Annie Oakley – Biography of a Wild West Sharpshooter

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Annie Oakley lived and worked in a man’s world as a sharpshooter and performer for circus acts and Wild West shows.

Annie Oakley was a talented performer who toured the world as a representative of the American Wild West. Although she never actually lived in the American Old West, her sharpshooting expertise commanded tremendous respect and she was greatly admired throughout her lifetime.

Annie Oakley’s Early Years

On August 13, 1860, Phoebe Ann Oakley Moses, the fifth of seven children, was born to Jacob and Susan Moses in Darke County, Ohio. Six years later, Jacob Moses died in a blizzard and the family farm quickly fell to ruin. Annie started hunting and trapping to feed her family. Annie’s mother sent her to live with an uncle so she could learn to sew, but Annie was more interested in hunting and she eventually returned to her mother’s house where she shot and trapped enough game to support the family and pay the mortgage.

Annie Oakley Wins a $100 Prize and a Marriage Proposal

On Thanksgiving Day in 1875, Annie participated in her first shooting contest in Cincinnati against a famous marksman named Frank Butler. Annie won the $100 prize when Butler missed his last shot, but Frank Butler won Annie’s hand in marriage when he proposed to her on the spot. They were wed on August 23, 1876, and Annie spent the next few years following her husband across the country as he performed sharpshooting feats for circus routines.

Annie Oakley Joins the Sharpshooting Team

In 1882, Butler’s partner, John Graham, became sick before a performance and Butler turned to Annie for help. Annie’s sharpshooting stunned the audience and Butler teamed up with Annie permanently. Annie changed her performance name to Annie Oakley and the couple started performing on the Vaudeville circuit.

Annie Oakley Meets Sitting Bull

Two years later, Annie’s performance in Minnesota was attended by the Native American warrior Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull had defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was so impressed with Annie’s skill that he offered her $65 for the privilege of having a photograph taken with her. He adopted Annie into his family and renamed her Watanya Cicilla, or “Little Sure Shot.”

Annie Oakley Joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show

In 1884, Annie and Butler were touring with the Sells Brothers Circus. Their contract expired at the Industrial and Cotton Exposition in New Orleans. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was also in town. Cody’s sharpshooter lost all of his equipment in a steamship accident and quit the show, and Annie and her husband were hired in his place. Annie quickly became one of the star performers. Two years later, Cody hired a 15-year-old sharpshooter named Lillian Smith and Annie knew her popularity was in jeopardy, so she took six years off her age and told the news reporters that she was born in 1866.

Annie Oakley Meets Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales

In the winter of 1886, Cody’s Wild West Show was the main attraction at The American Exposition in London. Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith were both introduced to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, which increased their rivalry. When the London performances ended, Annie quit the show. In 1889, Lillian Smith left Cody’s show and Annie rejoined in time for the Universal Exposition in Paris.

Annie Oakley Leaves the Wild West Show

Annie Oakley’s fame in the United States grew tremendously with the performances at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show generated record profits. A year later, Annie gave her first sharpshooting performance at night with the use of electric lights at a show in Brooklyn. She later performed for Thomas Edison, as well. Oakley and Butler continued to tour with Cody’s Wild West Show by train, but in October of 1901 their train crashed and the couple was so frightened by the incident that they quit the show.

Annie Oakley Sues William Randolph Hearst

In 1903, a woman was arrested for stealing to support her cocaine habit. When the police asked her name, the imposter replied, “Annie Oakley.” The newspapers of publisher William Randolph Hearst printed the story as fact. Although most of the newspapers printed retractions, Annie filed 55 libel suits and won 54.

The Death and Legacy of Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley went into semi-retirement in 1913, though she continued to teach sharpshooting to women. On November 3, 1926, Annie Oakley died of pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio. Her husband, Frank Butler, died 18 days later. Irving Berlin wrote the musical Annie Get Your Gun based on her life and she is celebrated in the annual Annie Oakley Days Festival held in Greenville, Ohio.

Resources:

  1. Annie Get Your Gun. Dir. George Sidney. Writer Irving Berlin. Perfs. Betty Hutton, Howard Keel. MGM, 1950.
  2. Annie Oakley. Dir. George Stevens. Perfs. Barbara Stanwyck. RKO Radio Pictures, 1935.
  3. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Dir. Robert Altman. Perfs. Paul Newman, Geraldine Chaplin. Lions Gate Films, 1976.