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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.

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 as well-known as the Lone Ranger's friend, Tonto was originally created just so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to. Throughout the radio run (which spanned 21 years), with only a few exceptions, Tonto was played by English actor John Todd.
The character was portrayed on television (arguably the most well-remembered version today) by Jay Silverheels. This was by far the highest-rated television program on the ABC network in the early 1950s and its first true "hit".


Two conflicting origin stories have been given for the character Tonto, and how he came to work with the Lone Ranger. Unlike Zorro's servant Bernardo, Tonto speaks but does not use sign language.

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 attempted framing of Tonto. 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 helps Reid give a decent burial to the other rangers.

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 within the half-hour time frame.

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 cultural costume is different from that worn by Tonto. The choice to make Tonto a Potawatomi seems to come from station owner George Trendle's youth in Michigan. This is the traditional territory of the Potawatomi, and many local institutions use Potawatomi names. Tonto's name, according to an NPR news story on the Lone Ranger, was inspired by the name of Tonto Basin, Arizona.

Other media

Tonto has appeared in the various comic strips, comic books, and films based on The Lone Ranger. He even had his own comic book, published by Dell Comics during the 1950s, though in typical style of the day, it was titled The Lone Ranger's Companion Tonto. It ran for 31 issues. 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.

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