The great Sioux warrior Chief Sitting Bull was so impressed by Oakley’s skill that he adopted her, giving her the name “Watanya Cecilia”–“Little Sure Shot. ” Though her life inspired dime novels, a Broadway play, and Hollywood movies, little is known about the real Annie Oakley, an intensely private, complicated woman who excelled publicly in a man’s sport. (Foundation) Near the end of her life, Will Rogers paid her a visit and then wrote about her in his daily newspaper column: “She was the reigning sensation of America and Europe during the heyday of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
She was their star. Her picture was on more billboards than a modern Gloria Swanson. It was Annie Oakley, the greatest rifle shot the world has ever produced. Nobody took her place. There was only one. ” (Edwards) Annie Oakley, an American Experience documentary film which aired May 8, 2011 on PBS, separates life from legend. Filmmaker Riva Freifeld says she was initially attracted to the project because “I thought this was the most extraordinary story of somebody breaking out of a mold. A woman of the Victorian age, small, petite, who had a horrible, miserable childhood.
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She pulled herself out of all that through her own talent and worked through the pressures against women and made herself into the most famous practitioner of a sport that is quintessentially male: sharpshooting. ” (Vonada) Virginia Scharff, professor of history and director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico, agrees. “She is the epitome of the self-made woman. This is somebody who triumphs over about as miserable a childhood as you can imagine. You would never know that by looking at her public persona.
She seemed like the all-American girl who must have grown up amid motherhood and apple pie, but the truth of the matter was that she grew up in the most abject kind of poverty. ” (Vonada) She was, hands down, the finest woman sharpshooting entertainer of all time. Oakley was always drawn to guns. Her father may have taught her to shoot when she was very young, and Oakley herself said that when she was barely big enough to lift her father’s old Kentucky rifle, she dragged it outside, rested the barrel on the porch railing, and shot a squirrel clean through the head.
When Oakley returned home, instead of going to school, she earned good money by shooting game and selling it to the Katzenberger brothers’ grocery store, which shipped the game to hotels in Cincinnati. She was so successful that she was soon able to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s house. She once remarked that from the age of ten, she never had money in her pockets that she had not earned herself. (Kim-Brown) In addition to game hunting, Oakley entered local shooting contests that were popular at the time, winning so many turkey shoots that she was eventually barred from them.
But such was her reputation that when professional sharpshooter Frank Butler was passing through southern Ohio claiming he could outshoot anyone around, the locals accepted his challenge. They failed to tell Butler that his opponent was a teenage girl. “I got there late and found the whole town, in fact, most of the county out ready to bet me or any of my friends to a standstill on their ‘unknown,'” Butler later said. “I did not bet a cent. You may bet, however, that I almost dropped dead when a little, slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me. Butler lost, and gave Oakley tickets to his next show. ( Kim-Brown) According to Kim and Brown, a romance sprang up between the two and they were soon married. But it was six years before the shooting team of Butler and Oakley appeared. In the meantime, Butler traveled the variety circuit with his partner John Graham until one night when Graham became ill. Initially, Oakley acted as Butler’s assistant, holding targets. But Butler was having an off night and he could not seem to hit his targets. Amid the booing, someone shouted, “Let the girl shoot! ” Oakley calmly took the gun and hit every mark. Kim-Brown) Oakley was a natural performer. Modest, yet playful, she skipped onto the stage like a schoolgirl. She shot an apple from Butler’s head, pierced the heart in the ace of hearts or, if the card was held sideways, sliced through it; she shot corks from bottles and blew out the flames from candles. She shot backward looking through a small mirror. She could shoot just as well with her left hand as with her right. Sometimes she pretended to miss and pouted, stamping her foot. At the end of her act, she blew kisses to the crowd and did a funny little kick as she disappeared behind the curtain.
The audience loved her. (Kim-Brown) Frank Butler didn’t mind fading into the background. “Because he was so open-minded about women,” says Freifeld, “he basically created a situation where you had a role reversal of a typical Victorian marriage. I think Frank Butler understood that she had a kind of star quality that he didn’t want to overshadow,” says Scharff, “and Frank Butler didn’t have a problem with that. I think he adored her. I think he also was a savvy businessman who understood that she was pretty, she was ladylike, she was petite.
She would do what needed to be done to make that rise to the top. And he didn’t want to get in her way. As a matter of fact, he understood that for the two of them, the best thing possible was to let her take the lead. ” (Vonada) Annie, born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio’s Darke County on August 13, 1860, got her gun at an early age but didn’t shoot her way to everlasting fame until after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody put her on the payroll in 1885. In the process, the little woman (5 feet tall, about 110 pounds) gave Cody’s Wild West a shot in the arm.
As a star with the stature, ability and uniqueness of Buffalo Bill himself Annie Oakley had a platform to promote her egalitarian views about women. She believed that women needed to learn to be proficient with firearms to defend themselves and that they could even help fight for their country. During World War I, she offered to recruit and train a regiment of women sharpshooters. If nothing else, Annie Oakley helped expand the career options of American women. (Oakley, Annie. (2011). Britannica Biographies, 1. ) Annie Oakley rose to stardom from humble roots.
In the mid- 1860s her father, Jacob, died, and her mother, Susan, had a devil of a time trying to make ends meet with seven children age 15 or younger on her hands. Annie Oakley tried to help by hunting and trapping in the Darke County woods. By age 10, Annie Oakley had been sent off to live at the county poor farm, known as the Infirmary, and during her early teens she alternated between living there and with her mother and stepfather. Her life took a turn for the better when she met Irishman Frank (“Jimmie”) Buffer of the Buffer and Baughman shooting act. Oakley, Annie. (2011). Britannica Biographies, 1. ) According to legend, Buffer was trying to drum up business in 1875 by accepting challenges from local marksmen, and on Thanksgiving Day in Greenville, Ohio, he took on young Annie Moses in a shooting match. “I almost dropped dead when a slim girl in a short dress stepped out to the mark with me,” Frank Buffer later said. “I was a beaten man the moment she appeared. ” Frank lost, 23 to 21. Later, whenever he said that he had purposely thrown the match, Annie would just flutter her eyes and smile.
In any case, Frank was impressed enough by Annie to invite her to see his act in Cincinnati. She accepted. As part of his act, Buffer and his big white French poodle, George, performed a William Tell bit. As usual, Frank shot the apple off George’s head and George retrieved the fruit, but the dog then brought it to Annie instead of to the shooter. A courtship ensued–between Annie and Frank, that is–and the couple was married within the year… or so the legend has it. (Oakley, Annie. 2011. Britannica Biographies, 1. ) Annie joined Frank’s stage act, according to her own account, only after
Frank’s shooting partner, John Graham, became ill in May 1882. She filled in admirably and became an instant hit. She chose “Oakley” as her stage name for some unknown reason and began to tour with Frank. To the experienced showman’s credit, he immediately realized that his wife was a star. He put his own career on a backburner so that he could manage her career, saying, “She outclassed me. ” (Edwards) In those early days of her stage career, Annie Oakley played with Frank Buffer at small theaters, skating rinks and circuses.
While working for the Sells Brothers Circus in New Orleans in 1884, they met Buffalo Bill Cody, but he didn’t hire her until after she and her manager-husband had come to Louisville, Ky. , early in 1885 for a three-day tryout. After an agreement was struck, Buffalo Bill brought her to the mess tent to introduce her to the members of his Wild West, which had been inaugurated in 1883. “This little missie here is Miss Annie Oakley,” Buffalo Bill said. “She is to be the only white woman with our exhibition. And I want you boys to welcome and protect her. They didn’t need to–“Li’l Missie,” as Cody usually called her, had pretty much fended for herself from childhood. (Edwards) Annie Oakley and Frank Butler toured with the Wild West for some 16 seasons, and the only contract they had with Cody was verbal. Annie said that Cody, whom she called “the Colonel,” was the kindest-hearted, most loyal man she had ever met, and also the softest touch. She noted that Cody kept a big pitcher of lemonade by his tent so that he could serve refreshments to visiting youngsters. The Oakley act was spectacular.
Cody generally used Li’l Missie early in his entertainment extravaganza so that she could warm the audience up to the sound of gunfire. Dexter Fellows, a sometimes press agent for the Wild West, wrote in his autobiographical book This Way to the Big Show that Annie “was a consummate actress, with a personality that made itself felt as soon as she entered the arena. ” During her entrance, Annie waved and blew kisses to the audience. She was an ambidextrous shot who fired rapidly and with unerring accuracy. On the rare occasions when she missed a shot, she immediately fired again.
On occasion, she intentionally missed and then pretended to become petulant, stamping her feet in frustration and sometimes throwing her hat down and walking around it to change her luck. Then when she did hit the mark, the audience would roar louder than ever. (Edwards) Frank Butler also got into the act, releasing clay pigeons for his wife. She would jump over her gun table and shoot the clay bird before it hit the ground. Often she shot cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth, and once she even shot a cigarette out of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mouth.
Charlatan shooters preferred to shoot ashes from cigars (with the help of a wire embedded in the cigar and twisted by the assistant’s tongue at the proper moment), so Annie insisted on shooting only whole cigarettes. Her act often included hitting targets while riding a bicycle with no hands. Although she could ride a horse in fine style, she left the shooting of glass balls from horseback to Buffalo Bill. Annie concluded her act with a funny jig and would kick up her heels just before she left the arena. Once when a newspaper in England wondered how fast and accurate she was, she gave a special demonstration.
Frank stood on a chair facing his wife’s back. At Annie’s command, he dropped a tin plate. Annie turned, fired and hit it square, all within about half a second. (Vonada) Annie Oakley had a theatrical flair and the quickness and agility of an athlete. But none of it would have meant too much had she not been such a top hand with all kinds of firearms. She practiced constantly and did not rely on trickery; she was no sham shooting star. Among her favorite shotguns were a Lancaster and a Francotte, her favorite rifles included a Winchester and a Marlin, and she used Colts and Smith & Wesson handguns equally well. Guns, rifles and pistols are of many styles,” she once said, “and to declare that any one make is superior to all others would show a very narrow mind and limited knowledge of firearms…. Nobody should trust their lives behind a cheap gun. ” (Sorg) The famous Sioux (Lakota) spiritual leader and medicine man Sitting Bull toured with the Wild West during the 1885 season. Annie had actually met him the previous year in a St. Paul, Minn. , theater, when Sitting Bull, then a resident of the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory, watched her fire a rifle to snuff out a burning candle.
Apparently, Sitting Bull was so impressed that afterward he asked to see the little white woman. Annie then gave Sitting Bull a picture of herself, while he gave her moccasins he had worn at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as well as the nickname Watanya Cicilla (“Little Sure Shot”). They were happily reunited the next year as employees of Cody’s Wild West. Whenever Sitting Bull got peevish that season, Cody would send for Little Sure Shot, who would talk to the Lakota leader for a while and then do her jig before leaving his quarters. That inevitably would make Sitting Bull laugh and would lift his spirits.
But her presence was not enough to make him want to continue with the show another season. (Sorg) In the spring of 1886, while the Wild West performed in Washington, D. C. , en route to an extended summer stay at Erastina, on Staten Island, an insect lodged itself deep inside Annie Oakley’s ear. By June, she had an ear infection, but, against doctor’s orders, she still rode in the 17-mile opening-day parade in New York City. Near the end of it, she collapsed, and doctors determined that the area behind her eardrum needed to be lanced to drain its poison.
The bedridden Li’l Missie missed four performances at Erastina (probably the only four she missed during her show career) before she hobbled into the arena on the fifth day to shoot again. She had plenty of grit for sure, but part of Annie Oakley’s motivation for getting back in action was the fact that Cody had hired a younger female shooter, Lillian Smith, for the 1886 season. At the time, Annie may have been concerned about her job security. But there was room for both of them, and the Wild West continued to be a big hit when it moved into Madison Square Garden that winter. (Oakley, Annie. (2011). Britannica Biographies, 1. ) On May 11, it was Queen Victoria’s turn to have a command performance. It was held at the exhibition grounds after her courtiers convinced her that they couldn’t fit Cody’s outfit into Windsor Castle. When the American flag entered the arena, Queen Victoria stood up and bowed deeply, and Cody’s company roared its approval. For the first time in history, an English monarch had saluted the Star-Spangled Banner. After Lillian Smith and Annie Oakley had curtsied and walked up to her, the queen told Annie, “You are a very clever little girl. L’il Missie had become an international star. At least one newspaper said that her marksmanship was better than that of Buffalo Bill. (Edwards) One notable wreck occurred at 3 a. m. on October 29, 1901, near Lindwood, N. C. , while the company was headed to Danville, Va. , for its last performance of the season. When the first section passed the switching station, the switcher thought that it was the whole outfit, so he threw the switch. The second section ran into an oncoming train. The wooden cars became so many piles of kindling as people and animals cried out in pain and steam hissed.
Legend says that Annie Oakley, now 41, was found pinned beneath the rubble and it took several hours before she could be extracted. As Li’l Missie was carried by stretcher past some wounded horses that had to be shot, she supposedly remarked that she felt sorry for them. Just 17 hours after the wreck, according to legend, her brown hair turned totally white because of the horror of the accident. (Edwards) After her retirement from the Wild West, Annie Oakley tried her hand at acting again, appearing as the lead in a play called The Western Girl, which opened in New Jersey in November 1902.
She looked much as she had while shooting in the Wild West, except now she wore a brown wig to hide her white hair. She also would teach shooting at exclusive clubs. Meanwhile, her husband worked for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, promoting its products to the growing number of trap shooters. In the spring of 1910, Frank and Annie attended a Wild West show at Madison Square Garden known as the “Two Bills Show,” because Buffalo Bill’s outfit had merged with Pawnee Bill’s outfit. Cody apparently asked Annie to rejoin the show, but she and Frank turned the old showman down.
Instead, the following year, they joined up with Vernon C. Seavers’ Young Buffalo Wild West, and Little Sure Shot continued to shoot for that outfit until retiring for good in 1913. Annie and Frank continued to be friends with Cody, though, and when Buffalo Bill died on January 10, 1917, she wrote a glowing eulogy. (Edwards) After giving her last performance with Young Buffalo Wild West on October 4, 1913, Annie and Frank retired to a new home in Cambridge, Md. , and also spent a lot of their time at resorts in Pinehurst, N.
C. , and Leesburg, Fla. Hunting and shooting remained a big part of their lives. They had no children. In the summer of 1922, when she was about to turn 62, Annie Oakley performed at a benefit show on Long Island (a clip of her performance that day can be seen at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center). The New York Herald hinted that she might be making a comeback in show biz and could appear in the movies soon. It never happened. That November, she fractured her hip and an ankle in a car accident in Florida.
The steel leg brace she was forced to wear did not, however, keep her from resuming her shooting and hunting. (Oakley, Annie. (2011). Britannica Biographies, 1. ) The injury and time took their toll; four years later Annie went home to Ohio to die. She stayed for a while in Dayton, where humorist Will Rogers came to visit and found his old friend sitting up in bed. The next week, the Oklahoma cowboy reminisced about her in his newspaper column, asking people to write to the invalid who had once been “the reigning sensation of America and Europe. (Edwards) By then, Annie surely must have felt obsolete. In 1894, she featured in one of the first Western movies, acting out her routines for Thomas A. Edison’s kinetograph. Now screen stars like Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson were all the rage, and no one wanted a star-spangled Western girl. Annie had her shooting medals melted down, sold the gold and donated the money to charity. (Edwards) She died in Greenville on November 3, 1926 (of pernicious anemia, according to newspaper reports).