Annie Oakley is a legendary sharpshooter, well known and beloved in the 19th century from her performances with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She was an exemplary female role model, and remembered for her skill with the gun and for her opinions on female gun rights. Annie Oakley was reputed to teach at least 15,000 women on how to use a gun. Her showmanship was crafted from hard work and immense talent, and did not require any tricks to deceive her audience. Contrary to popular belief, Annie Oakley was not born in the West, nor was she raised on the frontier, but that does not make her any less of a “Western Legend.”
Annie Oakley’s birth name, was in fact, not “Annie Oakley”. On the contrary, Annie Oakley was born as Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860, to Susan and Jacob Moses, a poor farm couple living in Darke County, Ohio. Born as the sixth child out of seven, Annie started helping out her family from the age of five, trapping birds and other small animals, doing her part to contribute to the table. However, once her father died in 1866, times became harder for the already poor Moses family. Annie’s eldest sister died from tuberculosis soon after, and the family was saddled with hospital bills and funeral expenses. When Annie was seven years old, she tried using her father’s old gun to try hunting bigger game, and was successful. She became so good at shooting that she was able to earn money for her family by hunting game and then selling them to the local innkeepers and restaurants around the county. She had a bit of a reputation in the local community after this all started.
When she was eight, she went away to live with a family who offered to pay her to take care of their three-week-old son. What started out as a simple job turned out to be much worse later on.
"All went well for a month. Then the work began to stack up. I got up at four-o'clock in the morning, got breakfast, milked the cows, fed the calves, the pigs, pumped water for the cattle, fed the chickens, rocked the baby to sleep, weeded the garden, picked wild blackberries, got dinner after digging the potatoes for dinner and picking the vegetables -- and then could go hunting and trapping.
Mother wanted me to come home. But they wouldn't let me. I was held prisoner. They wrote all the letters to my mother telling her that I was happy and going to school."
"One night I nodded over the big basket of stockings I had to darn. Suddenly the "She-Wolf" struck me across the ears, pinched my arms and threw me out of doors into the deep snow and locked the door. I had no shoes on and in a few minutes my feet grew numb. I was slowly freezing to death. So I got down on my little knees, looked towards God's clear sky and tried to pray. But my lips were frozen stiff and there was no sound."
After two years of this treatment, Annie ran away from the family and walked over 20 miles to get to the nearest train station. After telling her story to a stranger, who then in turn paid for her train ticket, Annie returned to her Mother. She never reveals the abusive family’s name afterwards in the telling of her childhood.
Annie continued to earn money for her family through selling the wild game she shot, up until 1875. It was then that Annie went to visit her married sister, who lived near Cincinnati. A local hotelkeeper who knew of Annie’s reputation, arranged a shooting match between 5-foot tall, 15 year old Phoebe Ann Moses, and a professional exhibition shooter by the name of Frank Butler. The challenge was to see who could should the most out of 25 clay “bird” targets, and the winner would walk away with $100, which, when converted to today’s currency, amounted to a little over $2000 today. Annie Oakley, of course, won the match after shooting 25 out of 25 birds, to Frank’s 24 out of 25. Soon afterwards, Frank began to court Annie and the two got married.
Around 1882 was when Annie first took the stage as Frank’s partner. Once she started performing, Frank realized her potential and made her the main act and took a more supporting role as her manager. Around 1884 two big things happened in Annie’s life; one was meeting the Lakota spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. The two became close friends and Sitting Bull named her as his adoptive daughter, and Annie in turn referred to him as her adoptive father. She received the moccasins he had worn at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the name Watanya Cicilla, “Little Sure Shot”. The other thing that happened was meeting William Frederick Cody, better known to the public as Buffalo Bill, famous for his Wild West Shows.
When Annie turned 25 years old, she and Frank were contracted to perform as a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885. She and Frank would continue to perform with Buffalo Bill for 16 seasons, touring all over the country, visiting at least 130 towns per season, and even going on extended tours throughout Europe several times. Some of her most notable audience members were Queen Victoria (who saw the show twice), Prince Albert Edward (whom Annie shook hands with Albert’s wife before his, in order to make a statement about respecting women), and Kaiser Wilhem II (Annie shot a cigarette directly from his mouth; later on after World War I began, she would admit that she wished that she had missed that particular shot). After Europe, Annie and some members of the Wild West Show were invited to Thomas Edison’s film studio to make a short movie in 1894; she became the first “cowgirl” to ever appear on film.
After being in a train wreck while traveling on tour in the 1901 season, Annie Oakley retired from the Wild West Show, not because of the injuries from the wreck, but because soon after the accident her hair went snow white, at the age of 41. In her retirement from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she would try her hand at stage acting (while wearing a wig), participate in a few other Wild West Shows (not associated with Buffalo Bill), and teach young women how to shoot a gun safely and expertly. In 1904 she would spend a good amount of her time winning libel lawsuits against newspapers for publishing a false story on how Annie was “stealing money to support a cocaine habit”. In 1913 she would move to Cambridge, Maryland, and continue to shoot and hunt, continue teaching women on how to shoot, and perform a bit on the side with her husband. In 1992, at the age of 62, Annie Oakley demonstrated her skill with the gun at a shooting contest in North Carolina, successfully hitting 100 clay targets in a row from a distance of 16 yards.
Although Annie and Frank never had any children together, they had a good relationship with their many nieces and nephews, spoiling them constantly with presents. When they lived in Cambridge, they had an English Setter they named Dave, who was a well loved member of their family, and also would perform as part of Annie’s act later on. She died on November 3, 1926, back at the place of her birth in Darke County Ohio from pernicious anemia. Frank Butler stopped eating after the death of his wife, and less than three weeks later on November 21st, he died from natural causes (not suicide), and was buried next to Annie. They had been married for a good 50-some years.
In the years after her death, the name of Annie Oakley is still well known in America. She has had films, books, and stage shows based off of her life, and her reputation as a sharpshooter garnered attention for the sport of trap shooting, and for female gun rights. She was a well-known celebrity in her time, and continues to be a legendary figure in American culture.