Heritage Moments: How Jay Silverheels, the man who played Tonto, got his name

Oct 24, 2016

Tonto is one of the most famous and enduring characters ever to come out of American television. He is the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick, brave, loyal and just, variously described as Potawatomi or Comanche. And the actor who made Tonto come alive during the entire TV run of The Lone Ranger (1949-57) was a handsome, dark-haired, sometimes-Buffalonian named Jay Silverheels.


Silverheels’s real name was Harry J. Smith, born into a prominent Mohawk-Seneca family at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., 75 miles west of Buffalo. The Six Nations lands have been reserved for the Haudenosaunee people since 1784, originally granted by King George III in return for their service to the crown in the American Revolution. All the peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy live there – Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora; it has always been a place proud of its culture and heritage.

Part of that heritage is lacrosse – tewaaraton, the Creator’s Game. Harry Smith and his brother and cousins, like so many young men at Six Nations, excelled at the sport. Harry had no idea at the time, but lacrosse would turn out to be his springboard to fame and fortune.

In 1931 the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens wanted to fill their empty hockey arenas during the summer months. So they moved lacrosse, an outdoor game for eons, indoors and started a professional league at just the right time for Harry Smith, 19, and his brother and cousins George (“Chubby”), Russell (“Beef”) and Sid (“Porky”).

The Smith boys turned pro with Toronto Tecumseh, a club named after the great Shawnee chief who fought for Indian autonomy in the War of 1812. Next they suited up for the Buffalo Bowmans, who played at the Broadway Auditorium (today a Public Works Department garage known as the Broadway Barns). They also played in other leagues for Rochester, Albany, Geneva, even Hornell. In Atlantic City they formed a barnstorming team that went to Los Angeles to demonstrate lacrosse at the 1932 Olympics.

For much of that decade Harry lived in Buffalo. He had a couple of children. He entered the 1937 Golden Gloves boxing tournament, won the middleweight division and got all the way to the Atlantic States title bout at Madison Square Garden in New York City.*

Smith starred on pro lacrosse teams in Buffalo, Toronto, Rochester, Akron, Albany and Atlantic City in the early 1930s. He was so fast that his teammates called him “Silverheels” -- the name he used after he went to Hollywood and became an actor.
Credit Clipping from Judy “Punch” Garlow’s scrapbooks, at Larry Power’s Bible of Lacrosse

Sometime during this period, in 1931 or ’32, Harry earned a nickname of his own. There are several stories about how it happened; Buffalo goalie Judy “Punch” Garlow told one version to fellow lacrosse great Ross Powless, who repeated the story many years later:

Judy Punch Garlow told me how Harry got the name Silverheels. One time the boys won new white lacrosse shoes for playing good and Harry ran so fast in them new white shoes, all you could see was flashes of white at his heels. I guess they couldn't very well call him Whiteheels, him being Mohawk and all, so they called him Silverheels.

Late in the ’30s Harry went back to L.A. to play lacrosse, and there, handsome and athletic, he was “discovered.” Hired to do extra and stunt work in a string of films, he was always either credited as Harry Smith or, more often, went uncredited altogether. He resettled in Los Angeles, kept working, and finally earned his first role as Jay Silverheels, his old lacrosse nickname, in 1946. Two years later he broke through with a part in the Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo, and a year after that, he entered the new medium of television as Tonto in The Lone Ranger.**

Silverheels, perhaps the first native actor to portray an Indian in a leading role in Hollywood, always played Tonto with dignity. But he was bothered by Tonto’s subservience to the Lone Ranger, and by the pidgin English Tonto was always forced to speak. Silverheels was a celebrity when he returned to Six Nations for an official visit in 1957, but when asked what he thought of the role he played he answered, “Tonto is stupid.”

Silverheels went on to become a strong advocate for indigenous people in film and television; he founded and ran the Indian Actors Workshop in Los Angeles in the 1960s. In the end, perhaps his most important role was the vital part he played in curtailing the screen industry’s long habit of casting whites, rather than native actors, as Indians.

Indeed, Jay Silverheels turned out to be just as boldly effective in Hollywood, onscreen and off, as he was back in Buffalo, when he was the fastest man on the floor of the old Broadway Auditorium.

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*The only comprehensive biography of Jay Silverheels is an informative book titled Tonto: The Man in Front of the Mask, by Zig Misiak.

**Besides Silverheels, Buffalo had another key Lone Ranger connection: the show began as a radio serial for WEBR written by Buffalonian Fran Striker.

Cast (in order of appearance):

P.A. announcer: Karl-Eric Reif

Referee: Jeff Z. Klein

Player No. 1: Shaun McLaughln

Player No. 2: Michael Martin

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Micheal Peters, WBNY general manager, 2016-17 academic year

Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State

Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept. 

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)