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Annie Oakley’s Early Life: Pitching in to help the Family

Annie Oakley was born as Phoebe Ann Moses on August 3, 1860 in Darke County Ohio. She was one of six children at the time, and her family took to calling her Annie. It would be an understatement to say that Oakley came from humble beginnings. Her father, Jacob Moses, died when Annie was just six years old, leaving mother Susan Wise Moses to raise six children and little in the way of money to do so. Annie’s mother did soon remarry, but her second husband died just after the marriage, leaving the Annie’s mother with yet another child and no better off than they were before the wedding.

When Annie was just eight or nine, she went to live in the Darke County Infirmary, which sheltered the county’s elderly, orphans, and the mentally ill. Mrs. Edgington, who was the superintendent’s wife, formally educated and taught Annie to sew in exchange for Annie’s help with the orphaned children. Annie’s sewing skills would come in handy later on in her life, as she would make her own costumes for her sharpshooting shows.

Annie displaying her numerous medals.

Annie returned to her family when she was 13 or 14, yet they were still not very well off. Annie’s mother had married for a third time, to Joseph Shaw. In order to help out with the family’s survival, Annie used her father’s old Kentucky rifle to hunt small animals. She then sold these animals to a grocery store in Greenville, Ohio. This grocery store in turn sold the game animals to restaurants in nearby Cincinnati. Annie got to be so good at her job of hunting small game, that she was able to pay the $200 mortgage on her mother’s house, and she was only 15 years old.

Annie was such a gifted shooter that she got the attention of a hotel owner in Cincinnati named Jack Frost, who had purchased some of the game that Annie had shot. Mr. Frost invited the young Annie to compete in a sharpshooting competition against a famous marksman by the name of Frank E. Butler.

Butler was one of several marksmen who were on tour. During the tour, Butler would regularly invite a local shooter to compete with him in a competition. In the competition with Oakley, Butler made 24 out of his 25 shots. Oakley however made all of her 25 shots, beating the famous shooter at his own game. Butler became enamored with Oakley, and the two eagle-eyed sharpshooters were married on August 23, 1876.

Oakley takes her Show on the Road with Butler

Prior to a show on May 1, 1882, Butler’s usual partner became ill, prompting Butler to ask his wife to fill in as his partner.  Annie mostly held objects for Frank to shoot, but she also did some of her own shooting. It was while she was appearing with her husband that Annie took the stage name of”Annie Oakley.” Over the next few years, the Butlers travelled the country to do their shows.

During a performance in St. Paul Minnesota in 1884, Oakley happened to meet Sitting Bull, who was the leader of the Lakota nation of Native Americans. Sitting Bull had defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. The leader of the Lakota people was impressed with Oakley’s shooting skills, as well as with her confidence. They became friends right away, and Sitting Bull gave Annie her nickname of “Little Sure Shot.

Headliner of Buffalo Bill’s Show

After years of headlining as a two person show, Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885. Buffalo Bill Cody had been an Army Scout and a bison hunter, but was now doing one of the more famous sharpshooting shows in the country. Now Annie joined Bill’s show as the first woman sharpshooter, and she soon became the star of the show, appearing on advertising posters with the title of “Champion Markswoman.”

A poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring Oakley

In 1887, the show took a tour of England, joining the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Annie had the chance to show the Queen her shooting skills, and while she was in Europe, she added to her collection of medals and trophies. The show returned to Europe in 1889, traveling through Italy, Spain, and France. Their stay in France included a six month exhibition in Paris. During her time here, Oakley proved especially popular with women, and she demonstrated that women too, could master the skill of marksmanship.

All told, Oakley and Butler stayed with Buffalo Bill for sixteen years, and these sixteen years were prosperous for the two of them.

Life after Buffalo Bill’s Show

After leaving Buffalo Bill’s show, Oakley and Butler performed for several more years before finally settling down in Cambridge, Maryland in 1913. Even though they weren’t as busy as they had been before, Oakley and Butler still perormed here and there, and they used their dog Dave as an important part of their act. One trick had Annie shooting an apple from the top of Dave’s head.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Oakley offered to raise a regiment of woman soldiers to fight in the war, but the government rejected her proposal. Instead, Oakley volunteered to teach marksmanship to the troops before they headed to Europe. Even Dave took part in the war effort, becoming the “Red Cross Dog” by sniffing out donations of cash hidden in handkerchiefs.

After the war, Oakley began to make plans for a return to performing and by 1922 she was appearing in New York, Boston and other major cities; there were even plans in the works for Oakley to star in a motion picture. However, Oakley and Butler were severely injured in an auto accident. After a brief recovery, Oakley died on November 3, 1926. Frank died just three weeks later, on November 21st.


Annie Oakley Fun Facts

  • Oakley was only five feet tall. No wonder Sitting Bull called her “Little Sure Shot!”
  • Oakley made her first shot at eight years old, killing a squirrel. “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months,” she later said.
  • Oakley sued the press for claiming that she had a drug addiction when, in fact, she didn’t. One newspaper in Chicago claimed that she had a “cocaine addiction.”
  • Oakley got to act in a moving picture thanks to Thomas Edison. Oakley met Edison, who was a friend of Buffalo Bill’s in Paris in 1887. The name of the film was The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.
  • Her name became an American English idiom. You know those movie tickets that have a hole in the center? Those came to be known as Annie Oakley Tickets.