Born Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio, the woman who would be known as Annie Oakley developed her superb marksmanship abilities as a teen, earning enough to pay off the mortgage for her mother's home. She married fellow marksman Frank Butler in 1876 and would later become a star attraction for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for years, renowned for unparalleled shooting tricks. A revered global figure, Oakley retired in 1913 and died in Ohio on November 3, 1926.
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses (or as some sources say, Mosey) on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio. She is remembered as one of the leading women of the American West.
Both Moses' father and her stepfather died when she was a child, and she went to live at the Darke County Infirmary, where she received schooling and sewing instruction while helping in the care of orphaned children. She returned to living with her mother and her second stepfather in her early teens, when she was able to help the family by hunting game for a grocery store. She earned so much from her skills that by the time she was 15, Moses was able to pay off the mortgage on her mother's home.
A Wild West Star
After beating him in a 1875 Thanksgiving shooting competition, the following year, Moses married Frank E. Butler, a top shooter and vaudeville performer. The two embarked on a union that would last more than half a century. They began working together professionally in 1882, after Butler's male partner fell ill and Moses took his place. She took on the stage name of Oakley, believed to be taken from a Cincinnati locale.
Annie Oakley met Native-American leader Sitting Bull in 1884, and he was so impressed with her manner and abilities that he "adopted" her and bestowed upon her the additional name "Little Sure Shot." Oakley and Butler then joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885. The couple toured with the show for more than a decade and a half, with Oakley receiving the spotlight and top billing while Butler worked as her manager, assisting Oakley with her stunning displays of marksmanship.
Audiences were wowed. She could shoot off the end of a cigarette held in her husband's lips, hit the thin edge of a playing card from 30 paces and shoot distant targets while looking into a mirror. She would also shoot holes through cards thrown into the air before they landed, inspiring the practice of punching holes in a free event ticket being referred to as an "Annie Oakley." Oakley even entertained such royals as Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II—and shot a cigarette out of the kaiser's mouth.
After Oakley and Butler were in a railroad accident in 1901, she was partially paralyzed for a time, yet she recovered and continued to perform. She did stage work in the 1903 melodrama The Western Girl and joined the Young Buffalo Show in 1911. Oakley and Butler retired in 1913, settling in Cambridge, Maryland, and adopting a dog, Dave, who would become part of their later shows.
Oakley was a top earner for the Wild West Show and via her additional exhibition work, sharing money with her extended family and giving donations to charities for orphans. During World War I, Oakley volunteered to organize a regiment of female sharpshooters, but her petition was ignored, so, instead, she helped to raise money for the Red Cross with exhibition work at Army camps.
During her retirement, Oakley pursued such hobbies as hunting and fishing, and taught marksmanship to other women. In the early 1920s, Oakley and Butler were involved a car accident in which they were both severely hurt, but she did manage to perform again for a time in 1924.
Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926, in Greenville, Ohio. The news of her death saddened the nation and brought forth a wave of tributes. Butler died on November 21, 1926.
Legacy and Media Depictions
Part of Oakley's lasting legacy is the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946), based on her life story, with the initial run starring Ethel Merman and later Broadway incarnations starring Reba McEntire and Bernadette Peters. Other media treatments of the markswoman's life have appeared as well, including the 1935 film Annie Oakley (which is noted for being historically inaccurate), the 1950 film adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Betty Hutton, and a variety of books geared toward both children and adults.
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