Movie Cowboys’ Texas Ties: Some are True, Some are False

Film studios were known for occasionally exaggerating the resumes of their stars back in the early days. One example was the film resume of singing cowboy actor Ken Maynard. His biography said he was born in Mission, Texas when in reality he was born in Vevay, Indiana. It could have either been an inadvertent miscommunication or an intentional statement to give him more of a “Texas” connection, but Maynard (1895-1973) had a long film career, appearing as a western actor in about 90 productions. One biographical paragraph says that Maynard learned to ride horses and rope in Texas when he was a boy, but it is not clear whether the family lived within the state, or if they did, for how long. Maynard is believed to have worked with circus or wild west shows before becoming and served in the Army in World War I. The rest of his resume may well have been factual.

Maynard – Image credit:

Maynard was once one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. He sang and played the guitar on screen, fought “bad guys” and flirted with the pretty girls. He died at the age of 77 after falling on hard times and having been in poor health. His obituary repeats many of the stories that usually were included in his film biography. It is difficult to tell what was true or false from looking at genealogical sources.

A more elaborate example of the trend is the film biography of Tom Mix. Some of the Mix legends are repeated in the internet in this link. “Mix worked as a cowhand in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Montana and served in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and in the pursuit of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. He was also a deputy sheriff in Oklahoma and served in the Texas Rangers. In 1906 he joined a Wild West show and, three years later, the Sells-Floto Circus. He began to act in motion pictures in 1910, playing the part of a roughriding hero, defender of right and justice. Over the years his horse “Tony” became almost as famous as Mix himself. Mix appeared in more than 200 one- and two-reelers and feature films, many of which he also produced or directed.”

Mix – Image credit:

The Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma (north of Tulsa, between Tulsa and the Kansas border) does a great job of separating fact from fiction. Although Mix was quite an interesting person, he apparently did not serve in the Spanish-American War nor serve as a Texas Ranger. He was, however, named an honorary Texas Ranger by Governor James Allred in 1935. Governor Allred was known for making honorary appointments, especially around the time of the Texas Centennial.

According to the Mix museum website, the actor was born in 1880 in Driftwood, Pennsylvania not far from a community named for his family called Mix Run. When he was about 18, he enlisted in the U. S. Army, but as far as we can tell, did not serve in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He served until 1901, reinlisted for another three years but seems to have gotten married and left the Army shortly thereafter. The website says he was listed as AWOL at least one point, but was apparently never prosecuted for it. In any case, Mix was well out of the Army and into his acting career by 1916 and 1917 when the so called Punitive Expedition to attempt to capture Pancho Villa took place and the United States Army went from Texas across the border into Mexico. Accordingly, Mix would not have taken part in the unsuccessful effort to capture the Mexican bandit.

Some newspaper accounts have Mix working as a cowboy in the Texas Panhandle at some of the famous old ranches like the Matador and XIT, but as far as we can tell, he did not. He may have indeed held some ranch jobs in northern Oklahoma in his early years and at least once may have served as a deputy sheriff in or around Dewey. By 1910, he had made his first film appearances and his career continued almost uninterrupted for several studios until the early 1930s. Though today, they might be categorized on a lower rung when compared to those that came later, Mix’s films were virtually all in the western genre and usually featured him in heroic roles. They also often showed him performing incredible stunts. In time, public tastes in films eventually changed and the western genre became increasingly less popular. As his film career declined, Mix began to make appearances in traveling circuses along with other personal appearances. The publicity for appearances continued to include some of the earlier myths, however. Below is an excerpt from the Selma Times-Journal (Selma, Alabama) from October 1, 1933. The article was promoting a personal appearance in Selma by Mix. As far as we can tell, the “Shonts Brothers” (mentioned below) were not an actual outlaw gang, but were thought to have been fictional characters from a story line in a radio broadcast.

Accounts of the incident vary, but Mix was killed in a one car accident on October 12, 1940 outside Phoenix, Arizona. He was fatally injured when his car, a Cord convertible, left the roadway near a construction zone. Maynard, Mix and several others had long and successful film careers. Their on screen appeal and charisma was likely instrumental in the popularity and longevity of the western genre of films for so many years.

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