Her name was Phoebe Ann Oakley Mozee. Her sisters called her Annie and that's the name America knew her by. Phoebe was born in 1860 in a cabin in the western border area of Ohio. The cabin is located about 5 miles east of present day North Star, Ohio.
The Teenage Annie Oakley
She became such a good shot that at the age of sixteen Phoebe entered a shooting contest held in Cincinnati. She traveled to the contest with a man named Frank Butler who was an excellent shot himself and worked in vaudeville. The contest in Cincinnati had lasting effects. Frank Butler fell in love with Phoebe and she with him. She not only won the contest in Cincinnati but ended up marrying Frank. It was after she met and married Frank Butler in 1881 that Annie adopted the stage name of “Annie Oakley”.
After the marriage Annie became an assistant to Frank's traveling sharpshooter act although he knew she was much too talented as a sure shot to be left in the background. The first troupe which Annie and Frank joined was the Sells Brothers Circus. They were highlighted as "champion rifle shots". They performed with the circus for only one year.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West
Certainly the most significant career change for Annie was when she and Frank joined the famed Wiiliam Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West in 1885. Reenactments of the old west days were extremely popular. William Cody was recruiting many interesting people to perform in his Wild West and Annie and Frank's marvelous shooting abilities fit the bill.
Prior to joining the Wild West, Annie and Frank shared the star billing. Beginning with their relationship with Buffalo Bill's troupe, Annie was the star attraction. William Cody not only hired frontiersman and women but also a great many Native American's who traveled throughout Europe on the show. At one point Chief Sitting Bull who was known for his influence at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was part of Cody's Wild West. The biography of sitting Bull mentions that he participated with William Cody for one season.
William Buffalo Bill Cody built a traveling show like no other. People were quite excited to see his interpretation of life in the old west. The authentic performers on the show made it truly the wild wild west show of the late 1800's. It's interesting to note that even though the Wild West was a portrayal of the old west, the old west had not completely died away at that time as our Western Trips link about the Johnson County War near Buffalo Wyoming in 1892 attests to. The Indian Wars may have faded away but there more than enough violence still going on between cattlemen and settlers.
Annie's Shooting Acts
To give you an idea of Annie Oakley's shooting skill, she could shoot a dime tossed in mid air ninety feet. For seventeen years Annie Oakley was the Wild West Show's star attraction with her marvelous shooting feats. Another act was shooting a playing card tossed in the air and hitting it up to six times before it hit the ground. Both of these feats seem almost impossible. The theater industry even paid homage to Oakley's card shooting act by naming used tickets "Annie Oakleys" because they typically had holes punched through them.
Annie Oakley the Patriot
Annie Oakley made an offer to President McKinley in 1898 to organize a group of fifty women into a fighting force if a war was to come against Spain. Following is Oakley's letter to President McKinley courtesy of the U.S. National Archives Wiki for Researchers...
Hon Wm McKinley President
Dear Sir I for one feel confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war. But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.
very truly, Annie Oakley
The offer was not taken up. She made the same offer later to Theodore Roosevelt. The offer again was not accepted but as it turned out Roosevelt himself organized his "Rough Riders", a name he borrowed from Buffalo Bill's Wild West. When the U.S. entered World War One, Annie made similar offers to organize a group of female fighting soldiers. That offer was likewise rejected. She even made an offer to teach marksmanship to the troops. There is no record of that being accepted as well. She did travel to military camps during the war however there are no records of her actually training the troops. Whatever the circumstances, you have to give Annie an A+ for her patriotic stance.
While on the Wild West tour in England she was accepted by the audience as being truly representative of the old west. The English audience adored her. During her first visit to England, Annie had the opportunity to meet Queen Victoria. When she made her second trip to England in 1891 they honored the famous sharpshooter by playing the "Wild West Waltz" daily.
One of Annie's favorite pastimes was hunting. While in England with the Wild West, Annie and Frank accepted an invitation to hunt on Englishman Edward Clark's five thousand acre estate. Annie's media promoted hunting trips also served to bridge the gap between males and females in as much as hunting was then widely considered a male only sport. When the Wild West toured the Continent, both Annie and Frank visited Paris, Marseilles, Rome, Naples and a host of other cities. Reporters were never far behind.
Her decision to quit Buffalo Bill's troupe was actually made after a horrific train accident in the U.S. involving the show. Annie's back sustained injuries seriously in the accident after she was thrown from her bed but recovered after several surgeries. Buffalo Bill tried to entice her back but was unsuccessful.
While there is some disagreement as to exactly why Annie resigned from the Wild West, most people just attribute it to needing a break. The extensive traveling took it's toll with Annie's hair turning white. At least many people seem to attribute the stress to the graying hair. Oakley actually stayed with the Wild West much longer than she originally predicted. Oakley really became a living legend and had no need for further publicity. Amazingly, Oakley continued to set marksmanship records even when she was in her sixties.
The Latter Years
|Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, 1895|
When Annie Oakley wrote her biography during the 1920's, she revealed her highly competitive nature. While accepting her performances as being a job, she also told how she relished the sharpshooting as a competitive sport. You could say she was a person her enjoyed her job quite well. Annie and Frank also owned a marvelous collection of firearms which some historians contend was probably the best single private collection in the world.
Annie's legend only grew larger in later life. With her biographies coming out in the 1920's, the same year that women won the right of suffrage, she began to represent many things to women. Her For one, to the younger women, she represented a woman who had a successful career while being married. To the older women she represented benevolence and achievement. This amazing woman is remembered as an American folk hero and legend.
|Wild West show, 1890|
There is an interesting story in the book "The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley" written by author Glenda Riley which illustrates how Annie kept her fine shooting skills throughout her life.
In March of 1923 both Annie and Frank drove to Leesburg Florida where the Philadelphia Phillies were in spring training. Frank set up the targets, Annie assembled her guns and the baseball team and youngsters who were present took seats in the bleachers. With her leg in a brace due to the car accident, Annie Oakley stood on her other leg and winged pennies and hit eggs that Frank tossed up. The entire audience broke out in applause.
Hollywood and our history books have kept the legend of Annie Oakley alive through motion pictures, television, on the stage, in libraries and museums. Also, the Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun" is somewhat based on the life of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.
Both Annie and her husband Frank died in 1926, within a mere 18 days of each other. Both died of natural causes.
Stops to Add to Your Western Trip Planner
The National Cowgirl Museum in Fort Worth Texas has many excellent exhibits of women of the old west. In the summer of 2000, the State of Ohio renamed the US127 highway “Annie Oakley Memorial Pike” in honor of Darke County’s distinguished native.
You will also want to visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming for great exhibits on the Wild West show and Annie Oakley's involvement. If you're in the Ohio area, the Annie Oakley Memorial Park in Greenville Ohio features a lifesize bronze statue of Annie Oakley. Greenville is located in western Ohio in Darke County near the Indiana border.
(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)