United States Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves has been tracking his quarry for across the West for months. Having finally cornered notorious criminal Bob Dozier in December 1878, somewhere in the Cherokee Hills, the lawman had decided to call it a night. As he was setting up camp, though, a shot flew by his head. A gunfight ensued between the two men, at the end of which one of them would be dead.
Reeves likely had no idea that he would one day end up in a gunfight with a dangerous criminal when he was growing up in the southern States. Born in 1838 in Arkansas, he was a slave from the day that he came into the world. Spending his youth in Texas, after his “owner” moved there in 1846, the young man went on to valet for the man’s son, George.
It was while valeting that Reeves ended up fighting in the American Civil War – for the Confederates. Taken along when George joined up, at some point during their service, Reeves put an end to his servitude. Having been involved in an argument over a game of cards, it seems that the pair came to blows. No one is quite sure how the fight ended, but the valet used the opportunity to make his escape.
Reeves ran to the area of modern Oklahoma that was then known as Indian Territory. A vast area covering more that 70,000 miles, it was home to five Amerindian tribes. As a result, the law worked slightly differently within its boundaries. In fact, law enforcement there was the responsibility of representatives of the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek peoples – and applied only to members of those groups. As such, there was zero state authority for thousands of miles.
As only the federal government, which had been busy with the war, could arrest people there, the Indian Territory became a haven for criminals. But it also offered protection to Reeves, who, as an escaped slave, was technically a wanted man. However, his time there clearly agreed with him. He became incredibly familiar with what is an enormous area of wilderness. Consequently, he learned to speak the local tribes’ languages, despite never having been able to read or write. He improved his shooting, riding and tracking skills, and it’s fair to say, felt at home in the Wild West.
However, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, all slaves were legally free. That included those who had escaped from their so-called owners, so Reeves finally left Indian Territory and headed to Arkansas. There the freeman ran a small farm and married a woman named Nellie Jennie. Then the pair set about having an enormous amount of children – 11 to be precise.
Reeves’ life would massively change yet again, however, in 1875. His knowledge of the Indian Territory and fluency in the local languages brought him to the attention of U.S. Marshal James Fagan. The marshal had been given the task of clearing the area of outlaws, and he wanted the big man on his team. At that point, the former slave became a deputy U.S. marshal, making history as the first black man to hold that position in the West.
While carrying out law enforcement duties for the government – tracking, arresting and bringing in wanted criminals – Reeves would often travel in a small posse. It was made up of himself, a Native American tracker, a cook and a wagon – presumably to carry supplies, or if need be, perhaps a dead criminal. As the territory was so big, assignments could take days, if not weeks, to complete.
Which is how Reeves ended up in a gunfight with Dozier on that night in 1878. The outlaw, wanted for crimes ranging from bank heists to murder, had evaded many a lawman in his time. But that night, he came up against the best. And he lost. After a brief exchange of gunfire, the marshal shot his quarry in the neck. Justice had been served.
Dozier wasn’t the only outlaw that Reeves brought to justice, one way or another. In a career spanning more than 30 years, the marshal arrested more than 3,000 criminals. A man that was said to be “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty,” the former slave almost single-handedly tamed the Wild West. Clearly, he wasn’t just good at his job – he was fantastic at it.
Employing any and all weapons at his disposal, Reeves would go to extraordinary lengths to catch his unfortunate quarry. From disguising his appearance, to hiding for days in the wild, or trudging on foot for 30 miles – nothing was out of the question for the lawman. In addition, he was said to be a crack shot and a master horseman and to be extraordinarily strong. This he showed when he alone was strong enough to free a steer that was stuck in mud. A group of cowboys had tried – and failed. But the mud was no match for the marshal.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Reeves was wily, unbribable and unashamed of using his illiteracy to his advantage. One of the marshal’s more famous ruses was known as the “letter trick.” Allowing himself to be taken prisoner by his target, he would persuade them to read aloud a note from his wife that he carried. Framing it as a last request, he would hand them the letter with trembling hands. He would then have his gun out before they knew what was happening.
“[Reeves is] like a combination of Sherlock Holmes, the Lone Ranger and Superman,” Art Burton, author of a biography of the great man. And it’s hard to argue with that assessment. His quick-wittedness, sheer determination, moral compass and love of disguises certainly prove the lawman’s hero-like qualities. And his ability to survive such a long and dangerous career without taking a single enemy bullet certainly doesn’t hurt.
But it’s the comparison to the Lone Ranger, for Burton at least, that rings the most true. For the author, Reeves’ exploits “unequivocally” serve as the basis for that famous fictional cowboy. And believe it or not, the theory holds some weight. Both were incredibly successful Wild West lawmen, rode a gray horse and traveled with a Native American tracker. However, even the Ranger would struggle to live up to the larger-than-life adventures that the deputy marshal often found himself in.
From dressing as a woman to entice his quarry to handcuffing a pair of brothers while they slept in their beds, Reeves’ career was the stuff of legend. He even earned the nickname “The Invincible Marshal” after an umpteenth near miss from an outlaw. The Ranger comparisons don’t end with incredible adventures, however. Many of the felons that the lawman apprehended ended up at the House of Corrections in Detroit. Which just happens to be the very city that the Lone Ranger was created in, back in 1933.
“[Reeves] was a celebrity. Prisoners were singing songs about him,” Burton told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2013. “People would have known about him in Detroit.” Then there were his incredible horse skills, which the Native Americans had taught to him, Burton said. And of course, there was his marksmanship. The marshal is said to have been so accurate that he could break a man’s neck with a single rifle shot from a quarter of a mile away. These were all characteristics that the Lone Ranger would definitely need.
For Burton, the evidence is overwhelming. “It’s not beyond belief that all those felons were talking about a black man who had these attributes and the stories got out,” he told CNN in 2013. “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.”
Perhaps unaware of his burgeoning notoriety at the time, Reeves continued his work until 1907. At that point, state authorities took over the policing of the area. However, as the Jim Crow laws came into effect, as a black man, he lost his job. He went on to become a police officer in Oklahoma, where, it’s said, no crimes were committed on his beat. Sadly, the former U.S. marshal only served for two years. By that time, he was 70 years old, and ill health forced him to hang up his badge for good. He died in 1910 from kidney disease.
Reeves left behind a real-life Wild West legacy that, Lone Ranger or not, takes some beating. Even if he wasn’t the inspiration for the character, his exploits must have been the talk of his colleagues and friends. So why isn’t his name more well known? For Burton, the reason is clear, “Because he was a black man, his story has been buried. He’s one of America’s greatest heroes, and it’s sad that his story isn’t more known that it is,” he told CNN.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure whether Reeves really was the basis for the Lone Ranger. What is certain, though, is that the lawman was a hero of his time, and as such, has not been completely forgotten. Indeed, in 2012 a statue of the great man, standing more that 20-feet tall was erected in Arkansas. A celebration of a pioneer, not just in the geographic sense, but in a social one as well. And for that, history will always remember him.