As a young girl, I loved watching shows about the “wild, wild west.” Because of Hollywood, some became household names, such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok. Because she was extraordinary, this woman also garnered fame.
Annie Oakley has a fascinating story, beginning in her youth: Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 in rural Darke County, Ohio. Her father died when she was young, and Annie was sent to the county poor farm. At age 10, she was sent to work for a family who treated her cruelly — she called them “the wolves.” Eventually Annie ran away from them and was reunited with her mother. Annie helped support her family by shooting game in the nearby woods and selling it to a local shopkeeper. Her marksmanship paid off the mortgage on her mother’s house and led her to enter a shooting match with a touring champion on Thanksgiving Day 1875.
Life has a way of rising up to meet your destiny. One day proved pivotal in Annie’s life from then on. In a shooting match, she beat the touring champion Frank Butler, who said he fell in love with her instantly. Annie was 15. A year later they married, Frank sixteen years her senior. By 1882, after Frank’s partner became ill, Annie became his touring partner. Frank, as manager, shined the spotlight on his wife. Around this time, Annie adopted the professional name Oakley, from a town in Ohio. At one event in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1884, Oakley attracted the attention of legendary Native American warrior Sitting Bull, who adopted her and named her “Watanya Cicilla,” or “Little Sure Shot.” They would meet again. The nickname stayed with Oakley as she rose in the show business ranks.
She joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West in 1885 and performed in the show for most of the next 17 years. Oakley dazzled audiences with her shotgun abilities, splitting cards on their edges, snuffing candles, and shooting the corks off bottles. While maintaining her modest wardrobe, she also knew how to please a crowd, blowing kisses and pouting theatrically whenever she intentionally missed a shot.
After her triumphant years in Europe with Cody’s Wild West Show, she came home as America’s first female superstar. She and Butler were in a train accident in late 1901 and shortly afterwards left the show. During this period, Butler signed a contract as a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company in Connecticut. This was a position that allowed both Butler and Oakley to make endorsements for the company and to continue their shooting exhibitions until their retirement to the Maryland home they had built.
The Butler’s lived a frugal life, helping support her mother and his daughters and by donating to orphanages. Hoping for a quieter life were dashed after a false newspaper article was published by William Randolph Hearst that she was jailed for stealing to support a cocaine habit. Oakley’s highest ambition was to be considered a lady, so she sued all 55 newspapers who ran the story, and won or settled out of court in 54 of them. Although she won, it still took a financial toll after paying her legal fees.
During WW1, Annie raised money for the American Red Cross and continued to give shooting demonstrations and lessons. She died in November 1926 at the age of 66. Annie and Frank had been married for 50 years. It was said Frank died of a broken heart, 18 days after Annie.
She has been immortalized on stage and screen in the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” many times over; a favorite revival. The home she and Frank built in Maryland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She had a fondness for her time in Pinehurst North Carolina where she recuperated after an automobile accident while in Florida. They too honor her. The Annie Oakley Museum is located in her home state of Ohio, where she and Frank are buried. And of course, she is featured all through the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody Wyoming, which I have visited.
From her humble roots as Phoebe Ann Moses to taking center stage as Annie Oakley—champion shooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—this remarkable woman is remembered as a western folk hero, American legend, and icon. Throughout her career, Oakley maintained her dignity and propriety while quietly proving that she was superior to most men on the shooting range…..and in life.
Girls, are you listening? You’ve got this!