The Wild West is revered as one of the most fascinating periods in American history, inspiring a cult movie genre and dreams of horse-riding cowboys among young boys. Yet few women are known for their tenacity and ground-breaking talents that contributed to America’s pioneer history, one of the biggest stars being famed marks(wo)man, Annie Oakley.
Though many women of the Wild West turned to frowned-upon ‘tricks’ to make ends meet as their husbands left for war, Oakley used her talents of unmatched shooting skills to create a new career for women who revolted against traditional pioneer trades, raising her family out of poverty and starring in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show around the world. Today she is remembered as a heroine whose legacy lives on through film, literature and a Broadway musical.
Oakley grew up in a large family in Ohio that suffered several hardships in the early years of her life. However, in 1868 at age eight she created a path of hope, taking her deceased father’s rifle to shoot her first game with such precision that she was able to salvage the meat for edible consumption. From there, Oakley continued hunting game, improving her aim which would later make her one of the most legendary gun slingers.
In 1875 after the passing of her father and stepfather in her early teens, Oakley stepped in as provider for her mother and six siblings bearing advanced hunting skills and selling game to local businesses. Her unmatched expertise and salesmanship earned her enough money to earn a living and even pay off her mother’s mortgage, saving her from selling their home. As her success grew, Oakley continued to distribute wealth among her family members as well as charitable organizations.
As a self-taught sharpshooter coming of age in war-stricken America, Oakley strived to live a fulfilling life. Oakley was a firm believer in the right to bear arms and went on to state that women could bear arms just as well as men to fight in the war and defend their country. Oakley frequently volunteered to train women at shooting ranges and give demonstrations on hunting and shooting, inspiring other women to pursue the sport. Though her beliefs were not supported by many men, she persevered and would later pen essays on the advantages of marksmanship for women. Oakley was one of the rare women of the Wild West to take full advantage of her influence and use it for good deeds.
Annie shows off her rifle shooting skills as a man tosses glass balls in the air, 1894. The movie was made by Thomas Edison:
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
Oakley toured the midwest region entering shooting contests and catching the attention of local business owners, gaining popularity as a well-respected marksman. Oakley’s reputation expanded significantly after her marriage to fellow marksman, Frank Butler, who was so impressed by her talents, he decided to become her manager full-time. In 1885 the couple joined legendary performer Buffalo Bill in his Wild West tours throughout America and Europe, with Oakley’s performance growing in demand by audiences with each show. Her successful showcases made her the star of the show, earning top billing as a champion shooter until she was forced to leave the Wild West production in 1901 due to a train accident injury.
Oakley’s showmanship was revered by not only audiences on tour, but powerful men around the world, including the likes of the Prince of Prussia. Oakley was even adopted by Sioux war chief, Sitting Bull, who gave her the nickname Little Sure Shot, which she would use to advertise herself in future shows.
On Stage Fame
Though Oakley retired in 1913, her legacy continued to inspire Americans in the form of film adaptations and a widely successful Broadway musical based on her life story. The Annie Get Your Gun Broadway musical debuted in 1946 and was later adapted into film and books. In 1999, the Broadway musical was revived starring Bernadette Peters. In fact, Oakley’s legendary shooting appeared in a film produced by Thomas Edison, wherein the camera follows the flight of a bullet shot by Oakley. These films were later dubbed nickelodeons.
Mentorship & Praise
Throughout her career, Oakley was showered with gifts from tours around the world. By the time she retired, Oakley had curated an impressive collection of shooting awards and memorabilia which can be seen at historical sites near her hometowns such as The Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio and The Nutley Historical Society in Nutley, New Jersey. The couple continued to hunt and fish game during their downtime off tour, taking the opportunity to offer shooting lessons to women and book performances in their towns to show the advantages of hunting and shooting for women and children. Oakley continued to attract fans in every town she visited, inspiring countless folklores and pop culture references that still exist today.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on March 16, 2015.