Mix, Thomas Edwin (1880–1940)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: January 26, 2019

Thomas Edwin (Tom) Mix, the leading silent Western movie star of the 1920s, was born on January 6, 1880, in Mix Run, Pennsylvania, the third of four children of Edwin Elias and Mary Elizabeth (Heistand) Mix. In his autobiography he claimed to have been born and raised on a ranch on the Rio Grande forty miles from El Paso. The known facts of his life are relatively few and do not include any prolonged residence in Texas. In 1888 his family moved to DuBois, Pennsylvania, where Edwin Mix opened a livery stable and Tom completed grade school. His father taught him to ride, and for the next few years he worked various odd jobs in town and as a waterboy for lumberjacks in the Allegheny Mountains. On April 26, 1898, Mix joined the army for the first of two three-year enlistments. Army records indicate that he deserted before the expiration of his second stretch. Shortly thereafter he married Grace Allen of Louisville, Kentucky. They divorced a few years later, and Mix worked as a cowboy for the Miller brothers' 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma, and also performed in their traveling Wild West show. He married Olive Stokes, the daughter of an Oklahoma rancher, on January 19, 1909; she later claimed that they had been introduced by their mutual friend, Will Rogers, at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

The myth of Mix is perhaps more interesting than mere fact. In later years he told many colorful stories about his military career. He claimed to have fought with the First United States Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders) in the battle of San Juan Hill and to have fought in the Philippines and the Boxer Rebellion. He claimed to have been the second soldier wounded in the latter conflict, sent home with a severe chest wound. Back in the United States, Mix reportedly broke wild horses in Denver for the use of the British military in the Boer War. He supposedly went to South Africa in an unofficial capacity and participated in the siege of Ladysmith, where he received wounds to his shoulder and arm. He claimed to have subsequently been sheriff in Two Buttes, Colorado, Montgomery County, Kansas, and Washington County, Oklahoma, and to have served with the Texas Rangers and as a deputy United States marshal. In 1909 he reportedly won a national riding and roping competition at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Mix also claimed that Francisco I. Madero offered him $500 to capture political enemies hiding in the Sierra Madre. According to this story, Mix went to Mexico and brought his quarry in, only to be sentenced to execution by firing squad on a trumped-up charge. He claimed to have been saved at the last minute by the confession of his accuser. Mix said that he used the money he had received from Madero and bought three new horses, which he trained to dance. He and his horses went to El Paso, where he became a performer, doing rope tricks while his horses danced. According to Olive Stokes Mix, he later joined the Widerman Wild West show in Amarillo but left shortly thereafter in a dispute over his salary.

In fact, like the story of his Texas roots, he concocted most of these stories after he had become a movie star in order to give himself a more authentically Western image. According to Olive Stokes Mix, his screen career began when he was asked to go to Flemington, Missouri, where the Selig Company of Chicago was filming silent Westerns. In fact, according to other sources, the Selig Company went to Oklahoma and initially hired Mix to scout locations and supply cowboy extras. He eventually moved before the cameras as a replacement for Selig's first star, Bronco Billy Anderson, who had left to start his own production company. Mix's first film for Selig was The Range Rider (1910); during his tenure with the company, from 1910 to 1918, he also appeared in a jungle serial with Kathlyn Williams. Also during this period he divorced Olive and in 1917 married one of his leading ladies, Victoria Forde. In 1918 Mix moved to the William Fox Studios, and in the 1920s he became the leading box-office attraction in the nation in such films as Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), The Yankee SeƱor (1926), The Canyon of Light (1926), The Last Trail (1927), The Bronco Twister (1927), and The Coming of the Law (1928). These movies presented a romanticized view of the American West, in which Mix customarily portrayed the spotless hero, in immaculate white suit and fancy boots, who rescued the rancher's daughter from the clutches of the villain, who was often (ironically, in light of Mix's actual background) an Easterner. According to one historian, Mix "more than any other man betrayed the historic West and established a stereotype which was to persist for many years."

With the advent of talkies in the late 1920s, Mix virtually retired from the film business and accepted an offer to tour with the Sells-Floto Circus. He divorced his third wife in 1930 and married Mabel Hubbell Ward, an aerial performer with the Sells-Floto Circus. He made only a few movies in the 1930s, concentrating instead on touring with Wild West shows and circuses. He began his own circus in 1937, but the venture proved a financial disaster. Pecos was the site of its final performance in 1938. Mix died on October 12, 1940, when his Cord automobile overturned on a highway near Florence, Arizona; he was driving to California to discuss a return to the movies. His principal baggage reportedly consisted of three snow-white Stetson hats.

Dallas News, October 13, 1940. Dictionary of American Biography. Olive Stokes Mix and Eric Heath, The Fabulous Tom Mix (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1957). Tom Mix, The West of Yesterday (Los Angeles Times-Mirror, 1923).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martin Donell Kohout, “Mix, Thomas Edwin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mix-thomas-edwin.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995
January 26, 2019