Annie Oakley: Wild Life & Famous Friends
The woman who would become Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses, August 13, 1860, in Greenville, a city in Darke County, Ohio. Her family lived on a small farm with a patriarch who provided for them by hunting, trapping, and trading in local markets. Jacob Moses passed those skills to his daughter but unfortunately, died when Annie was only six years old. Her mother, Susan Wise Moses, was forced to sell their house and put Annie in an orphanage. She was adopted by an abusive family that she referred to as "The Wolves" but was able to escape three years later and reunite with her mother.
When Oakley returned home in 1872, her family's situation was still dire. Oakley used her proficiency in marksmanship to provide for her family and became such a good market hunter that her mother was able to pay off their mortgage.
Annie's skills gained notice locally when Frank Butler, a renowned marksman and traveling vaudeville showman, appeared near Oakley's town for a shooting competition. Needless to say, the 15-year-old crack shot beat everyone—including Butler. Incidentally, he quickly fell in love with her, and after a year-long romance, the two married in 1876. Annie now became part of Butler's vaudeville act and became an overnight sensation when she started performing.
In March of 1884, Butler and Oakley took their act to Minnesota. Oakley performed her patented tricks in front of the legendary Sioux warrior Sitting Bull. He was so impressed with her act that he christened her Watanya Cicilla, or Little Sure-Shot.
Oakley's growing fame earned her the attention of Buffalo Bill Cody, one of the most influential men on the American plains. Buffalo Bill offered her a job in his Wild West show, and Oakley and Butler happily accepted. "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" enhanced Annie's fame exponentially, especially after the tour made its way to Europe.
In 1877, "The Wild West" departed New York and headed for England and The American Exposition. At its peak, the show attracted around 40,000 visitors a day, including the Queen of England, who met with Annie, declared her admiration, and dubbed her a "pretty little thing." England was fascinated with Oakley, especially since in British society, it was unique to have women master the art of sharpshooting. But, Buffalo Bill's show had two women, Oakley and Lillian Smith, and the two had such a contentious relationship that Annie quit the tour in frustration with Smith after the British Exposition.
Buffalo Bill took his tour to Paris and needed to have Oakley on board. Lillian Smith had left the group when Bill extended his $50 dollar a week offer to Oakley. She gladly accepted and rejoined the tour for the Paris Exposition. Annie was a hit in Paris; the King of Senegal, beleaguered with a tiger infestation, offered to buy her help for 100,000 francs, and the president of France offered to give her a commission in the French army. She declined both offers and returned to the U.S. to continue touring.
During a break in the tour in the fall of 1894, Oakley visited Thomas Edison—whom she had first met in Paris—at his New Jersey laboratory. Edison requested that Annie shoot in front of his kinetoscope (the grandfather to the motion picture camera) to test its ability to capture objects at high speeds. The kinetoscope was a success, although Annie's wish in getting Edison to make her an electric gun wasn't realized.
After 17 years on "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," Oakley retired in 1901 at age 41. She continued her career as a shooter, appearing at gun clubs, and encouraging women to learn to shoot and hunt. However, her career was interrupted in 1903 when a tabloid owned by William Randolph Hearst alleged that Oakley robbed a man for money to buy drugs. Annie vehemently denied the charges and spent six years suing 55 publications for libel. Oakley won, settling 54 out of the 55 cases and was finally able to rest peacefully after protecting her good name.
In the last days of her life, Annie moved back to Darke County. She died on November 3rd, 1926, and was followed by her husband 18 days later. Annie Oakley entertained people from the common man to the kings and queens of Europe. In 1946, Rogers and Hammerstein honored her with the musical Annie Get Your Gun, a tribute to the first world-renowned woman of the Old West.
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