9 Curious Facts About Annie Oakley, Sharpshooter Extraordinaire
Annie Oakley was no pioneer, but Little Miss Sureshot is arguably the single most famous woman of the Old West.
To this day, Annie Oakley is perhaps the best known female figure of the Old West. Famous for her shooting skills, Oakley was neither a frontierswoman, posse member, nor cowgirl. She was an entertainer whose savant shooting skills made her the leading figure of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
While Oakley had no real life experiences with shootouts, gambling saloons, or cattle drives, she did as much as any other to burnish the myth of the frontier. Starting with 1935’s Annie Oakley starring Barbara Stanwyck in the titular role, followed by 1946’s Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, this sharpshooter has become indelibly etched into the annals of Western Americana.
Annie Oakley’s personal story is just as fascinating as the image she spent a lifetime crafting. As it would turn out, she did much to overturn conceptions and stereotypes about women in the Old West.
She did it all with a gun — but more importantly, with her charismatic personality. Here are nine interesting facts about Annie Oakley and her unforgettable life in the West.
1. Annie Oakley lied about her age.
The person who would become known to history as the best markswoman of the Wild West Show was born as Phoebe Ann Moses (sometimes Mosey) on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio.
According to Shirl Kasper’s Annie Oakley, later in life she would write that she was born in 1866. The main reason for this was that it allowed her to maintain her youthful and competitive persona against Lilian Smith, an up-and-coming woman trick shooter in the 1880s.
In any event, the Dayton Daily News in its profile of Annie Oakley tells us that she was born a few miles north of the town of Greenville, to a farming family. She was the fifth of seven children. But tragedy struck the Moseses early in her life.
In 1865, her father Jacob was trapped with his team of horses in a blizzard while he was getting supplies. Even though he made it home, he would later die of pneumonia. The Moseses were soon in danger of becoming destitute.
The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley
“The author gives us a pleasant and interesting read and shows the reader who Annie Oakley was and how she related to her times. I found it both informative and entertaining.”
– Amazon review
2. Annie Oakley shot her way through a mortgage.
The situation at home was so bad for the Moseses that when she was about nine years old, Annie was sent to live at the Darke County Infirmary, which housed poor and indigent children. As she worked there to help with orphans, she received some education and learned skills such as sewing. She returned to her mother Susan’s house at age 15.
At this point, Annie began to demonstrate her incredible inborn shooting talent.
Shirl Kasper in Annie Oakley describes how she would spend hours in the wild wearing a short dress hunting. It was during this time that she received what she thought of as her first real firearm, a Parker Brothers 16-gauge breech loader. With this gun she became an expert game hunter, with much of her quarry being sold to hotels in Cincinnati.
One apocryphal story explains that the hotels preferred quail and rabbit from Annie since she always shot them in the head, thus preventing guests from complaining about buckshot in their meals.
With these earnings, Annie helped pay off the $200 mortgage on her mother’s house. How much money she made as a market hunter is unknown since Annie later claimed she didn’t want to be called a “game hog.”
Nevertheless, by the time she was a late teenager, she had shot so much game and won so many local turkey shoots that she was blacklisted from competing in them.
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3. Annie married the first person she beat in a shooting competition.
By 1875, Annie saw that the big bucks for shooting weren’t in market hunting, but rather in competitive shooting. Isabelle S. Sayers’ Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West details how she squared off in her first match northeast of Cincinnati against “Kentucky Frank” Butler.
He had immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a boy and after stints in New York City as a milk delivery man, stable boy, and fisherman, headed west and became an entertainer. He started with trained dogs but also discovered he had an acumen for shooting.
Annie and Frank faced off in the competition. The goal was to shoot live released pigeons. Shooting such a quarry was something Annie had never done before, but she took to it so naturally that she beat Butler, downing 25 pigeons to his 24. The two got married in 1876.
According to PBS, Frank continued to tour with Annie in tow after that.
At one show in 1882, however, Butler kept on missing his targets. A spectator demanded that Annie shoot. So she did and hit it. Thus, she joined the act and took up the name Annie Oakley — naming herself after the Cincinnati neighborhood where she and Butler first competed.
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4. Buffalo Bill first refused to hire her.
Butler and Oakley toured as a duo for a while, but aimed at greater exposure and fame. This led them to meeting William F. Cody in 1884. Better known as “Buffalo Bill,” Cody and his Wild West Show had debuted the previous year, and it was gaining in popularity. What better place to find stable employment?
Glenda Riley, in her book The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, explains how the pair approached Cody but were turned down since he was already glutted with shooting acts, highlighted by champion shooter Captain Adam H. Bogardus.
However, fate intervened in the form of a steamboat collision in the summer of 1884. Bogardus lost all his equipment and never quite recovered from the accident. He left the Wild West Show in March 1885, creating the opening Oakley and Butler needed.
They joined the show and Annie Oakley forever became associated with it.
5. Her skills with firearms were legendary.
Any hyperbole placed on Annie Oakley’s skills with firearms is accurate.
Extraordinary. Savant. Superhuman.
What made her even more astounding is that she performed not just with awesome skill, but also with a preternatural instinct to entertain. The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley describes how, as Oakley’s stardom rocketed like a meteor, Butler happily became more of her assistant and manager.
At a typical performance, Oakley would down clay pigeons, thrown by Butler four at a time. Rifles and pistols shot down multiple glass balls. She could ride and shoot targets while standing on a horse with incredible acumen.
In one popular stunt, she would lay down her gun, throw the balls into the air, retrieve her gun, then shoot the balls down. Then she would bow, blow a kiss to the audience, and give a little kick. Her upturned cowboy hat, long leggings, and loose blouse were her distinctive trademarks.
Over time her skill progressed to the point where these tricks did not seem possible. She made shots behind her using a mirror. She blasted thrown cards into the air with so many holes that the term “Annie Oakley” came to become the nickname for punched tickets.
At 30 paces she could split a playing card edge on. She downed airborne dimes. She blasted cigarettes from Butler’s lips and hands. She actually did this trick with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II holding the cigarette when on tour in Germany.
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6. She was adopted by Sitting Bull.
One of Annie Oakley’s more interesting relationships was the one he developed with the Lakota chief and victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull. Annie Oakley: American Sharpshooter explains how Sitting Bull, when visiting St. Paul in 1884, watched one of her shows with Frank Butler.
He was amazed by Oakley’s skilled and charismatic performance — so much so that he sent messengers to her to arrange a meeting. She declined politely due to her performance schedule. Not deterred, Sitting Bull sent $65 to Oakley (no small amount at the time) and a request for a photograph. She returned the money but included the photograph.
The day after Sitting Bull got the photograph, they met. He called her Watanya Cicilla which means “Little Miss Sureshot.” He was taken by her, saying that she reminded him of a lost daughter. He eventually adopted Annie not just into his tribe, but as his daughter.
Oakley took this very seriously and in their lifelong relationship, she would always refer to Sitting Bull as his adoptive father. She never did visit Lakota lands, however.
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7. She volunteered to raise a regiment for the Spanish American War.
Annie Oakley’s stardom was such that at one point in her career it allowed her to crossover into the realm of geopolitics. In 1898, tensions between Spain and the United States were high, particularly after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15.
Although much later analysis would show that the Spanish were not responsible for the act, Americans in general roundly indicted Spain. This led to a declaration of war by Congress on April 25.
As tensions were boiling over, Annie Oakley stepped in to offer her guns. In a letter dated April 5, 1898 which is now kept at the National Archives Oakley offered in the case of war to raise a regiment of “fifty lady sharpshooters” to fight.
The letter was boldly emblazoned with letterhead featuring an illustration of Oakley entitled “America’s Representative Lady Shot.”
8. She won a huge libel lawsuit but didn’t take home anything.
Oakley was a media sensation, but not all the press she received was positive. New York Archives explained how in 1903 the news mogul William Randolph Hearst authorized a story which described her as “washed up” and addicted to cocaine.
It went on to detail how she had been arrested while in Chicago for trying to rob an elderly African American man to support her habit. This story was picked up by other news outlets and was published nationally.
Meanwhile, Annie was living a quiet life in New Jersey, semi-retired. She found out about the story through her local paper, the Dunkirk Herald and was mortified. Apparently, the woman who had been arrested in Chicago gave her name as Annie Oakley.
The story was retracted, but the humiliated Oakley decided to sue for libel. Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tells us that over six years she sued 46 newspapers for libel and won favorable verdicts.
She received her largest settlement from Hearst himself for $27,500. However, after all beans were counted she found that she spent more on attorney and court fees than she won.
Still, she made her point.
9. Annie Oakley overcame paralysis.
One episode which demonstrated Annie Oakley’s tremendous resolve was her near-death experience in 1901. Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West describes how she and her husband were traveling on an overnight train with the show when it struck a freight train.
While there were no human fatalities, 110 horses perished in the disaster and there were lots of other injuries. Annie was hurled out of her bed and slammed into a trunk, temporarily paralyzed. She needed to receive surgery. Curiously, after the incident her hair had become white.
She recovered and returned to shoot in exhibitions by 1903, although she partially retired and was no longer a part of the Wild West Show. She would continue to perform until almost the end of her life, when she passed away on November 3, 1926.
Her husband, Frank would die three weeks later.
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Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.