The Truth About The Real Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger, a masked lawman who patrolled the frontier with his Native American partner, Tonto, made his first appearance in a radio drama back in 1933. Since then, the character has gone on to star in a comic book series, a TV show, and a Gore Verbinski film that was decimated by Rotten Tomatoes. In other words, he's one of the most enduring artistic representations of the historic period known to us now as the Wild West ... and also one of its most whitewashed.

See, the fictional character of the Lone Ranger is white, but the man who likely inspired him was not. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a black lawman named Bass Reeves was well known for his prowess at his job and the enthralling stories of his exploits, which often sound strikingly familiar to those of the Lone Ranger. Considering the ways that Hollywood has helped erase black and Latinx cowboys from our collective cultural memory, it should come as no surprise that the same thing happened to a black deputy U.S. Marshal.

Who was the man who inspired the Lone Ranger?

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838, but he escaped while traveling with his owner to the front lines of the Civil War. After his self-emancipation, Reeves lived among the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Native Americans in what was then called Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Because of his childhood spent in slavery, Reeves was illiterate, but he learned indigenous languages and cultural customs that made him invaluable to law enforcement trying to curb outlawry in the area.

He was hired as a deputy in 1875 and went on to become one of the most revered lawmen of the American frontier, as well as the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. In addition to his proficiency with indigenous languages, Reeves was known for his fearlessness and resourcefulness. One of his favorite tactics was using a variety of disguises to trick outlaws into their arrest.

Reeves' love of dress-up is one of the many similarities between him and the fictional Lone Ranger that historian Art Burton points out in his book Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. On top of that, both men were known for their grey horses. Plus, there was Reeves' friend and frequent collaborator, Grant Johnson, who was a Native American, recalling the Lone Ranger's partner, Tonto.

Although there's no direct evidence that the creators of the Lone Ranger, George Trendle and Fran Striker, were influenced by Reeves, Burton argues that Reeves was a popular figure of American culture at the time the show was created, and it's unlikely that anyone interested in the Wild West wouldn't have known about him. Combine that with the similarities between the two men, and it's easy to see how Bass Reeves may have been the real-life Lone Ranger.