Jay Silverheels – “Tonto”

Jay Silverheels (Harry J. Smith) as Tonto in the long playing series, the "Lone Ranger."
Jay Silverheels (Harold J. Smith) as Tonto in the long-playing series, the “Lone Ranger.”

Jay Silverheels (May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980) was one of the most famous and successful Canadian actors in the history of Hollywood. For decades, The Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto were pop culture symbols as universally identifiable as Mickey Mouse.

Early life

Silverheels was born Harold J. Smith on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, Ontario, Canada, one of 11 children of a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief and military officer, Major George Smith. Silverheels excelled in athletics and lacrosse before leaving home to travel around North America. In the 1930s, he played indoor lacrosse as Harry Smith with the “Iroquois” of Rochester, New York in the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association. He lived for a time in Buffalo, New York, and in 1938 placed second in the middleweight class of the Golden Gloves tournament.


While playing in Los Angeles on a touring box lacrosse team in 1937, he impressed Joe E. Brown with his athleticism. Brown encouraged Silverheels to do a screen test, which led to his acting career. Silverheels began working in motion pictures as an extra and stunt man in 1937. He was billed variously as Harold Smith and Harry Smith, and appeared in low-budget features, westerns, and serials. He adopted his screen name from the nickname he had as a lacrosse player. From the late 1940s, he played in major films, including Captain from Castile starring Tyrone Power, I Am an American (1944), Key Largo with Humphrey Bogart (1948), Lust for Gold with Glenn Ford (1949), Broken Arrow (1950) with James Stewart, War Arrow (1953) with Maureen O’Hara, Jeff Chandler and Noah Beery, Jr., The Black Dakotas (1954) as Black Buffalo, Drums Across the River (1954), Walk the Proud Land (1956) with Audie Murphy and Anne Bancroft, Alias Jesse James (1959) with Bob Hope, and Indian Paint (1964) with Johnny Crawford. He made a brief appearance in True Grit (1969) as a condemned criminal about to be executed. He played a substantial role as John Crow in Santee (1973), starring Glenn Ford. One of his last roles was a wise white-haired chief in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973).


Jay Silverheels with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger.
Jay Silverheels with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger.

Silverheels achieved his greatest fame as Tonto on The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore. The fictional story line maintains that a small group of Texas Rangers, except for The Lone Ranger, were massacred. The Lone Ranger and Tonto then ride throughout the West to assist those challenged by the lawless element. Their expenses (and bullets) are provided through a silver mine owned by The Lone Ranger, who also names his horse “Silver”. Being irreplaceable in his role, Silverheels appeared in film sequels: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).

When The Lone Ranger television series ended, Silverheels found himself firmly typecast as an American Indian. On January 6, 1960, he portrayed an Indian fireman trying to extinguish a forest fire in the episode “Leap of Life” in the syndicated series, Rescue 8, starring Jim Davis and Lang Jeffries.[21]

Eventually, he went to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income. He also began to publish poetry inspired by his youth on the Six Nations Indian Reserve and recited his work on television. In 1966, he guest-starred as John Tallgrass in the short-lived ABC comedy/western series The Rounders, with Ron Hayes, Patrick Wayne, and Chill Wills.

Despite the typecasting, Silverheels in later years often poked fun at his character. In 1969, he appeared as Tonto without The Lone Ranger in a comedy sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The sketch was featured on the 1973 record album Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From The Tonight Show. “My name is Tonto. I hail from Toronto and I speak Esperanto.” In 1970, he appeared in a commercial for Chevrolet as an Indian chief who rescues two lost hunters who ignored his advice in that year’s Chevy Blazer. The William Tell Overture is heard in the background.

Silverheels hilariously spoofed his Tonto character in a famous Stan Freberg Jeno’s Pizza Rolls TV commercial opposite Clayton Moore, and in The Phynx, opposite John Hart, both having played The Lone Ranger in the original television series.

He appeared in three episodes of NBC’s Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker as the real life frontiersman.

His later appearances included an episode of ABC’s The Brady Bunch, as an Indian who befriends the Bradys in the Grand Canyon, and in an episode of the short-lived Dusty’s Trail, starring Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island.

Personal life

Silverheels raised, bred and raced Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, when asked about possibly running Tonto’s famous Paint horse Scout in a race, Jay laughed off the idea: “Heck, I can outrun Scout!”

Married in 1945, Silverheels was the father of three girls and a boy.

Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6538 Hollywood Blvd.

Each New Year at the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, Clayton Moore, dressed as The Lone Ranger and riding a white horse named Silver, appeared with Silverheels as Tonto, mounted on a paint horse named Scout

Jay Silverheels died on March 5, 1980 from complications of a stroke at age sixty-seven in Calabasas, California. He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory, and his ashes were returned to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.


In 1993, Silverheels was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was named to the Western New York Entertainment Hall of Fame, and his portrait hangs in Buffalo, New York’s Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6538 Hollywood Boulevard. First Americans in the Arts honored Jay Silverheels with their Life Achievement Award.

In 1997, Silverheels was inducted, under the name Harry “Tonto” Smith, into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the Veteran Player category in recognition of his lacrosse career during the 1930s.

In the early 1960s, Silverheels supported the Indian Actors Workshop, where American Indian actors refined their skills in Echo Park, California. Today the workshop is firmly established.


Black History settlement in Canada

“Wilberforce Street,” Oro-Medone, Ontario

Oro Township showing lots located or occupied by black settlers.The black settlement at Oro was not, as oral tradition would have it, a northern terminus of the “Underground Railroad.” In fact, it was the result of government policy to settle Loyalist black refugees, who may have been escaped slaves, free men, or veterans of the War of 1812.  The outbreak of the war caused apprehension among black settlers in Upper Canada, who feared an American victory might bring a return to slavery.  As a result, free blacks, and many escaped slaves, volunteered to fight for the British.  One noted militia unit was Captain Runchey’s Company for Coloured Men, which saw action at Stoney Creek, Queenston Heights, Lundy’s Lane, and St. David’s.  Veterans of Runchey’s Company were among the black settlers in Oro.

Between 1819 and 1831, black settlement along Wilberforce Street, located along the west side of Concession II in Oro Township, was sponsored by the government of Upper Canada. Though it was not the largest black settlement in Upper Canada, the Wilberforce Street settlement was the only one that resulted from government planning and encouragement. The Wilberforce Street lots, as well as some in Concessions III to VI, became home to about 60 black settlers and their families, with a maximum population of approximately 100 people. Settlement occurred in two waves, from 1819-1826 and from 1828-1831.

 African Episcopal Church - 1847—The land was purchased for a cemetery and church from Noah Morris, a Black settler, who owned the corner of Conc. 3 and side road 10/11. 1849—The church was opened for services. The Black community reached its apex in the 1840’s and then gradually declined. 1900—Approximate time of

African Episcopal Church – 1847—The land was purchased for a
cemetery and church from Noah
Morris, a Black settler, who owned the
corner of Conc. 3 and side road 10/11.
1849—The church was opened for
services. The Black community
reached its apex in the 1840’s and then
gradually declined.


Arriving as early as they did, the black families who settled along Wilberforce Street were among the first permanent agricultural settlers in the area. The very first will probated in Simcoe County, in 1841, was that of George A. Darkman, who was granted Lot 24 Concession II, Oro Township. Descendants of some of the first black settlers remained in Oro for nearly 130 years, and in other parts of Simcoe County to the present day.

Early Settlement in Simcoe County

Until 1819, there was no European agricultural settlement in Simcoe County, though there were established trading, missionary, and military settlements. The years preceding the War of 1812 had seen the situation of military outposts at Nottawasaga and Penetanguishene to guard against American attack from Lake Huron. In 1808, it was deemed crucial to have a land route to the settlement at Penetanguishene. Samuel Wilmot was dispatched to explore and survey a road from Kempenfelt Bay to Penetanguishene. It is possible that one of the earliest black settlers in Oro, Daniel Cokely, worked for him on this expedition.

The Wilberforce Street Settlement: First Wave 1819-1826

On April 26th, 1819, under Lieutenant-Governor Peregrine Maitland, the Executive Council, two members of which had been slave-owners themselves, created a policy of settling black Loyalist veterans and refugees on 100 acre lots in the second concession of Oro Township. On that date, four orders-in-council were passed granting land to black settlers. It appears that none of these four grantees actually settled on Wilberforce Street.

Between 1819 and 1826, about 23 orders-in-council were issued. The recipients of these grants were a disparate group, mostly labourers who had emigrated from the United States. Eleven of the men who settled along Wilberforce Street had served in the military during the War of 1812. Of the others, eight were living in Upper Canada during the War. Only 19 actually applied for a location ticket, and only eight of these actually settled their lots. It is unknown where the absentee settlers were, though some may have lived in Toronto or the Niagara region.

In 1825, the regulations pertaining to land distribution were changed, making free grants available only to Loyalists and those with military service. All others had to pay for the rights to settle. In 1827, Peter Robinson (a former slave owner) was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands, which position was responsible for the settlement of black veterans and Loyalists in Oro Township.

The Wilberforce Street Settlement: Second Wave 1828-1831

During this time, repressive laws in Ohio led to an exodus of black persons out of Ohio and into Upper Canada. Many settled in Middlesex County, while others established themselves in other areas of the province. It is believed that some of those who settled in Oro during the second wave were refugees from Ohio who initially located in southwest Upper Canada. Groups of black refugees petitioned the government to buy or be granted large parcels of land for settlement, but pressure from local white settlers, along with the government’s decision to provide land to black settlers along Wilberforce Street, led to the rejection of these “group” petitions. This was not discriminatory, but was rather a rejection of any special treatment. Blacks and whites were equally welcome to petition the government – as individuals – for land grants.

Under the direction of Commissioner Peter Robinson, land was sold to black settlers at one shilling per acre. Payment was not required until the patent was issued, after all improvements were complete. In most respects, land distribution to black settlers remained the same. One crucial difference was that Robinson settled many off of Wilberforce Street, on Concessions III to VI. Thirty-nine orders-in-council were issued by his office.

Source: http://www.simcoe.ca/Archives/Pages/black.aspx


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