Annie Oakley was the kind of shooter we could all look up to.
In terms of Wild West performers and world-famous sharpshooters, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a name more well known than that of Annie Oakley.
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Known the world over as one of the world’s greatest shots, and a staunch advocate for women serving in the armed forces, she set the stage for women in in the coming century.
Shooting for a living
Recognized in her prime around the world as the incredible markswoman from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Annie Oakley’s early experiences with shooting weren’t solely for sport. In fact, she learned to shoot in order to survive.
Born as Phoebe A. Moses (or Mozee, as she had spelled it both ways) on August 13, 1860 to Quakers Jacob and Susan Moses, the girl who would grow up to be Annie Oakley spent her early years in constant struggle.
The family moved from Pennsylvania to Darke County, Ohio, no doubt seeking to improve their lives, but they met only heartache. When she was six years old, her father died of pneumonia. Her mother, unable to care for seven children on her own, sent young Phoebe to live in the Darke Country Infirmary, the local poorhouse, when she was nine.
Phoebe soon arranged to leave the poorhouse by working as a servant for employers she would later refer to as “the wolves.”
After working in slave-like conditions, she was all too eager to return home to her mother, who had since remarried and, again, lost her husband, leaving the family in truly desperate circumstances.
Then, Phoebe discovered her gift for shooting.
Within a few scant years, Phoebe soon found herself supporting her entire family by selling the game she shot in the woods, paying off the mortgage on the family farm and saving her numerous siblings from the poorhouse and hellish conditions she had suffered.
An International Star
When a person learns to shoot for the sake of survival, they get very good with a gun, and Phoebe Moses was able to show off her considerable skill in 1875.
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Frank Butler, a performing marksman, hosted a contest for anyone in town to come and shoot against him. Not only did Phoebe compete against him, she subsequently beat Butler at his own game.
Floored by her abilities, Butler convinced Phoebe to travel with him and, later, marry him.
Ten years later, the pair joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, where Phoebe took on the stage name “Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing Shot.” Her talents went from shooting game to splitting cards edgewise from 30 paces.
During a tour of Europe, she once shot the ash off of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cigar.
Perhaps her most famous encounter during her show days was one with Sitting Bull himself. The medicine man, impressed by her skill, traded her the moccasins he had worn at the battle of Little Bighorn in return for an autographed picture and gave her the nickname Watanya Cicilla, or Little Sure Shot.
It was a fitting name for the woman who stood only five feet tall.
Today, Annie Oakley’s legacy is best known through two films. The first, shot by Thomas Edison in 1894, is called The “Little Sure Shot” of the “Wild West,” exhibition of rifle shooting at glass balls, etc., and is the only known surviving footage of Annie herself.
The second, far more recognized piece, is the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, which was later adapted into a movie starring Betty Hutton.
Here’s the footage of the 1894 (very) short film from the LibraryOfCongress YouTube channel.
Needless to say, Oakley’s fame spread far and wide, and has developed into legendary status.
What’s your favorite Anne Oakley story? Leave it in the comments below.