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From slave to real Lone Ranger? The incredible life of black Wild West lawman Bass Reeves

Feared by felons and revered by his colleagues, Bass Reeves broke free from slavery to become one of the most successful lawmen in America’s Wild West. Now immortalised as a character in a new BBC One series, Nige Tassell explores Reeves’ incredible life story

Photograph of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi River
Published: December 26, 2021 at 10:05 am
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It didn’t seem an unusual altercation among off-duty Confederate soldiers during the early days of the American Civil War. An after-dark card game, a sense of injustice or cheating, a swift dispensing of physical retaliation. It happened often and regularly.

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But this particular disagreement was unlike any other. It occurred between slave and ‘master’. The contretemps was brutal and speedy; the enslaved man, Bass Reeves, battered the man he’d been forced to accompany into battle – George R Reeves, the future speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. As Bass’ daughter Alice would later recall, her father “laid him out cold with his fist and then made a run for the Indian Territory north across the Red River”.

For the next few years, Bass Reeves was the runaway slave looking over his shoulder. But the abolition of slavery, brought about by the resolution of the Civil War, would open doors for Reeves, ushering him towards a journey on which he would become a gun-toting public servant of the highest order. He would make history as a pioneering African-American US deputy marshal operating west of the Mississippi River, and one of the most feared lawmen charged with apprehending dangerous miscreants across the American West during the 19th century. He became known the ‘Invincible Marshal’. Some believe his life and times were the basis for the fictional Lone Ranger.

Who was Bass Reeves?

That Bass Reeves would become such a dedicated and celebrated lawman wasn’t abundantly obvious from his early life. He was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838, his family working in servitude for George Reeves’ father, the state legislator William Reeves. When Reeves the elder moved to northern Texas, he took his enslaved people with him, among them eight-year-old Bass. At first, the youngster worked as a water boy before graduating to being a field hand. His skill with horses and mules then led to him becoming a blacksmith’s assistant.

After passing into the ‘ownership’ of George Reeves, in his mid-twenties Bass found himself heading for the battlefields of the Civil War – and to the pivotal altercation at that card game. Having escaped to the Indian Territory, Bass lived among the Cherokee and the Seminoles, becoming fluent in their respective languages. When the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution abolished slavery in December 1865, Reeves could return to his home state of Arkansas a free man. (There is also a theory that, following his assault on George Reeves, he joined the Union army, rising to the rank of sergeant thanks to his translating skills.)

An 1887 map showing the so-called Indian Territory
An 1887 map showing the so-called ‘Indian Territory’ west of the Mississippi – an area Reeves knew well (Photo by: Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A tall, strong man, the free Reeves initially worked in farming, but was soon earning extra money as a scout and tracker for law enforcement agencies. His deep knowledge of the geography of the Indian Territory, along with his fluency in certain Native languages, made Reeves an excellent asset in the struggle to keep peace in the ever-turbulent West. He was said to know the terrain like a chef knows their kitchen.

How Bass Reeves became the first African-American US deputy marshal

Reeves’ work as a scout earned him such a reputation that, when the US marshal for the Indian Territory, James F Fagan, was charged with recruiting 200 deputy US marshals in 1875, Reeves was high on his list. He wouldn’t be the only African-American deputy in the region at this time, but he was the first and he did become the most famous.

Reeves was appointed deputy US marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, a position that also carried responsibility for a portion of the Indian Territory. Here he would serve for the next 18 years, after which he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas, before serving at the Muskogee Federal Court.

Serving as a lawman for more than three decades, his legend resonated loud and clear across the landscape. The felons that Reeves rode the badlands in search of were all well aware of the giant who was on their tail. Not that his fearsome reputation stopped these outlaws publicly goading him. Mainly wanted for horse rustling, bootlegging or murder, these unsavoury characters would issue warnings for deputy marshals in the form of small cards left on trails, cautioning particular lawmen that their lives were in danger if they proceeded with their pursuit. Unsurprisingly for a man of such repute, Reeves was a regular recipient of these threats; he collected a dozen cards that carried warnings for his particular personal safety.

He would, however, have required some assistance in reading the messages himself. Reeves remained illiterate throughout his life, a rare situation for a deputy, as the position required a fair degree of administration and record-keeping to be completed in the line of duty. But such was his untarnished standing as both hunter and detective that he resisted any attempts to be taught how to read or write. Over the course of his career, Reeves killed 14 felons in the line of duty, each in an act of self-defence. Rather incredibly, he never received so much as a flesh wound himself. The closest he came to being injured in his work was having his hat shot off once or twice.

A man of great physical strength and who sported a distinctive, luxuriant moustache, Reeves’ marksmanship was impeccable. Although no slouch with a rifle, he was most adept when handling his two six-shooters. One observer likened the speed of his pistol skills to that of “a Methodist preacher reaching for a platter of fried chicken during Sunday dinner at the deacon’s house”.

Aside from his expertise with firearms, Reeves was also a tremendously gifted detective and arrested more than 3,000 suspects during his time as a deputy. Somewhat counterintuitively, his success was partly due to the fractured racial make-up of the American West at the time. The historian Daniel F Littlefield Jr has suggested that “the Indian Territory became his beat, in part, because of racism. The Indians, Indian Freemen and African-American criminals in Indian Territory preferred being taken in by someone who was not white to being taken in by someone who was.”

Reeves’ dedication to public service was such that he didn’t even baulk at having to arrest his own son Bennie on suspicion of killing his wife. After being captured and arrested by his father, Bennie was subsequently tried and convicted of the murder – and then had to serve 11 years behind bars.

That particular episode wouldn’t be the only time that a member of Reeves’ immediate family found themselves in the dock on a murder charge. In 1887, Reeves himself was in this position, having shot and killed a posse cook. He maintained his innocence, explaining that his gun had been accidentally discharged while being cleaned. Reeves’ impeccable record of public service went before him again and he was acquitted, although he had been forced to sell his house in order to afford his legal fees. His counsel was the former US attorney WHH Clayton.

That Reeves was able to detain so many suspects, to rack up captures in such high numbers, was down to his set-up on the trails. Like his fellow deputies, he wasn’t riding unaided; he wasn’t that mythical lone ranger. He travelled alongside a wagon, and with a posseman, a guard and a cook for company. The presence of the wagon allowed for multiple arrests, with the prisoners shackled to it on a long chain. As many as 30 outlaws could be detained and transported back to the relevant courthouse in this way.

Reeves’ motivation in amassing such an impressive arrest record might not have been solely altruistic, for the wider good of the region. Deputies could make decent money. The government paid them 75 cents a day to feed each captured prisoner, along with a mileage expense of 10 cents for every mile that each was transported. Sometimes the expedition to catch a particular wanted list of outlaws wasn’t fleeting; the deputy and his entourage – plus the captured prisoners shackled to the wagon – might be on the trails for up to a month at a time. A deputy as professional and efficient as Reeves could expect to earn a minimum of $400 for such a trip. On one notable expedition, Reeves banked a cool $900 after capturing 17 outlaws and transporting them back to the courthouse at Fort Smith in Arkansas.

Was Bass Reeves the real Lone Ranger?

The stories emanating from Reeves’ highly impressive arrest record has drawn comparison with those of another immensely productive lawman – the fictional (and white) Lone Ranger. Indeed, a number of observers have posited the notion that Reeves was actually the prototype of the one-time television hero.

The main proponent of this school of thought is Reeves’ biographer Art T Burton, who presents the connections between the two marshals in his book Black Gun, Silver Star, citing that they both rode light-coloured horses and that many of Reeves’ captives were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections – the same city where the Lone Ranger radio series was first broadcast on a local station.

Film still of Clayton Moore (right) as the title character in The Lone Ranger, with co-star Jay Silverheels.
Clayton Moore ( right) as the title character in The Lone Ranger, with co-star Jay Silverheels. The TV show, and the radio series from which it spawned, may have been inspired by Reeves’ exploits – although this is disputed (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Whether or not Burton’s hypothesis is correct, he is almost certainly accurate in his claims that “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the 19th century”. Indeed, no other real-life deputy enjoyed the awe in which Reeves was held, nor the widespread circulation of the near-mythical tales of his captures.

And now, in the 21st century, his legend is currently enjoying a double dose of exposure. In The Harder They Fall, a just-released film portraying a predominantly African-American cast of cowboys, outlaws and lawmen, Reeves is played by Delroy Lindo. Reeves also appears in the BBC adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Portrayed by the British actor Gary Beadle, Reeves unexpectedly encounters Phileas Fogg and his travelling companions on board a stagecoach, and ends up drawing them into his fight to bring a criminal to justice.

More than a century after Reeves’ death in 1910, his legend continues to grow in strength. And for good reason. His life story remains an irresistible one; the tale of a man who escaped a life of servitude and rose to become a public official who both controlled the lawless frontiers of his country and shaped their future. As such, Bass Reeves will always be one of the first great post-slavery African-American heroes. A Wild West hero, indeed.


On the podcast: Historian Tony Warner discusses some of the real historical figures depicted in the Netflix western The Harder They Fall, in which Bass Reeves appears, and tells us more about where the film sits in the genre of black westerns.


More than a century after Reeves’ death in 1910, his legend continues to grow in strength. And for good reason. His life story remains an irresistible one; the tale of a man who escaped a life of servitude and rose to become a public official who both controlled the lawless frontiers of his country and shaped their future. As such, Bass Reeves will always be one of the first great post-slavery African-American heroes. A Wild West hero, indeed.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

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