Was the Lone Ranger Black?

Was the Lone Ranger Black?

By Christian Wallace


The story begins in 1884, on a stormy day in June. Two men on horseback are traveling through the Chickasaw Nation, in what is today southern Oklahoma, moving southwest among the timbered hills and rocky outcrops of the Arbuckle Mountains.

Mud-splattered and road-weary, the riders have covered nearly two hundred miles in the days since they set out from the federal courthouse in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A windstorm the day before had kicked up dust so thick that folks in a nearby town along the Red River claimed it was impossible to see farther than twenty yards. Now a light rain has settled in the area. Lightning splinters the sky. But as the men pass beneath a thick canopy of blackjack and post oak, the weather hardly matters. The riders are on a mission. Tucked inside one of their saddlebags is a warrant for the arrest of a Texas cowboy wanted for murder. Tasked with serving that writ is Bass Reeves.

Astride his big red stallion, with two Colt revolvers on his belt and a Winchester rifle in a scabbard by his side, Reeves is one of the most imposing figures on this rough frontier. At six foot two in his stockings, he’s taller than most men of his era and would tower half a foot over Billy the Kid. He wears a black hat and keeps his hair cropped tight, and his face is clean-shaven save for a thick, bristly mustache that could do double duty as a chimney brush. Fistfights have left a latticework of scar tissue across his knuckles. Pinned on the left side of his vest, just above his heart, is the silver star of the U.S. Marshals Service. He is one of the first Black men to wear the badge.

Reeves is just shy of his forty-sixth birthday and has worked as a deputy marshal in the Indian Territory for nine years. He knows this sprawling territory, as he likes to say, “like a cook knows her kitchen.” As he and his posseman, John Cantrell, draw nearer to their destination—Jim Bywater’s general store, near the town of Woodford—Reeves slows the pace. With luck, this is where they’ll find their man.

The fugitive, Jim Webb, is no stranger to Reeves. The year before, Webb had drifted north from Texas to the Chickasaw Nation, where he’d found work as foreman of the sprawling Washington-McLish ranch. Webb was hotheaded and mean, a tyrant who rode herd over some 45 cowboys. One day that spring, a reverend named William Steward was performing a controlled burn on his property when the fire accidentally spread to the neighboring Washington-McLish ranch and scorched some of its grazing pastures. A fuming Webb rode over to confront the circuit preacher and left having murdered him.

A few days after the killing, Reeves and a posseman arrived at the Washington-McLish ranch disguised as trail-driving cowboys. As was custom at the time, they asked for breakfast, and Webb allowed the men to come inside and eat. But the foreman was suspicious of the strangers; Webb and his right-hand man, Frank Smith, drew their sidearms and kept a close eye on them. Reeves kept up the charade until, for a moment, something else caught Webb’s attention. Reeves sprang up, gripped Webb by the throat with one hand, and pulled his six-shooter on him with the other. Smith wheeled around and fired two shots at Reeves. Both went wide. Reeves answered with a single report from his Colt. He did not miss. Webb gurgled a surrender, while his gut-shot compatriot bled on the floor. Webb was put in irons, and the men started the long trip back to the Fort Smith jail, known as “Hell on the Border.” Smith died of his wounds by the time the posse reached the Chickasaw capitol of Tishomingo. His bones lie there still.

Webb spent most of the next year behind bars before two of his pals, including the store owner Bywater, helped him post bail on a $17,000 bond. Webb was long gone by the time his trial began, and the bond money—nearly half a million in today’s dollars—was forfeited.

Bass Reeves statue

Now Reeves is once again hot on his trail. When the deputy marshal spots Bywater’s store in a clearing, he sends his posseman ahead to look for their quarry. Cantrell sneaks up and peers through a window. There, among the dry goods and horse tack, is Webb. Cantrell motions to Reeves, but as the deputy marshal approaches on his horse, Webb catches sight of him and makes a dash for freedom, leaping through a window on the other side of the store. He beelines for his pony, but Reeves cuts him off. Webb sprints toward a clump of brush to use as cover. Then he turns and starts shooting.

A bullet rips a button from Reeves’s coat. Before he can dismount, another shot cuts his bridle rein in two. Reeves slides from the saddle and draws his Winchester. Yet another slug strikes the brim of his hat. He steadies the rifle. Exhales. Fires. His aim is true. Reeves squeezes the trigger again. Webb crumples to the wet dirt.

Reeves approaches the dying man. He’s followed by his posseman and other onlookers, including Bywater, who records the last words of the Texas outlaw, later repeated in 1901 by historian D. C. Gideon: “Give me your hand, Bass . . . I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth.”

So goes one of the many tales of Bass Reeves, whose exploits were so legendary they often sound like myth. But the historical record corroborates many of the most stunning details. Some criminals were so afraid of Reeves they turned themselves in as soon as they heard he was after them. He stalked others in their nightmares. Once, Reeves even arrested his own son for murder. “We quite commonly refer to Bass as the most prolific law enforcement officer the nation has ever seen,” said David Kennedy, the curator at the U.S. Marshals Museum, in Fort Smith. “He was an enslaved person and ends up becoming one of the most well-known lawmen of the age as a Black man in the South.” Art T. Burton, a retired history professor and the leading authority on Reeves, added, “To me, Bass Reeves is the greatest frontier hero in American history—bar none. I don’t know who you could compare him to. This guy walked in the Valley of Death every day for thirty-two years and came out alive.”

Though he was mostly forgotten for much of the last century, Reeves—who grew up in Texas and spent several years working out of the federal courthouse in the northeast Texas town of Paris—has in recent years ascended to the realm of American folk hero, inspiring a shelf’s worth of nonfiction books and novels, several low-budget biopics, and the Bass Reeves Western History Conference, held every year in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Pop culture has discovered Reeves as well. He was depicted in a brief but pivotal role at the beginning of the critically adored HBO series Watchmen. Rumor has it that later this year, a character based on Reeves will appear in the Jay-Z–produced, star-studded western The Harder They Fall. In Concrete Cowboy, one of the most popular movies on Netflix this spring, Reeves gets a nod when one character explains the role Black cowboys played in shaping the West: “Even the Lone Ranger was Black.”

This idea—that Reeves was the inspiration for one of the most popular western characters of all time—has gained widespread traction.If you google Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger, you’ll find books, podcasts, magazine stories, and thousands of social media posts declaring that Reeves was almost certainly the man behind the myth. “Bass Reeves: Baddest Marshal in the Old West, Original ‘Lone Ranger,’ ” reads one headline from earlier this year. Others have run with a simpler declaration: “The Real Lone Ranger Was Black.”

But some have questioned that claim. And as the legend of Reeves grows, those who care most about his legacy are wrestling with how best to remember him. If he wasn’t the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, who was he?

The Reeves statue, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.



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