Born August 13, 1860
Darke County, Ohio
Died November 3, 1926
"The largest share of applause was bestowed on Annie Oakley, a young girl whose proficiency with shotgun and rifle seems almost miraculous."
London (Ontario) Free Press. September 2, 1885.
Annie Oakley was one of the best sharpshooters of her time. In fact, her ability with guns seemed magical to many fans. A small woman—five feet tall, one hundred pounds—she could handle several heavy rifles at one time to shoot down flying glass balls. From thirty feet, her bullet could split a playing card—held with the thin side facing her—in two. She could shoot a moving target behind her back while looking at the reflection in a knife blade. Speeding around an arena on horseback or on a bicycle, Oakley could hit targets. She performed her feats in stage shows around the world, but her real fame came from her performances in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. As a part of the notorious Wild West Show, she became renowned as a western hero even though she had never lived in the West.
Difficult early years
Born Phoebe Anne Moses (her last name has also been recorded as Mosey, Mauzy, or Mozee) in rural Ohio in 1860, Oakley lived in poverty and suffered much hardship early in life. When young Oakley was five, her father became an invalid after being caught in a winter blizzard; he died a year later at the age of thirty-three. Oakley's mother struggled to take care of her eight children. Oakley helped feed the family by catching quail and grouse in cornstalk traps. "Somehow we managed to struggle along for several years," Oakley is quoted as saying in Glenda Riley's The Life and Legend of Annie Oakley. To get even more food for her family, Oakley took her father's rifle from the mantel and went hunting. She shot a squirrel in the head on her first shot. The kickback of the gun—which she said she had filled with an amount of gunpowder large enough "to kill a buffalo"—gave her a black eye and a broken nose. Yet Oakley didn't mind her injuries because her family could eat squirrel stew that night.
Despite Annie's help, her mother was unable to take care of all the children. At age eight Oakley was sent to live in nearby Greenville with Samuel C. and Nancy Ann Edington, who ran the Darke County Infirmary (poorhouse). While with the Edingtons, Oakley learned some valuable domestic skills; she worked and was able to send some money home to her mother. Soon, however, she was hired from the infirmary by a farming family who treated her cruelly, beat her, and failed to pay her. After two years of this torture, Oakley ran away to her mother. Still too poor to care for her daughter, Oakley's mother again sent the girl to the Edingtons' poorhouse. Several years later, Oakley's mother remarried, and Oakley went to live on her mother and stepfather's meager farm. Hoping to help her poor family pay their mortgage, Oakley became a professional hunter. She was very successful at hunting, and the birds she killed were welcomed by hotel kitchens as far away as Cincinnati. Hotel guests never complained of bird shot in their meals, because Oakley always hit the birds in the head. After age ten, Oakley proudly proclaimed "[I] never had a nickel in my pocket that I didn't earn," according to Jean Flynn in Annie Oakley: Legendary Sharpshooter. Oakley's hunting went so well that she earned enough to pay off her family's mortgage.
Wins shooting contest
Although Oakley had succeeded in getting her family out of debt, she still couldn't read. Oakley's mother sent her to live with Annie's older sister Lydia in 1876. Lydia lived in Cincinnati, where Annie could attend school. Oakley enjoyed visiting the shooting galleries in Cincinnati. One day, while Oakley was easily hitting several of the targets at one booth, a man noticed her skill and asked her if she'd like to make some money using a gun. The man arranged a shooting match between Oakley and Frank Butler, a traveling marksman. The purse was one hundred dollars, more than some people made in a year at the time. She and Butler shot at clay pigeons as these targets were thrown into the air. Oakley hit twenty-five and Butler twenty-four; she won the match as well as Butler's heart. The two wrote letters to each other regularly after the match, and according to most sources they were married one year later. Some historians contend that Oakley and Butler lived together for a time before marrying.
In Frank Butler, Oakley had found an excellent shooting partner, an enthusiastic promoter of her abilities, a great friend, and someone to teach her to read. In the beginning of their marriage, Oakley traveled with her husband's show but watched him perform from backstage. Oakley got her first chance in the spotlight in 1882 when Frank's regular partner took ill. Oakley delighted crowds with her performance, and Butler made her his regular partner. Oakley took the stage name Annie Oakley, and the couple performed throughout the Midwest.
Joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
Not long after she began performing with Butler, Oakley was approached by Lewis Sells, owner of what he called "The Biggest of all Big Shows," the Sells Brothers Circus. Sells wanted Oakley to shoot targets from the back of a galloping horse in his circus. Butler became Oakley's manager rather than her performing partner, and Oakley was billed as a world champion markswoman. Believing that her skills could be better appreciated in a western-themed show, Butler and Oakley approached William "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846–1917; see entry) about a position for her in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. After Annie impressed Buffalo Bill Cody's partner at her audition, Cody allowed her to join the show for a three-day trial. Cody was astounded by "Missie," as he called Oakley, and she joined the show full-time in 1884. She performed with the show for the next seventeen years, the longest tenure of any of the show's performers.
For her act, Oakley wore handmade western costumes and a cowboy hat with a silver star pinned to it. During her ten-minute act, she galloped on a horse while shooting at glass balls that Butler tossed into the air. She jumped across a table to grab a second gun to shoot clay targets. She shot two targets at once while holding two guns and shot her gun upside down. To add theatrics to her performance, Oakley did a quick kick when she hit her target; when she missed (usually on purpose), she stamped the ground or pouted and shot off Butler's hat. She ended her act with a fancy sideways kick as she ran off the stage.
An Indian Princess
In 1884 the powerful Sioux chief Sitting Bull was touring St. Paul, Minnesota; his Indian agent (the government official in charge of the Indian reservation where Sitting Bull lived with his people) had hoped that the chief would learn to appreciate white civilization and persuade his people to live more like whites. Sitting Bull sat still and expressionless through his tours of local businesses and a school, but he came to life when he saw Annie Oakley perform in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He nicknamed Oakley "Wan-tan-yeya Cisci-la," which translated to "Little Sure Shot." He was so fond of Oakley that he insisted on adopting her as a daughter and presented her with his ceremonial headdress. As Glenda Riley notes in The Life and Legend of Annie Oakley, Oakley at first considered the adoption "just a lark." Keen to publicize her as a western woman, Oakley's husband and manager, Frank Butler, used the adoption to enhance Oakley's western image. In 1885, however, Sitting Bull joined the Wild West Show; he and Oakley became great friends. When he left the show later that year, she started a correspondence with him. Oakley would later regard her adoption by Sitting Bull as an honor. He too valued his friendship with Oakley and even willed all of his belongings to her. Oakley was outspoken in her disgust at Sitting Bull's murder in 1890. "Had he been a white man someone would have been hung for his murder," she wrote, according to Riley.
A "true" western heroine
Though the Buffalo Bill show billed Oakley as "the little girl of the Western plains," she had never lived in the West, having only crossed the Mississippi River to perform with the Sells Brothers Circus. Nevertheless, marksmanship was a skill required in the West, and Oakley's ability to entertain with guns fit in perfectly with Cody's show. At a time before radio, television, or movies, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show did more to create the myth of the West than any other form of entertainment did. The show's poster promised to provide the viewer with three hours of western "scenes that have cost thousands their lives to view" and offered a romanticized version of life in the West. On a ten-acre show lot, the Wild West Show featured Indian attacks, cowboys on bucking broncos, stagecoaches, cattle drives, and dramatizations of a Pony Express ride and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Though the cast included real western heroes and villains—including outlaw Doc Middleton and army scout Buffalo Bill Cody, who himself bore 193 bullet and arrow scars from his western adventures—the show invented a dynamic, thrilling past for each of the performers. Oakley never denied her childhood in Ohio, but audiences soon came to regard her as a "true" westerner. Newspapers reported that she was "a credit to the 'glorious country' beyond the Rockies" and detailed her hunts in the "high western mountains," according to Riley. Other papers praised her hand-sewn costumes as "that of the real wild West" and remarked that she spoke with a "western" accent, notes Riley.
The Wild West Show was so popular by 1887 that Queen Victoria requested that the show perform at her jubilee, which celebrated her fifty-year anniversary as ruler of Britain. At the performance, Grand Duke Michael of Russia challenged Oakley to a shooting match; she won easily, and Prince Edward presented her with a medal of victory. English newspapers called her "Annie Oakley of the magic gun," according to Walter Havighurst in Annie Oakley of the Wild West. Her popularity in Europe soared, and she left the Wild West Show to begin her own European and American tour. In 1889, Oakley rejoined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and traveled with the show to England, and then to France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany. Commenting on the show's Western authenticity, Frederic Remington wrote in Harper's Weekly in the late 1880s that "One should no longer ride the deserts of Texas or the rugged uplands of Wyoming to see the Indians and the pioneers, but should go to London."
Oakley performed with the Wild West Show until 1901. After seventeen years and 170,000 miles of travel, she had only missed four performances due to a brief sickness. Though a serious train accident in that same year partially paralyzed her, she continued working as a traveling markswoman for the next twenty years. She also starred in a play, The Western Girl, in 1902 and entertained American troops abroad during World War I (1914–18). When not traveling, she taught women in Pinehurst, North Carolina, to shoot rifles.
In addition to her commitment to her job, Oakley was greatly concerned about the welfare of others. Throughout her life, she displayed deep compassion for orphaned children. Oakley's success as an entertainer earned her and Butler a small fortune, but the couple was frugal. Instead of splurging on themselves, the Butlers supported eighteen orphan girls and paid for their education. At the end of her life, Oakley melted down all her gold medals, sold the metal, and donated the money to a home for children. Oakley's grandniece reported that "the last days of [Oakley's] life were spent in wrapping packages for friends all over the world ... she forgot no one," according to Riley. Oakley died November 3, 1926. Butler died eighteen days later.
For More Information
Flynn, Jean. Annie Oakley: Legendary Sharpshooter. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
Havighurst, Walter. Annie Oakley of the Wild West. New York: Macmillan, 1954.
Quackenbush, Robert. Who's That Girl with the Gun? A Story of Annie Oakley. New York: Prentice-Hall Books for Young Readers, 1987.
Riley, Glenda. The Life and Legend of Annie Oakley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Spinner, Stephanie. Little Sure Shot: The Story of Annie Oakley. New York: Random House, 1993.
Annie Oakley (1860-1926), originally Phoebe Anne Oakley Mozee, was known as "The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot," for her marksmanship. She led one of the fabled lives of America's Wild West.
Annie Oakley was born in a Drake Country, Ohio, log cabin on Aug. 13, 1860, the sixth of eight children. After her father died in a blizzard, she began shooting rabbits and quail to provide the family income. Then she went to town, won a shooting match against a vaudeville star named Frank E. Butler, and earned more by shooting glass balls and playing cards at 30 paces.
A few years later she married Butler, and he became her manager. Buffalo Bill hired them for his Wild West Show in 1885. Helped by publicists like Nate Salsbury and her own incredible shooting eye, Oakley remained a star for 17 years, surmounting even a train wreck in 1901 that partially paralyzed her for a time.
Let no one doubt that Oakley could do what she claimed. Thousands of people saw Annie slice a playing card with the thin edge toward her by shooting at 30 paces. Kaiser Wilhelm II had her shoot a cigarette out of his lips. She was death to moving glass balls; one day, by official count, she shot 4,772 out of 5,000.
Oakley charmed everyone with her simplicity and modesty, including Queen Victoria. Dressed in western costume and beating many a man in what was traditionally a masculine world, she intrigued young and old alike. (No wonder that Irving Berlin made her the subject of his Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, which played throughout the 1950s.)
A fundamentalist in religion, Oakley read the Bible throughout her life. She was never involved in the kind of scandal that plagued Buffalo Bill, and at least 18 orphan girls were educated through her generosity.
When Annie Oakley died on Nov. 3, 1926, there was wide mourning and many tributes. By then, any punched complimentary ticket—which looked as if it had holes shot through it—was called an "Annie Oakley." Born at the beginning of the Civil War, she lived through the "classic period" of transition from frontier to 20th-century statehood in the West. Whether or not she was the best lady shot in that epoch, she certainly was thought to be best; fact, fiction, and musical comedy have combined to make "Sharpshooter" an indelible adjunct to her name.
The first creditable biography of Annie Oakley, Courtney Riley Cooper's Annie Oakley: Woman at Arms (1927), was surpassed by Annie Fern Swartwout, Missie: An Historical Biography of Anne Oakley (1947). See also Stewart H. Holbrook, Little Annie Oakley and Other Rugged People (1948), and Walter Havighurst, Annie Oakley of the Wild West (1954).
Havighurst, Walter, Annie Oakley of the Wild West, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Kasper, Shirl, Annie Oakley, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Riley, Glenda, The life and legacy of Annie Oakley, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Sayers, Isabelle S., Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's wild west, New York: Dover Publications, 1981. □
Annie Oakley ★★★ 1935
Energetic biographical drama based on the life and legend of sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her on-off relationship with Wild Bill Hickok. Stanwyck makes a great Oakley. Later musicalized as “Annie Get Your Gun.” 90m/B VHS . Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Melvyn Douglas, Pert Kelton, Andy Clyde, Moroni Olsen, Chief Thundercloud; D: George Stevens.