The Origin of the Lone Ranger

bass-reeves_black-lone-rangerThe first actor I ever saw was The Lone Ranger. I thought, that’s what I want to do.” – Michael Caine. The legend of The Lone Ranger has been an epic of the American West, and inspired many people in the entertainment industry. The story has existed since 1933 since the AM radio show aired in Detroit as a series of audio episodes which then developed into one of the most popular shows, which led to a TV series, then eventually reached movie form in 1956. This essay will explore the story of the lone ranger, its origin, and how accurate culture’s rendition of the story is.

The story of the Lone Ranger was written by an author by the name of Fran Striker, who paired up with Detroit’s AM station WXYZ in 1933 to make a radio show.1 This show was a total success and became a very popular among the growing entertainment industry. In this show, in which the popular legend was born, the Lone Ranger was one of six Texas Rangers (one being his older brother) who were ambushed in Bryant’s Gap canyon by Butch Cavendish and his gang of outlaws. The Lone Ranger, whose identity was only given by his last name “Reid,” was the sole survivor of the ambush, although not by much. A native by the name of Tonto comes through the canyon and finds the ranger barely alive, and nurses him back to life. Tonto befriends Reid and dubs him “Kemo Sabe” meaning “trusty scout” in Tonto’s native tongue. Once Reid regains his health, a fake grave is placed for Reid, and to hide his identity, he creates a mask out of his fallen brother’s vest to honor his memory. The title was given due to his status as the last remaining Ranger of the posse that was pursuing Butch Cavendish.2 His adventures in being a law-bringer with Tonto included catching Butch Cavendish, as well as well as many other adventures after avenging his brother. The radio show lasted until 1954, and featured an impressive collection of 2,956 episodes,3 and had already paved the way for the TV series beginning in 1949 that lasted until 1957.4 The legend of the Lone Ranger has been retold in six movies ranging from 1956 to 2013, and is one of the most popularly used stories in the entertainment industry.

The origin of the Lone Ranger is a debated topic, being that the writer of the radio show never gave the full name of the Lone Ranger. It was believed that the identity of the Ranger was that of Texas Ranger John Hughes, whom the book “The Lone Star Ranger” was written about in 1915.5 This was later questioned as the story of Bass Reeves was unveiled by a historian, and related to the story of the Lone Ranger.6 Bass Reeves was a former African American slave of Texas legislator George R. Reeves until he ran away after winning a fight against the man over a card game. He fled to Arkansas, married, and had ten children. In 1875, after he settled down for a few years, he was recruited by a federal judge to be a U.S. Marshal after being targeted for the job due to his knowledge of the territory, his ability to speak a handful of native dialects, and if I may quote Mark Gagliardi from Comedy Central’s Drunk History, his ability to “full-on [dance] with wolves in that area.”7 During his years as a Marshal he became an adept marksman with a pistol and rifle, and also managed to never get shot in the many gunfights that he was in. Due to a handful of transfers, he worked for several judges around the Mid-west, finally settling in Oklahoma and retiring in 1907 at the age of 68. Reeves claimed to have captured over 3,000 outlaws, and even arrested one of his sons after he killed his wife. Bass Reeves died in 1910 due to Bright’s disease, but his legacy carried on in the stories of his adventures as a U.S. Marshal.8

Over the years, the story of the Lone Ranger has definitely been popularized by several forms of media that crossed in its progression through entertainment in the last century. If the adventures of the Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto were really inspired by Bass Reeves and his native accomplices, then it can be argued that there are a lot of discrepancies between the verified stories and the several renditions of the stories used for entertainment value. Most of the significant differences lie in the identity of the Lone Ranger, being that the Ranger that is depicted in all of the movies and shows has been white. The identity of the Lone Ranger, is meant to be anonymous, in order for the listener to create a hero from the identity that his actions create. This could be one of the reasons that the media’s identity of the Lone Ranger has not changed. Not only is the Lone Ranger one of the oldest western icons in the US, but his legacy has been developed on for over 80 years, into a heroic identity. Society has romanticized the “Wild West” with outlaws, cowboys, and farmers, but not often are African Americans featured in the tales as protagonists. Other discrepancies include the motive of the Ranger, the Reeves’ family, the identity of the Ranger, and Tonto. Bass Reeves story admittedly has less entertainment value, and most movies and shows that are taken from true stories have to be altered in order to be successful. This justifies the differences found in the stories, and the difference in race can be easily explained by the civil rights situation in that era. Once civil rights had been established, the legend was almost 30 years old, and it would be pointless to change it, even if the producers knew about Bass Reeves at the time, since the story had been developed so much. The Native American “Tonto” from the shows, was never a confirmed character in Reeves’ life, although Reeves did work with many Native Americans in the process of tracking outlaws through the wilderness. It is known that he did work with a particular Native American more than others, but the identity of the native is unknown. This Native or the collection of Native Americans were most likely adapted and merged into Tonto in the story of the Lone Ranger.

The legend of The Lone Ranger is an incredibly American story that may very well have been inspired by the U.S Marshal Bass Reeves. The legend began 1875, but was introduced into modern culture through a radio show what developed into a popular story in the entertainment industry. No matter who the origin of the Lone Ranger was, it remains one of the most significant stories of the American West.

Written by Brian Glahn.



1 “The Lone Ranger Debuts on Detroit Radio.” January 13, 2009. Accessed October 14, 2015.

2 “Enter the Lone Ranger, The Lone Ranger Fights On, The Lone Ranger Triumphs.” In The Lone Ranger. January 1, 1949.

3 Lachno, James. “The Lone Ranger: 10 Things You Never Knew.” The Telegraph. June 2, 2011. Accessed October 29, 2015.

4 “The Lone Ranger Debuts on Detroit Radio.” January 13, 2009. Accessed October 14, 2015.

5 Tranquilla, Ronald. “Ranger And Mountie: Myths Of National Identity In Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger And Ralph Connor’s Corporal Cameron.” Journal of Popular Culture 24.3 (1990).

6 Kuruvilla, Carol. “Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? Researcher Claims a Former Slave Was the Real Lone Ranger.” NY Daily News, August 8, 2013. Accessed October 14, 2015.

7 Konner, Jeremy, dir. “Bass Reeves Full on Dances with Wolves.” In Drunk History. Comedy Central. October 15, 2015.

8 Burton, Art. “Bass Reeves.” National Parks Service. Accessed October 29, 2015.

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