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‘Little Sure Shot’, Annie Oakley

1800s | August 30, 2018

Trick Shooting. Anne Oakley, champion trick shot (Getty Images)

When it comes to Old West heroines, one name often pops to mind – Annie Oakley. The eagle-eyed sharpshooting woman was so accomplished with her gun that she was invited to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885. She toured the country – and traveled to Europe – demonstrating her shooting ability. Although her reputation and legacy are cemented in American culture, there are some little-known facts about Annie Oakley that add to her story. 

First, Annie Oakley Wasn’t Really Her Name

It was Phoebe. Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses in a rural part of Ohio on August 13, 1860. Her family took to calling her ‘Annie’ as an infant. When she began her entertainment career as a sharpshooter, she chose the stage name ‘Annie Oakley’, reportedly adopting the name of her Ohio town as her new surname. 

Annie Oakley Advocated For Women in Combat, But Not For Women’s Suffrage

Annie Oakley used her celebrity to help her promote the causes that were near and dear to her heart. One was the use of female soldiers in combat in the United States military. On the cusp of the Spanish-American War, Oakley penned a letter to President William McKinley. In it, she offered to provide the U.S. government with ’50 lady sharpshooters’ to aid the Americans in the cause. She even added that the lady sharpshooters would provide their own weapons and ammunition. President McKinley declined her offer. Oakley strongly believed that all women should learn to shoot and learn how to handle guns. She saw it as the best way for women to empower themselves and defend themselves and their families. She is credited with teaching more than 15,000 women how to shoot and she once said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies.” Despite this progressive thinking, Oakley was not in favor of women’s suffrage. She admitted that she thought only a few women were knowledgeable enough to vote. 

Annie Oakley Was a Born Sharpshooter

Annie Oakley exhibited signs of being an expert shot as a young child. She would join her father on hunting trips, while her sisters preferred to stay home and play with dolls. She took her first shot when she was eight-years old, using her father’s muzzle-loader to nail a squirrel sitting on a fence post. She expertly shot the animal through the head, preserving the meat for her family’s dinner table. From then on, Annie hunted alongside her father and helped to feed her family of nine. Extra game she shot was sold to a local store that supplied mean to Cincinnati-area hotels and restaurants. The money Annie earned from this enterprise helped her parents pay off the mortgage on their home. 

Annie Oakley Married a Fellow Sharp-Shooter…After She Beat Him in the Shooting Contest!

When she was only 15 years old, Annie Oakley entered a sharp-shooting contest in Cincinnati against a travelling sharp-shooter named Frank Butler. Wherever he stopped on his tours, Butler would challenge local men to shooting competitions. A hotel owner in Cincinnati had known about the young country girl with the knack for shooting named Annie and arranged a contest between the girl and Butler, to the delight of the crowds of onlookers. As the contest started, Butler looked smug and pleased with himself when he hit 24 out of 25 targets. Then it was Annie’s turn. To Butler’s surprise, she hit all 25 targets. Butler may have lost the contest, but he won Annie’s heart. The two courted, then married the following summer. They were married for fifty years, until their deaths – just three weeks apart – in 1926. 

Annie Did Impressive Tricks With Her Shooting

After joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, entertained crowds with impressive and dangerous shooting stunts. She regularly shot playing cards and dimes that were tossed into the air. She even shot cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth. She could shoot over her shoulder with amazing accuracy. She could snuff out a flame of a candle by shooting it. She was never reckless with her shooting and always took the necessary precautions to make safety a priority. 

Annie Oakley Was Adopted by Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull, the Lakota leader from the Battle of Little Big Horn, attended one of Annie’s shows in Minnesota in 1884. The Chief was so impressed with Annie’s shooting ability that, the next day, he sent $65 and a note to Oakley’s hotel, asking for an autographed photo. Oakley sent back the photo as well as the money, and noted that she would love to meet the Chief in person. Chief Sitting Bull admired Oakley so much that he insisted on adopting her as his own daughter. He gave her the name ‘Watanya Cicilla,’ which meant ‘Little Sure Shot’. Oakley and the Chief became lifelong friends and, thanks to him, he nickname stuck. 

Sharpshooter Lillian Smith, Annie Oakley's rival

Oakley Engaged in a Celebrity Feud

When Annie Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she found that there was already another female sharp-shooter in the show. Her name was Lillian Smith and she was younger, and therefore more appealing to audiences, than Oakley. The two became instant rivals. Oakley even lied to reporters about her true age so she could seem as young and fresh as Smith. The feud got so bad that Oakley left the travelling show for a short time and only returned to it after Smith left. Annie Oakley ended up being more popular than Smith ever was. She was the highest paid performer in the show, with the exception of Buffalo Bill himself. 

William Randolph Hearst

Oakley Sued Newspaper Mogul William Randolph Hearst for Libel…And Won

In August of 1903, a drunk and disorderly burlesque dancer in Chicago was arrested for stealing men’s pants and selling them to pay for her cocaine addiction. At the time of her arrest, she gave her name as Annie Oakley. Two Chicago area newspapers, owned by newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, published sensational news stories about the arrest of Annie Oakley and about her cocaine addiction. Other newspapers reprinted the story and the real Annie Oakley’s reputation took a hit. The mistake was soon discovered and some of the newspapers printed retractions, but the damage was done. Oakley filed libel suits against newspapers – the largest libel case in the country at that time – and her case was tied up in the courts for the next six years. In the end, she won and William Randolph Hearst was ordered to pay her $27,000 in damages. 

The Annie Oakley Name Came to Mean “Free Tickets”

Ushers and ticket agents from the late 1800s through the early 1900s would punch holes in the free tickets that were given out to shows, plays, games, etc. This was a way to easily pull out the free tickets when adding up ticket sales. The holes in the tickets looked like the holes that Annie Oakley shot through playing cards during her shows, so free tickets with hole punched in them became known as ‘Annie Oakleys’. As an extension of this, a walk in baseball came to also be known as ‘Annie Oakleys’ because the player was given a free pass to first base. 

Annie Was Injured in a Train Wreck

In 1901, Annie Oakley was involved in a train accident that left her badly injured. She experienced temporary paralysis. She underwent five surgeries on her spine to repair the damage. Her recovery forced her to leave Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 

In a 1922 shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, Annie proved she was still as sharp as ever by hitting 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards at age 62.  In addition to her shooting skills, she also engaged in supporting women's rights and many other causes, including supporting young women she knew. 

Her health declined in 1925 and on November 3, 1926, she died of pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio at the age of 66.  Butler, her husband of 50 years, died just 18 days later.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.