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Publication information
First appearanceWXYZ radio; Detroit, Michigan, USA; February 25, 1933
Created byGeorge W. Trendle
In-story information
PartnershipsThe Lone Ranger [1]
AbilitiesExpert marksman,
trained in hand-to-hand combat,
expert horseman
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Publication information
First appearanceWXYZ radio; Detroit, Michigan, USA; February 25, 1933
Created byGeorge W. Trendle
In-story information
PartnershipsThe Lone Ranger [1]
AbilitiesExpert marksman,
trained in hand-to-hand combat,
expert horseman

Tonto is a fictional character, the Native American companion of The Lone Ranger, a popular American Western character created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. Tonto has appeared in radio and television series and other presentations of the characters' adventures righting wrongs in 19th century western America.[2]

Tonto made his first appearance on the twelfth episode of the radio show (which aired on station WXYZ on February 25, 1933). Though he became well known as the Lone Ranger's friend, Tonto was originally created just so the Lone Ranger would have someone with whom to talk.[3] Throughout the radio run (which spanned 21 years), with only a few exceptions, Tonto was played by English actor John Todd.[4]

The character was portrayed on television (arguably the most well-remembered version today) by Jay Silverheels. This was the highest-rated television program on the ABC network in the early 1950s and its first true "hit".[5]



Two conflicting origin stories have been given for the character Tonto, and how he came to work with the Lone Ranger.

As originally presented, in the December 7, 1938, radio broadcast, Reid had already been well-established as the Lone Ranger when he met Tonto. In that episode, Cactus Pete, a friend of the Lone Ranger, tells the story of how the masked man and Tonto first met. According to that tale, Tonto had been caught in the explosion when two men dynamited a gold mine they were working. One of the men wanted to kill the wounded Tonto, but the Lone Ranger arrived on the scene and made him administer first aid. The miner subsequently decided to keep Tonto around, intending to make him the fall guy when he would later murder his partner. The Lone Ranger foiled both the attempted murder and the framing. No reason was given in the episode as to why Tonto chose to travel with the Lone Ranger, rather than continue about his business.

A different version was given in both later episodes of the radio drama and at the beginning of the Lone Ranger television series. Tonto rescues a man named Reid, the sole surviving Texas Ranger of a party who was tricked into an ambush by the outlaw Butch Cavendish (although later reference works referred to the future Lone Ranger as "John" Reid, no first name was ever given to the Lone Ranger in either the radio or TV series). Tonto recognizes the ranger as someone who had saved him when they were both boys. He refers to him by the title "ke-mo sah-bee", explaining that the phrase means "faithful scout" in the language of his tribe. Tonto buries the dead rangers, and The Lone Ranger instructs him to make a sixth empty grave to leave the impression he, too, is dead.[1]

This Native American was portrayed as an intelligent character, almost an equal partner to the Ranger in his work. Together, they seem to be capable of righting almost any wrong.

The radio series identified Tonto as a chief's son in the Potawatomi nation. His name translates as "wild one" in his own language. For the most part, the Potawatomi did not live in the Southwestern states, and their regalia is different from that worn by Tonto.[clarification needed] The choice to make Tonto a Potawatomi seems to come from station owner George Trendle's youth in Mullett Lake, Michigan. Located in the northern part of the Midwest, Michigan is the traditional territory of the Potawatomi, and many local institutions use Potawatomi names. Other sources [6] indicate that Camp Kee Mo Sah Bee belonged to the father-in-law of the show's director, James Jewell. According to author David Rothel, who interviewed Jewell a few months before his death[6] Kee Mo Sah Bee and Tonto were the only two words that Jewell remembered from those days. Tonto's name may have been inspired by the name of Tonto Basin, Arizona.

Tonto's horse

Tonto first rode a Paint Horse named "White Feller" (White Fella/Fellah); later this horse was exchanged for a Pinto named "Scout".[7]


The portrayal of Tonto has been seen by some Native Americans and others as degrading, despite his heroism, notably by Native American author and poet Sherman Alexie.[8] Tonto spoke in a pidgin, saying things like, "That right, Kemo Sabe," or "Him say man ride over ridge on horse."

In 1975, poet and science fiction writer Paul O. Williams coined the term "tontoism" to refer to the practice of writing haiku with missing articles ("the", "a", or "an"), which he claimed made such haiku sound like Tonto's stunted English.

Further, in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, the word tonto means "fool" or "dumb", so the name was changed in the dubbed versions.[citation needed] In the Spanish dubbing, Tonto is known as "Toro", meaning "Bull".

Later adaptations of the character such as The Legend of the Lone Ranger and the Filmation animated series depict him as being perfectly articulate in English and speaking it carefully.

Television actor Silverheels was not above making a little fun of the character himself, as in a classic sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson with Carson playing a career counselor and Silverheels playing Tonto looking for a new job after working "thirty lousy years" as the Lone Ranger's faithful sidekick. When asked why he was looking for a new job, Tonto replies, "Him finally find out what Kemo Sabe means!"[episode needed]

Other media

Tonto has appeared in the various media based on The Lone Ranger.

He starred in his own comic book, The Lone Ranger's Companion Tonto, 31 issues of which were published by Dell Comics during the 1950s.

Later depictions beginning in the 1980s have taken efforts to show Tonto as an articulate and proud warrior whom the Ranger treats as an equal partner. In the Topps Comics four-issue miniseries, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Tonto is even shown to be a very witty, outspoken and sarcastic character willing to punch the Lone Ranger during a heated argument and commenting on his past pop-culture depictions with the words, "Of course, Kemosabe. Maybe when we talked I should use that 'me Tonto' stuff, way they write about me in the dime novels. You'd like that, wouldn't you?".[9]

Tonto was portrayed by Jon Lovitz in several Saturday Night Live sketches along with Tarzan (Kevin Nealon) and Frankenstein's Monster (Phil Hartman), playing off of their collective lack of proper English skills.

Tonto appears in the movie Inspector Gadget during the Minions Anonymous meeting.

The animated television series Metalocalypse character Nathan Explosion—who is one-fourth Native American—has several times in the series been called Tonto due to his speaking in short, simple sentences.

Bill Cosby had an early stand-up comedy routine which discusses Tonto and his position as the Lone Ranger's companion, and how, according to Cosby, every time the Lone Ranger would send Tonto to town, "the bandits would beat the snot out of him".[10]

Different covers of the song "Apache (The Shadows song)", also known as "Jump On It" (versions by Sugarhill Gang in 1981, Sir Mix-a-Lot in 1996, etc.) refer extensively to Tonto, including the refrain "Tonto, Jump on it, Jump on it, Jump on it. Kemosabe, jump on it [etc.]."

Singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett dedicated a verse to Tonto in his award-winning song "If I Had a Boat": "The mystery masked man was smart / He got himself a Tonto / 'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free. / But Tonto he was smarter / And one day said Kemo-Sabe / Kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I'm going out to sea."

In the VeggieTales 2007 episode "Moe and the Big Exit", Aaron (Archibald Asparagus) dresses like Tonto.

He is mentioned in the lyrics of "Ex-Lion Tamer", a song from the band Wire on their 1977 debut album Pink Flag.

In Frank Zappa's You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3, the "Bobby Brown" lyric "none of the jocks even think I'm a homo" is changed to "none of the jocks even think I'm a tonto". After Bobby Brown is castrated, the background lyric "High-ho Silver away" is used repeatedly.

In the 21st episode of the television series Gilmore Girls, Tonto is mentioned as a pet name Lorelai calls her daughter Rory.

Tonto will be portrayed by Johnny Depp in the upcoming feature film The Lone Ranger.


  1. ^ a b "The Lone Ranger: Justice from Outside the Law". NPR. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  2. ^ Stassel, Stephanie (1999-12-29). "Clayton Moore, TV's 'Lone Ranger,' Dies". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-10-19. 
  3. ^ "The Lone Ranger: Justice from Outside the Law", All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 14 January 2008.
  4. ^ Lone Ranger Fan Club - Tonto
  5. ^ "Clayton Moore, the 'Lone Ranger,' dead at 85". CNN. Retrieved 2009-10-19. 
  6. ^ a b Van Hise, James. Who was that Masked Man? The Story of the Lone Ranger (Pioneer Books, Las Vegas, 1990), pp. 16-18.
  7. ^ Anderson, Chuck. "The Horses". The Old Corral. Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  8. ^ I Hated Tonto (Still Do), Sherman Alexie, LA Times, June 28, 1998
  9. ^ Sheyahshe, Michael A. (2008). Native Americans in Comic Books. Jefferson: McFarland & Company. pp. 124–126. 
  10. ^ I Started Out As A Child, recording of Bill Cosby, 1964.

Further reading