One of America’s true “heroes of yesteryear” was a stalwart, ostensibly imaginary icon from those long gone Old West days “when men were men” (and women were happy that they were)—a true “role model” who, beginning on January 30, 1933, began to thunder across the plains of our minds riding his great white stallion, ‘Silver’. The America of my youth (mid-1930’s to the late 1950’s)—and perhaps yours also—was a time of similar heroes who existed in the realm of imagination, and in the tales of folklore so avidly listened to over that “pictureless contraption” called a ‘radio’. Kids and adults sat in front of that electronic wonder, with its’ single poor quality speaker, long before the days of television, cell phones, the internet, space travel, identity politics, texting, and (thank God) “social media”, and we were forced to use our MINDS—our imaginations—as a thrilling tale went audibly into our ears and unfolded onto the personal “screens” of our own built-in movie theater that existed inside our heads.
Can some of you recall, with me, those thrilling tales of yesteryear, as THE LONE RANGER galloped over the dusty trails of the Old West, usually beside his faithful Indian companion, TONTO? I remember that these radio programs were sponsored by General Mills, “makers of Wheaties, breakfast of champions, and Cheerios, the oat cereal ready to eat”, as they opened up each radio adventure with the thrilling words:
“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi Yo, Silver’, the Lone Ranger. With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice.
“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse, Silver.
The Lone Ranger rides again. ‘Come on, Silver! Let’s go, big fella’! Hi Yo, Silver—away!” Do you remember? I do! If you never lived through those “thrilling days of yesteryear”, that’s too bad, because you’ll never know what you missed!
There were always portions of inspiring classical music associated with The Lone Ranger radio programs. The main musical theme that introduced the program, that most of us “experienced citizens” surely recall, was the music from the final few moments of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. During each program the producers always used music from Liszt’s Les Preludes, and from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture to highlight dramatic moments. Often, other classical music was used in the episodes. The Lone Ranger program was somewhat unique over its many years of existence, and seldom relied on gunfire by its heroes in order to bring about justice (with some exceptions). It was to be full of exciting action and chases of bad guys, without placing an emphasis on violence and bloodshed for their own sake. Fisticuffs and intelligently thought out ‘coolness’ were usually enough to bring the bad guys to justice. Above all, the Lone Ranger stories tried to subtly instruct in the principles of good character and were written to inspire their listeners, and while children and teens were the target audience, it originally was to be written so as to be interesting and especially logical to the large adult audience that its creator suspected would materialize, and did.
The radio ‘Lone Ranger’ was created by Detroit showman, George Trendle, back in 1932, who determined to create a program that would be centered on young people, but informative and exciting; he also decided that he would never “write down” to the level of youth, but would force them, and their parents who also listened in huge numbers, to be stimulated by his uplifting tales of courage. Trendle determined from the earliest concepts that the Lone Ranger had to be principally focused on teaching Americanism, and paint vivid word pictures of all of the hardships experienced by the settlers of the American West so that, over time, they would become a part of our American Heritage. And they surely did, for within a decade the Lone Ranger radio series was being broadcast nationwide over 400 radio stations, a huge achievement for those days.
I first started listening to the Lone Ranger radio programs every week with my parents, probably during early WW11, and up through the early 1950’s. The Lone Ranger was serialized for Saturday afternoon movies starting in 1938 (I never saw any of those because I was too young.) The show went onto television in 1949 (I have a video of that first one hour program from 1949, which introduced visually the “Legend of the Lone Ranger”), but since we had no TV until around 1952 or 1953, we kept listening to the radio series all that time. Its final radio broadcast was in 1955, but I had moved away from radio programs by then. Eventually the two “good guys” who BECAME the Lone Ranger and his Indian friend, Tonto, on television and in two feature films (1956 & 1958)--Clayton Moore (1914-1999) and Jay Silverheels (1912-1980) (whose father was a full-blooded Canadian Mohawk Indian Chief)--morphed into the embodiment of the “legend” of the Lone Ranger, and both men were firmly identified with those characters for the rest of their lives, even carrying over into their private lives, during which Clayton Moore almost always wore his black mask in public, as he did when portraying his character on TV.
But the “Lone Ranger” stories were only interesting and entertaining tales with no basis in fact or history. Or were they? Mr. Trendle always based his long running LR saga on realistic, but fictional, conflicts between the “good guys and the bad guys”—between lawmen and outlaws—very common scenarios in those days. The Lone Ranger’s real name supposedly was ‘John Reid’, who had been born in 1850, and had become a member of that greatly honored band of lawmen known as Texas Rangers, along with his older brother, Daniel. The story was that John Reid was in a group of six Rangers who were ambushed by ‘Butch Cavendish’ and his outlaw band in “Bryant’s Gap”, who killed five of the six Rangers, including John Reid’s brother. An Indian named Tonto found the badly wounded John Reid, the sole survivor, and nursed him back to health. To conceal from the Cavendish gang the fact that he survived their ambush, Reid chose to wear a black mask cut out from his dead brother’s vest, and began to ride through the early West on his great stallion, Silver (a horse that had been seen earlier in the great 1939 film Gone With The Wind—ridden by Scarlett O’Hara’s father, Gerald, on “Tara Plantation”), always striving to aid those in need—always determined to fight the evil bad guys and uphold American justice. Essentially, the LR series was a ‘morality tale’ that resonated over much of America for at least two generations.
Several years ago, Bill O’Reilly had a weekly program on Fox News (I think it was called “Legends and Lies”) that told the biographical stories of unique and often unknown people from American history. One of the stories he told was that of a real, almost legendary, black lawman named BASS REEVES (1838-1910), and after researching the true stories of his life, at least one western historian has postulated that this brave U.S. Deputy Marshal was the inspiration for the eventual tales told on the Lone Ranger radio and TV series. I’d like to freely quote and paraphrase from an internet article by Thad Morgan, published Feb. 1, 2018, titled: Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man? Until O’Reilly’s TV program, I had never heard of Bass Reeves, but if most of the history attributed to his life by Morgan and others is true (and I’ve no reason to believe otherwise), he must have been a truly special man, for the adventures he experienced seemed to be uncannily similar to some of those told by the LR series.
“In 1838—nearly a century before the Lone Ranger was introduced to the public—Bass Reeves was born a slave in the Arkansas household of William S. Reeves, who relocated to Paris, Texas in 1846. It was in Texas, during the Civil War, that William made Bass accompany his son, George Reeves, to fight for the Confederacy. While serving George, Bass escaped to Indian Territory…known today as Oklahoma…. Upon arriving in the Indian Territory, Bass learned the landscape and the customs of the Seminole and Creek Tribes, even learning to speak their languages. After the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, abolishing slavery, Bass, now formally a free man, returned to Arkansas, were he married and went on to have 11 children.”
After living with his family in Arkansas for a decade, the 6 feet, 2 inches tall Reeves, very proficient in the use of firearms based on his military experience, and knowledgeable of the western terrain and the languages of the Native People, returned to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). It was there that U.S. Marshal, James Fagan, hired Bass Reeves as one of a force of 200 U.S. Deputy Marshals formed to resist and control the lawlessness and chaos that was then running rampant all over the American West, in a territory covering about 75,000 square miles. Marshal Fagan and his force of deputy marshals were under the control and authority of federal judge Isaac Parker (the notorious ‘hanging judge’ of western folklore), and Bass was one of the few black men recruited by Marshal Fagan. Soon, Bass Reeves became the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River.
According to Thad Morgan, “Bass Reeves is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gun (shot) wound, writes biographer Art T. Burton, who first asserted the theory that Bass had inspired the (legend of) the Lone Ranger in his 2006 book, ‘Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves’. At the heart of Burton’s argument is the fact that over 32 years as a deputy marshal, Bass found himself in numerous stranger-than-fiction encounters. Also, many of the fugitives Bass arrested were sent to the Detroit (Michigan) House of Corrections, in the same city where the Lone Ranger would be introduced to the world on the radio station WXYZ on Jan. 30, 1933.”
The question arising in my mind is whether or not the Lone Ranger’s creator, George Trendle, ever talked with some of these ex-prisoners around Detroit regarding their lives of crime, how they ended up in prison, and most importantly—WHO IT WAS that put them in prison. Could that person have often been identified as Bass Reeves? There is no doubt that it could have been Reeves if Mr. Trendle did, in fact, talk with some of these ex-prisoners. Reeves was known to use disguises, and masquerade as someone else in order to bring the bad guys to justice. The Lone Ranger, as we “old timers” surely recall, also did THE SAME THING from time to time. A coincidence? I don’t think so.
Thad Morgan continues: “…Bass was fiercely dedicated to his position. Widely considered impossible to pay off or shake up, Bass Reeves demonstrated a moral compass…. He even went so far as to arrest his own son, Bennie, for murdering his wife. The legendary lawman was eventually removed from his position in 1907 (at age 69), when Oklahoma gained statehood. As an African American, Bass was unable to continue in his position as deputy marshal under the new state laws.” But providentially, Bass Reeves was then hired by one of the local police departments. He passed away at age 72 from Bright’s Disease. In the minds of many of his associates and those who felt his hand of justice, his legend not only lived on, but also grew over the years.
Thad Morgan concludes: “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well known (lawmen), ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the 19th century’, Burton wrote in ‘Black Gun, Silver Star’. However, Bass accomplished things that dwarf the triumphs of his fictional counterpart, in his journey from slave to one of the staunchest defenders of the very government that had failed to protect his freedom in the first place. And while the truth about the Lone Ranger may remain a mystery, the story of Bass Reeves remains an inspiration for real life heroes to this day.”
The Lone Ranger programs, at least the TV versions, are available on the internet and as DVD’s from Amazon. Both feature films are also available, and I own both. If you remember these programs as I do, you should watch them again, and encourage your kids and/or grandkids to watch them even if, under today’s jaded “standards”, they seem a bit “campy”. With the scurvy “idols” that far too many of our young people seem to adulate these days (maggot infested druggies playing vulgar and disgusting noise that they call “music”, immoral Hollyweird perverts who contaminate our thoughts and our souls, and violent despisers of America and denigrators of our Constitutional Republic who portray themselves as “hip” and “concerned” progressives), for them to have good role models and genuine heroes to admire would be beneficial, and certainly the Lone Ranger and Tonto, though fictional, and the REAL HERO, Bass Reeves, would be worthy role models for that admiration! The Lone Ranger was a shining example of goodness and decency who inspired several generations of America’s young people to strive to follow in his noble and honorable footsteps. He almost never shot to kill the bad guy, but only to wound him so he could be brought to justice. Sadly, we have few, if any, heroes like him today. Thank you for your courage, your heroism, and your patriotism, and may God bless your memory, “Kemo Sabe” (meaning ‘trusted scout’, as Tonto always called him). ‘Hi yo, Silver—away’, but never away from our memories, or our admiration!