Josephine Workman was born in Los Angeles in 1882, one of seven children. With no experience or aspirations, she innocently answered an ad in a local newspaper seeking women with “the physical attributes for playing a Native American.” The ad was placed by Bison Motion Pictures’ director/producer Thomas Ince, known in Hollywood as “The Father of the Western.” Ince produced over 800 films in the genre, but famously shunned the hiring of actual Native Americans. Ince liked Josephine’s looks. Once she quickly accomplished the necessary horseback riding skills, the 27 year-old was renamed “Mona Darkfeather” by the studio and given a fabricated backstory involving a Native American lineage.
In a whirlwind six years, “Mona” appeared in over 100 silent films, usually portraying Native American maidens. She became adept at stunts and the trick riding required for some scenes. She married director Frank Montgomery in 1912 and he guided her career, having her “branch out” to play characters of Spanish ancestry. Her persona of “Princess Mona Darkfeather” was renowned and she often made live promotional appearances to the delight of her strong fanbase. She was pursued by Cecil B. DeMille for roles, but declined as she worked exclusively with her husband on independent pictures. But in 1917, “Mona” retired from the screen and later divorced Montgomery… only to marry him again following an eight-year marriage to banker Alfred Wessling. Her second marriage to Montgomery lasted until his death in 1944.
In her retirement, “Mona” lived in relative obscurity until her passing in 1977 at the age of 95. A ward of the State of California, she was destitute at the time of her death. Her stardom had faded along with any interest in her career. Her film catalog had long been discarded by the studios leaving her with no legacy. She was interred in an unmarked grave until 2014 when a great-nephew paid for a grave marker.