Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Annie Oakley Meets Lillian Smith / America's Best Female Sharpshooters

One of the most interesting stories pertaining to the life and career of sharpshooter Annie Oakley was her interaction with another great female sharpshooter of the era by the name of Lillian Smith while both were appearing in Buffalo Bills Wild West. One of the things most interesting was the contrast between the two female stars. While the name Annie Oakley inevitably comes up when researching female sharpshooters, the name Lillian Smith rarely does. While there are a good number of pictures and artifacts pertaining to Annie Oakley, not so concerning Lillian Smith.

Together With Buffalo Bill Cody

annie oakley picture
Both performers spent time with Buffalo Bill Cody's famous Wild West and both women dazzled audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Lillian Smith was the younger having joined the Wild West at the age of seventeen. Annie Oakley grew up in Ohio whereas Lillian Smith was raised in the Los Angeles area. Their domestic lives over the years could not have been more different. Annie Oakley was married to the same man for decades and Lillian had at least four marriages during her lifetime.

Due to a variety of reasons the two sharpshooters did not get along. Annie was the first to join the Wild West. A year or so later William Cody, while traveling,  had seen a demonstration of Lillian's shooting skills reportedly at a Los Angeles shooting gallery and signed her up on the spot. Annie Oakley really gained her fame and stature by besting male sharpshooters and when Smith came along she represented her very first female competitor. 

Two Excellent Sharpshooters

Both women shooters were excellent shots but with different firearms. Annie Oakley as a rule favored the shotgun. Lillian Smith preferred a rifle. With that being said, the relationship between the two deteriorated from the very beginning. Lillian Smith was reported to have a very brash nature and she liked to brag a lot. Lillian Smith was a flashy dresser and Annie Oakley a conservative one. In addition to this, supposedly Smith had stated "Annie Oakley was done for" now that Smith was a part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West. This certainly wasn't a good way for things to get started.When you add to this the age difference and the fact that Lillian was thought to be a flirt and a bit loose, the two immensely women were destined for trouble. Buffalo Bills Wild West was about to change.

annie oakley wild west poster
During the relatively short time both performers worked with the Wild West together, Buffalo Bill Cody was noted for his admiration of the California sharpshooter. This only made things worse. Trouble also arose between Oakley and her sharpshooter husband, Frank Butler, and Cody's Wild West when Lillian's new husband, Jim Kidd, supposedly wrote a slanderous letters against Oakley's reputation. This is probably what made everything come to a head for when the Wild West ended it's England tour in 1887 Oakley and her husband quit the show. It seems that the combination of alleged verbal abuse from Smith and her husband coupled with the fact that Cody didn't intervene in some way probably caused the abrupt departure.

Annie Oakley and the Press

It's also quite interesting to research the role of the press, which in those days were newspapers, and how their reporting may have furthered the controversy between the two sharpshooters. Clearly, overall the press favored Oakley. In the case of the British press while the Wild West was in England in 1887, the press did criticize Oakley to the extent that she shook the hand of the Prince of Wales wife before shaking that of the prince. Supposedly, Smith had done the same but was not mentioned. This probably had more to do with Oakley's higher stature than that of Smith's. Most agreed that while in England, the lions share of good publicity was written for Oakley. Annie Oakley received a lot of attention. The British newspapers wrote many stories about her shooting skills and she took part in many shooting contests while there. The press, being the press, sensationalized many things about Annie Oakley's life. This really was nothing new.

Newspaper accounts of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid, to name just a few, all had stories written about them that tended to stretch the truth to it's limits. Dime novels of the era did the same with the likes of Jesse James and Wyatt Earp. For instance, there were stories written about Oakley's life fighting Indians on the frontier which never happened in reality. Annie Oakley was born and raised  in the midwest and never fought the plains Indians or any other Indians for that matter. Lillian Smith, on the other hand, didn't receive anything near the press that Oakley received, especially after she resigned from the Wild West in 1889, just two years after Annie Oakley had quit. During that same year, 1889, Annie oakley rejoined Cody's Wild West. All in all, Oakley worked with the Wild West for seventeen years until she retired after a train accident while traveling with the show.

The California Girl

wild west poster
Both Annie Oakley, sometimes referred to as :"Little Sure Shot", a name supposedly given to her by Sitting Bull, and Lillian Smith, often called the "California Girl", continued to perform their sharpshooting demonstrations although Oakley had more overall success. Oakley was involved with social causes of the era such as the womens suffrage movement. The few records that still exist concerning Lillian Smith states that she performed her sharpshooting act for various other western touring shows that sprang up after Cody's success. These included the 101 Ranch wild West Show and Pawnee Bill's Wild West. History also shows that Smith was involved with a few more romances and marriages in the early 1900's.

Both of these female sharpshooters had amazing skills and both thrilled audiences here and abroad. The negative personal relationships they had no doubt was the result of two very different people, with very different personalities and lifestyles put in a highly competitive situation.

The Garst Museum

The best place to visit for learning more about the life and times of Annie Oakley is the Garst Museum in Greenville Ohio. Take a walk with Annie Oakley as you visit the Annie Oakley Center at Garst Museum's exhibition of her life and history. The Garth Museum is located at 205 North Broadway, Greenville, OH.  The museum phone number is 937-548-5250. Unlike Hollywood's image of a wild west, rough and tumble tomboy, Annie was a petite woman who loved lace, silver, beautiful furnishings and elegant clothing who was blessed with physical athleticism.

Another good place to learn more about Annie Oakley is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The address is 720 Sheridan Avenue, Cody Wyoming. Cody is located just east of Yellowstone National Park. Their phone number is 307-587-4771.

(Photos and images from the public domain) 


  1. I've read several accounts of the relationship between Oakley and Smith. All tell a different account of their relationship. So who's telling ther truth?

  2. Believe what you hear at the Garst Museum. Many of her relatives still live in the area of Darke County, OH(Annie's birthplace).


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