With CARLA ANDERSON
FORT SMITH, Ark. - That the likely model for the Lone Ranger was Bass Reeves - an ex-slave who worked most of his career as a deputy U.S. marshal for a famed hanging judge - was one of the most interesting things we learned when we visited Fort Smith, Ark.
We attended a lecture by Art Burton, a black historian from Chicago who has spent much time in the Arkansas-Oklahoma area studying blacks’ contributions to the settling of the West. Among his three books on this era is a biography of Reeves, whom he indicated was probably the greatest law enforcement officer to bring order to the West.
Reeves arrested thousands of criminals, could shoot straighter, lift more and do things that only movie heroes ordinarily can do.
He was black, therefore the mask; he was a master of disguise, which he often used to penetrate areas where criminals were. He had a lot of similarities to the Hollywood Lone Ranger, his American Indian friend, Tonto, and his horse named Silver. Reeves had lived with American Indians, spoke their language and often rode with one as a companion. He gave out silver dollars and among the many horses he used was a large white stallion.
Why the connection between Reeves and the Long Ranger? Many of the criminals arrested by him were sent to prison in Detroit, the city where the concept of the Lone Ranger was developed.
When Burton first heard the stories about Reeves, he thought they were legends because his exploits seemed so impossible. Careful research on his part showed that the legends were for the most part true.
Burton thought Fort Smith was one of the most important, if not the most important, of the historic towns in the West.
After lunch at Rolando’s, a favorite restaurant among the residents of Fort Smith, we walked over to the Fort Smith National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. As is usual when the NPS is involved, this was a first-class operation.
Our tour started with a 23-minute film on the history of Fort Smith. We learned that this had been an important national control point because American Indian tribes passed through here as they were being moved to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
American Indian police were in charge of controlling crime among American Indians but were not allowed to arrest whites. For a time, deputy U.S. marshals were not allowed into Indian Territory. As a result, a large number of criminals hung out in safety there. To help bring law into Arkansas and Indian Territory, President Ulysses Grant sent in Judge Isaac Parker, who became known as the "hanging judge" because of the large number of prisoners he sentenced to the gallows.
The original prison was in the basement of the courthouse, which was part of the old fort that had stood here. In the open prison area, many men were crowded together under primitive and horrific conditions. As we stood in the center of the area, voices came from speakers in different parts of the ceiling, re-enacting and explaining events that had happened here.
The second floor of the fort has the main exhibits, which are a combination of large posters with information about different groups from the area, glass cases with weapons and tools of the time, cells like those built when the prison was moved to this floor and interactive videos on the Indian Territory, the Trail of Tears and preserving American Indian and pioneer culture. These videos include commentary from present-day descendants of the early period and demonstrations of aspects of American Indian culture, such as dance.
We found the most informative presentation to be a film on the deputy U.S. marshals who were sent in to help Parker bring law and order to the area. These deputies were paid little, took great risks and had an unusually high death rate. The film said that 100 of them were killed carrying out their duties. This is higher than the number of murderers who were hanged at Fort Smith. Of the 150 men sentenced to hanging, only 79 met the hangman.
Parker never attended a hanging, and the hangman was not paid extra for his services. At a reconstruction of the original gallows near the courthouse, a recording describes what went on here.
Fort Smith is one of those places rich in historical events. The town struck us as having the richness of history that we find in St. Joseph or Independence, Missouri.