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The Canadian Connection to the Legendary Bass Reeves

Dougald Lamont

Recently, the incredible story of Bass Reeves has begun to make its way into entertainment and pop culture as the original inspiration for the “Lone Ranger.”

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in 1838, and was the property of an Arkansas state Legislator. During the American Civil War, he escaped from slavery and fled to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles and learned their languages.

As a freedman, Reeves worked as a farmer until 1875, when he was recruited as a deputy in a historic role - the first black deputy Marshall west of the Mississippi.

Reeves worked for 32 years as a Federal Marshall in the Indian Territory. According to accounts he “brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time; he was never wounded despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.”

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and revolver, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves had on his record over 3,000 arrests of felons. He killed 14 outlaws to defend his life. When Oklahoma became a state, in 1907, he became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. Reeves has sometimes been called the “Real Lone Ranger” and would have worked closely with Native American partners throughout his career.

Legends of America says that Reeves was “An imposing figure, always riding on a large white stallion, Reeves began to earn a reputation for his courage and success at bringing in or killing many desperadoes of the territory. Always wearing a large hat, Reeves was usually a spiffy dresser, with his boots polished to a gleaming shine. He was known for his politeness and courteous manner. However, when the purpose served him, he was a master of disguises and often utilized aliases.

Sometimes appearing as a cowboy, farmer, gunslinger, or outlaw, himself, he always wore two Colt pistols, butt forward for a fast draw. Ambidextrous, he rarely missed his mark.”

“Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it, we got nuthin,” Reeves was recorded as saying.

Bass Reeves has been portrayed a number of times recently in pop culture, and was an inspiration for many more. Bass Reeves has been portrayed in TV series like Gunslingers, Watchmen, Justified, and in films such as The Harder They Fall. The character of Sam Chisholm, played by Denzel Washington in the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, is based on Reeves.

The Canadian connection to Reeves is through his great-great-grandson, Willard Reaves, and Reaves’ own sons Ryan Reaves, who plays in the NHL for the New York Rangers, and Jordan Reaves, who following in his father’s footsteps plays in the CFL for the Edmonton Elks.

Willard Reaves grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, and also had a connection with Native Americans - he spent summers with the Navajo-Hopi Nation as a child. He grew up wanting to be a police officer, and after a spectacular career as one of the all-time greats for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Reaves went on to become a Sergeant with Manitoba’s Sheriff Services.

He also had a remarkable personal connection to the pop culture “Lone Ranger” which was the top TV series for years in the US, in which a Lone Ranger is accompanied by his friend and partner, Tonto, played by Canadian actor Jay Silverheels, who was from the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.

“I only have two autographs, and one of them is Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto,” said Reaves. “At the time, I didn’t even realize the family connection - it was just a show I loved, and I was a fan.”

Willard Reaves is now looking to make an impact of a different kind - running in a by-election to be the member of the legislative assembly for Fort Whyte for the Manitoba Liberal Party.

“You know, you look around, and it’s pretty clear to me that we need a new sheriff in town,” joked Reaves. “One way or another, the legacy of Bass Reeves is something that everyone should know about, and a tale of determination and heroism we can all aspire to.”


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