White guys like John Wayne personify our image of the American West, so it might surprise you to know that roughly one in four cowboys riding the range was black.
On Saturday night when they went to town, these men couldn't stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. I'm not sure if they could drink and play cards in the saloons, but during the workweek, their skill with a horse, a rope and a gun, could gain them a level of respect.
In the three decades following the Civil War at least 25 (probably more) African American men served as deputy U.S. Marshals for the U.S. government. There's some evidence to suggest that one of those rough-riding, straight-shooting black lawmen formed the basis for the iconic Lone Ranger.
Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves grew famous in the late 19th Century, during his 30-years pursuing and arresting bandits and murders throughout what was called Indian Territory. The former slave has some distinct resemblances to Lone Ranger of radio, comic book, TV and movies.
Bass was born a slave in Arkansas in 1883, and was taken to Texas his owner William Reeves as an 8-year-old boy. When the Civil War broke out, Reeves' son joined the Confederate Army and took Bass with him to the front lines as a servant.
Before the war's end, Bass escaped, heading west to what was then called Indian Territory and now the State of Oklahoma. Historians say there he learned horsemanship and tracking skills from Native Americans and also became handy with Colt 45 and a rifle. After emancipation, Bass was just one of many black men looking for work.
“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” says William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history.
The Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Chickasaw tribes had been forcibly moved from their homelands to "Indian Territory" where they governed themselves, but the federal government was responsible for rounding up the lawless element hiding out there, thousands of thieves, murderers and fugitives.
The call went out to hire 200 deputies for the job, and Bass Reeves fit the profile. Strong, steady, 6-foot-2, with a deep voice and commanding presence, he was appointed the first African-American lawman west of the Mississippi.
By all accounts, he was one of the best, serving for more than 30-years in relentless pursuit of lawbreakers. The Oklahoma City Weekly Times-Journal reported, “Reeves was never known to show the slightest excitement, under any circumstance. He does not know what fear is.”
True to the mythical code of the West, Bass Reeves never drew his gun first. Though many outlaws aimed to shoot him, their bullets always missed. He was never even grazed by a bullet. Reeves admitted he shot and killed 14 men, but all in self-defense.
He's credited with bringing in 3,000 outlaws alive. More than once, showing up at the District Courthouse in Fort Smith with ten or more prisoners in tow.
From the “Court Notes” of the July 31, 1885, Fort Smith Weekly Elevator: “Deputy Bass Reeves came in same evening with eleven prisoners, as follows: Thomas Post, one Walaska, and Wm. Gibson, assault with intent to kill; Arthur Copiah, Abe Lincoln, Miss Adeline Grayson and Sally Copiah, alias Long Sally, introducing whiskey in Indian country; J.F. Adams, Jake Island, Andy Alton and one Smith, larceny.”
Though he couldn't read or write, Bass Reeves always knew which arrest warrant matched his man, and he used his brains, as well as his brawn and firepower to enforce the law. He often wore disguises to catch criminals unaware, and that may be the first clue that connected Bass with the famous "masked man."
He rode a large light gray horse and gave out silver dollars as a calling card, similar to the Lone Ranger's trademark silver bullets.
At least one biographer says the deputy marshal at times worked with a Native American partner tracking criminals. And like the Lone Ranger, he demonstrated an unshakable moral compass, even arresting his own son on a murder charge, after which the son was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
So far, historians have not proven the Lone Ranger was based on the exploits of Bass Reeves, but the most convincing piece of evidence seems to be that many of the prisoners he captured and turned into authorities at Fort Smith, went to serve their jail sentences in Detroit, the city where George Trendle and Fran Striker created the character of the Lone Ranger.
A children's biography Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Award. It was written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
One reviewer on Goodreads says, "This is a children's book, but still very informative." Because, of course, most children's books are not informative. (heavy sigh)
For more reading on the topic, check out Gary Paulson's historical novel for teens called the Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West. Publishers Weekly called it a "compelling fictionalized biography...Effectively conveying Reeve's thoughts and emotions, the author shapes an articulate, well-deserved tribute to this unsung hero.
Look at the enthusiasm of these students!
They earned a field trip and pizza party for meeting their reading goals over the school year. One young girl more than doubled hers. I knew we were kindred spirits as soon as I heard two kids confess they read when they were supposed to be doing their chores.
I had the privilege and delight of talking to them about writing, and sharing the topics of my books. Their many questions revealed their curiosity and eagerness to learn. I was impressed by their level of knowledge, which, of course, I attribute to the fact they are all terrific readers. But they attend a unique school, as well.
Examining historical photos of miners in the Coeur d'Alene Silver Mining District, the students drew inferences about conditions of the time and place.
At left: The original Old Glory Hole at the Bunker & Sullivan Mine, Kellogg, ID.
These museum quality artifacts I collected while researching Fire in the Hole! help students gain hands-on experience of the time period.
Below students take a turn with hammer and steel to get a feel for how hard miners' worked in the old days before power drills.
These students attend the Continuous Curriculum School in the East Valley School District near Spokane, WA. They explained to me how they only get six weeks off for the summer, but get more breaks during the rest of the school year.
My favorite part of visiting with students this week was hearing about the characters they developed during a short writing assignment. One character was a 6-year-old girl named Hannah, with neon-hair and freckles. Her goal was to pan for fools' gold, and to meet it, she had to climb a mountain and brave a river full of alligators. Now that's a story I want to read!
It was a terrific break from writing to spend a couple hours with these bright, curious and confident young people. It was inspiring how they shared their ideas with such eagerness and enthusiasm. Several weeks ago, I met with a book club of mostly retired women, and is was similarly invigorating. Their life experiences and wisdom felt like a book I'd love to page through.
Let's hear from you! What do you gain from spending time with people outside your own age group.
Today welcome Newbery Honor Author Kirby Larson, who's agreed to share her thoughts about courage.
Growing up, I associated courage with brave deeds and actions: John Glenn for rocketing to the moon, my cousin for diving off the high board, and, of course, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin for fighting the evil agents of CHAOS. As a comic book and movie lover, it’s not surprising that I thought the way I did. People admired Batman for swooping in to foil the Joker; John Wayne may not have always gotten the girl, but he almost always won the gunfight or the battle.
This is no earth-shattering revelation, but of course those romanticized and Hollywood influenced versions of courage only tell one small slice of the story. Once I came to understand that my true writing passion is historical fiction, my reading and research revealed to me many, many examples of genuine courage.
Sometimes the expression of courage is a small thing: a busy construction worker who cared for a stray dog and cat after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, despite his boss’ disapproval. This courageous (and kind) action inspired Mary Nethery and me to write Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival.
Sometimes people are courageous in large ways, like my great-grandmother and others like her who dared to homestead by themselves during the early 1900s, inspirations for my novel Hattie Big Sky.
Or like Reverend Emery Andrews who, at tremendous personal cost, not only spoke out against the “relocation” of people of Japanese descent during WWII, he left his church and uprooted his family to Twin Falls, Idaho, to help those who were incarcerated in Minidoka War Relocation Camp. Though he was spit upon, shoved out of cafes and even evicted from his first Twin Falls home, he never faltered in his desire and efforts to help. Thinking about what it would have been like to have such a man for a father led me to write The Fences Between Us.
Recently, at an event to help launch my new book, Dash, I met a woman who has me looking at courage from a different perspective. Her name is Kay Sakai Nakao and when she was 22, she and her family were evacuated from Bainbridge Island, Washington and sent to a war relocation camp.
Kay gave birth to her first child in the camp; after the delivery, she brought her infant “home” to rough barracks, equipped only with Army-supplied cots and a pot belly stove. Any other furniture in the “apartment” was made from scavenged scrap wood. With a babe in arms, Kay waited in long lines for meals – slogging through mud in winter, wilting in blistering heat and dust in summer – and at the latrines, (initially nothing more than modesty-robbing ten-hole outhouses) and laundry house. Can you imagine washing diapers in such an environment?
Kay is now in her 90s and I was present when someone asked her if she was bitter or angry about what had happened to her as a young mother. (I agreed with the asker that I certainly would have been!). Kay smiled a gentle and serene smile and said that she had long ago realized that the only person hurt by holding a grudge or being bitter was herself. “I choose to live with joy,” she said.
When I think about all she lived through and all she has to be angry about, Kay’s life philosophy seems to me the supreme definition of courage.
Thank you, Kirby! I love being reminded that joy is a choice. What about you? Have you faced a difficult time choosing to forgive someone? Do you remember a time when you made a definite choice for joy, rather than resentment or frustration?
To learn more about Kirby Larson and her books click here.
You can follow her on twitter, too. @KirbyLarson
If you have a minute—1:23 to be exact—watch this video of Eugene Yelchin talking about growing up in the Soviet Union and the tough choice he had to make. Yelchin’s 2012 Newbery Honor novel BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE is partially based on his own childhood.
The book begins with a boy’s letter to Comrade Stalin telling the Soviet leader his greatest dream--to join the Young Soviet Pioneers.
Of course, as seems to happen to main characters, the boy Sasha runs into trouble reaching his dream. He comes face to face with a hard, life-altering choice and in that choice defines himself.
Hard choices come with a cost. And though our own may not be as pricey as Sasha’s or Eugene Yelchin’s, they still demand courage.
I think of my daughter making the choice to pursue a career in screenwriting.
As she was going off to college to major in film, I remember speaking with the mother of one of her friends. The friend had also considered majoring in the arts, but her mother told me she had convinced the girl to major in business.
Perhaps that girl now has a good paying job and flew home for Thanksgiving with her family, while my daughter is twelve-hundred miles away in Los Angeles, working the holiday at a restaurant, sharing a bedroom with a friend to save on rent, and living daily in uncertainty about her future as a screenwriter. Sure, people all over the world are facing decisions that will cost them much more. But I am inspired by my daughter’s courage and willingness to bear the cost of following her heart.
What about you? Share whose courage fills your heart and makes you want to live with more authenticity, or tell me about a life-altering choice you’ve made.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers, in the blog comments, by email or social media.