Annie Oakley: the most famous sharpshooter in America
From humble beginnings to performing for Queen Victoria, sharpshooter Annie Oakley's life was nothing short of extraordinary. BBC History Revealed examines how a self-taught crack shot from rural Ohio became one of the most recognisable figures of the Old West – and an advocate for female empowerment
It’s a long way from log-cabin poverty in rural Ohio to being the toast of Europe and performing in front of well-nourished heads of state. But it’s a journey that Phoebe Ann Mosey – better known as sharpshooter Annie Oakley – took in her stride, deftly combining the roles of world-famous entertainer and firm advocate of women’s rights.
Born in 1860 on a small farm in western Ohio, Annie and her family were plunged into hard times after her father died when she was just six years old. The eldest of her six siblings then contracted fatal tuberculosis, forcing Annie’s mother to sell the family cow to cover the funeral expenses. By the age of ten, to ease the burden at home, Annie found herself living with another family.
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“All went well for a month,” she later wrote. “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.”
Annie referred to this family as ‘the wolves’. “I was held prisoner. They wrote all the letters to my mother telling her that I was happy and going to school.”
Eventually, Annie escaped and returned to her family, for whom she set about providing. Her hunting and trapping skills meant she could produce an unending supply of meat and game to a local grocer, who in turn supplied hotels and restaurants across the state. So lucrative was this arrangement, at least comparatively, that Annie, at just 15, was able to pay off the mortgage on the family home.
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Her growing reputation for the way she handled a gun led to a life-changing encounter in 1875 while visiting one of her sisters near Cincinnati. A local hotelier knew of the teenager’s talents and organised a competition between her and a professional exhibition shooter called Frank Butler.
The contest was tight, but Annie prevailed. Butler was magnanimous in defeat; although he lost that day, he won in the long term. Eight months later, and ten days after Annie’s 16th birthday, the pair were married. (It should be mentioned that there is disagreement over when both the shooting competition and the wedding occurred. One school of thought believes both events to have happened six years later.)
The life of the professional sharpshooter now beckoned. Changing her surname from Mosey to Oakley for the purposes of showbusiness – but, markedly, not taking her husband’s name – Annie and Butler made a rather formidable double act.
Her star really ascended during the mid-1880s when the couple signed up to perform with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West travelling show. Standing five feet in her stockinged feet, Annie was billed as ‘Little Sure Shot’.
Not that Annie’s place as one of Buffalo Bill’s most valued headliners was completely watertight. In 1886, the troupe were joined by the teenager Lilian Smith, described as “the champion rifle-shot of the world”. Annie, usually steadfast and impenetrable, felt under threat from the arrogant Smith, who claimed that “Annie Oakley was done for”.
Well aware of the 11-year age gap between the two female shooters, Annie shaved six years off her age, an act that her young looks fortunately didn’t betray – and which may well be the source of the two wedding dates, the later one concocted to bolster the claimed younger age.
Annie’s comparative modesty ensured her popularity with audiences never waned, especially when she incorporated some phenomenal horse-riding stunts into her act. This popularity extended to Europe in 1887, when the Wild West troupe crossed the Atlantic to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. More than half a million spectators witnessed the London show during the first three weeks of its run. Annie was the toast of the capital, her presence requested by former prime ministers and heirs to the throne alike.
Annie went on to be a huge draw in continental Europe, too, where she often received proposals of marriage. A French count sent her one such proposal, along with a photograph of himself. Annie returned the photo, now with a bullet hole through his head and the words “respectfully declined” written on the reverse.
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In 1889, in Berlin, Annie even shot a cigarette out of the mouth of the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Later in life, she considered the stunt and how, had it gone wrong, World War I may have been prevented. “If I shot the Kaiser, I might have saved the lives of millions of soldiers. I didn’t know then that he would swing the iron fist and shake the universe.”
Annie Oakley was far more than the sure-shooting entertainer. Throughout her life, her philanthropy was generous and widespread. “If I spend one dollar foolishly,” she once explained, “I see tear-stained faces for little children beaten as I was.” And she empowered and inspired every woman she met. She taught in the region of 15,000 women how to fire a weapon, explaining that she “would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies”. In fact, Annie even offered President William McKinley the services of a 50-strong unit of female sharpshooters who could be used in any future US-Spanish War.
Annie spent her later years recovering from injuries sustained in train and car accidents, as well as fighting 55 libel cases against the popular press. Still a dead shot well into her 60s, she passed away from a blood disorder in 1926 aged 66. On her death, Frank Butler, her devoted husband of 50 years, reportedly never ate again and died 18 days later.
The content first appeared in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed