burton notes the similarities between the two: the use of disguises, a Native American sidekick, riding a white horse, giving out keepsakes made of silver, and having superior marksmanship and horsemanship skills.
That, however, is where fact and fiction part ways. Had Burton done his due diligence and actually researched the creation of The Lone Ranger, he may never would have made his phony assertion. Nor would the likes of The History Channel, True West Magazine, Time, CNN, Fox News, Bill O’ Reilly, and hundreds of websites and bloggers blindly followed his lead and spread his misinformation. There is even a display about it at the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg.
Today, this urban legend has spread to mythical proportions. You cannot do a Google search for The Lone Ranger without coming across numerous references to Bass Reeves, which usually come up after links to the disastrous 2013 Disney movie and the popular television show from the 1950s.
I know this because I am not only a Lone Ranger fan; I’m also the founder and former owner of the Lone Ranger Fan Club and an amateur Lone Ranger scholar. I have done a lot of research and written countless articles about the masked man and I can tell you for fact that there never was any mention or even hint of speculation prior to 2006 that the fictional character was inspired by Reeves or any other person who ever lived. The true story of how The Lone Ranger came to be is much more convoluted and entertaining than someone drawing inspiration from a long-dead cowboy with a badge.
For my information I refer to two books which I consider to be the bibles of Lone Ranger lore. The first is “Who Was That Masked Man?” by David Rothel, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2008. The other is “From Out of the Past: A Pictorial History of The Lone Ranger” by the late Dave Holland. Both authors go into great detail about how the character was created. In Rothel’s case, he personally interviewed some of the people who share credit for making the masked man.
You see, The Lone Ranger evolved through a process of contributions by several people working simultaneously in different states. The story becomes convoluted because each co-author told varying versions of the story, each taking more credit than they probably deserved. Fortunately, Rothel and Holland have been able piece together reasonable accounts of how The Lone Ranger came to be.
The whole thing started in late 1932 after George W. Trendle, owner of WXYZ radio station in Detroit, broke away from the CBS network and needed programing for his now independent network of radio stations. To create that programing he put his staff to work. Among his directives for one of the programs were three “givens.”
The first was that the program was going to be a drama, because they were inexpensive. The second was that it would be a children’s program because children were less critical and very persuasive when it comes to coaxing parents to buy sponsors’ goods. The third is it would be a Western.
In one of the first staff brainstorming sessions, Trendle said he wanted the new hero to be modeled after Robin Hood and Zorro. The staff liked the idea of a Zorro-like mask and the benevolent outlaw approach to the character.
“I see him as sort of a lone operator. He could even be a former Texas Ranger,” Trendle said. (Note: Reeves was a U.S. Marshal.)
Program director James Jewel, who was in that first meeting and is credited with coming up with some of the finer details of the character, said it was studio manager Harold True who came up with the name after it was pointed out that “The Lone Star Ranger” couldn’t be used because Zane Grey had already used it in a book. That led True to shorten it to The Lone Ranger.
Trendle felt it was important that the character ride a magnificent horse, like all the other Western heroes of the time.
On Dec. 28, 1932, Jewel wrote a letter to Fran Striker, a writer who lived in Buffalo, N.Y., with a bunch of the basic concepts for the character. Striker cobbled them together and re-worked scripts from other Westerns he had written and came up with the first few Lone Ranger radio scripts. Some of the details were augmented by Jewel during rehearsals.
A few stories into the program it was determined that the masked man needed a companion to talk to in order to move the stories along. Otherwise he would have to talk to himself or his horse or there would be long breaks in the action for lengthy narration. That led to Tonto becoming part of the Lone Ranger legend.
Of course, the books by Rothel and Holland give a much better telling of the story and the tale is much more complex than I have reported here. The point is that The Lone Ranger arose out of the collaborative efforts of several people over a period of time. There were many contributors and detractors along the way. Other than the influence of the fictional Robin Hood and Zorro, there is no evidence of The Lone Ranger being inspired by any one person, including Bass Reeves.
Another excellent source to help back my claim is the self-published eBook by Martin Grams Jr. called “The Lone Ranger and Bass Reeves: Debunking the Myth.”
“Even Time Magazine printed a retraction when they discovered through my eBook a year ago that the Bass Reeves connection was a myth and the man that started it confessed he never had anything to back it up,” Grams told me last week in a conversation on Facebook.
So there you have it. This takes nothing away from Bass Reeves, who was a great man in his own right and deserves better than to have his legacy tainted by fiction. I bring this up not be racist or to take anything away from the accomplishments of a great lawman. I do this to set the record straight and to separate fact from fiction and truth from speculation.
On that note, I will quietly exit the scene with a hearty, hi-yo Silver, away!