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Annie Oakley

Information and Articles About Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter and famous woman in history

Annie Oakley Facts

Born

Phoebe Ann Moses August 13, 1860 Darke County, Ohio

Died

November 3, 1926 Greenville, Ohio

Spouse

Frank E. Butler

Annie Oakley Summary Information: Annie Oakley was the stage name of Phoebe Ann Moses, a sharpshooter whose skill at shooting led her to star in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and made her a national celebrity. She won numerous medals for her marksmanship, performed for royalty, and remains a legendary figure of the American West.

She was born August 13, 1860, to Jacob and Susan (Wise) Moses, Quakers who had migrated from Pennsylvania to a rented farm in Darke County, Ohio, a rural county on the Indiana border. Called Annie by her sisters, she was the sixth of seven children born to Susan Moses. In 1866, her father died of pneumonia. Her mother, unable to support her children, sent Annie to the live at the Darke County Infirmary—the county poor house—when she was 9 years old.

When she was about 10, she agreed to become a servant of sorts—helping with a baby and household chores—for another local farming family. The family was abusive, however; Annie referred to them later only as “the wolves.” She stayed with them in near-slavery for about two years before running away, back to the Darke County Infirmary. She returned home to her mother not long after. Her mother had remarried and had another child, but her husband had died, leaving her to fend for herself and her children alone again.

Annie Gets Her First Gun

Annie, who had first shot a gun at a very young age before she was sent away, ended up supporting the family by hunting and trapping when she returned. She could shoot quail and pheasants in the head, keeping the edible portions of the birds entirely free of buckshot. She sold the game to locals in Greenville, Ohio, and to hotels and restaurants in the area, and built a reputation as an excellent shot. She claimed to have so been successful that she paid the mortgage on her family’s farm.

As a young woman, she met Francis “Frank” Butler while he performed his traveling marksman show in Cincinnati, Ohio. Part of Frank’s act was accepting challenges from local marksmen to matches, with bets being placed on both sides. A local hotel owner arranged a shooting match between Frank and Annie on Thanksgiving Day. Frank was surprised to learn his opponent was a five-foot-tall, 15-year-old girl— who beat him after he missed on his 25th shot. They began a courtship and eventually married. There is disagreement over the dates of their first meeting and their marriage; they may have wed as early as 1876, but their only known marriage certificate is in Windsor, Canada, and is dated June 20, 1882. Various reasons have been given for the discrepancies, including the possibility that Frank was not yet legally divorced from his first wife when he and Annie wed.

Phoebe Becomes Annie Oakley

The Butlers began performing together in May 1882 when Frank’s partner became ill. She took the stage name “Annie Oakley,” possibly after the Oakley neighborhood in Cincinnati where they lived. Frank immediately recognized that Annie had a bigger draw and began to showcase her as the main act, acting more as a manager than as a fellow performer.

In 1884, the Sioux (Lakota) spiritual leader and medicine man Sitting Bull, who had beaten Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, saw a show that Annie was in in a theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. He asked to see her after the show. Annie gave him a signed picture of herself ; Sitting Bull gave her moccasins he had worn at Little Bighorn and the nickname “Watanya Cicilla,” Little Sure Shot.

Annie Oakley Meets Buffalo Bill

Also in 1884, Annie and Frank met William “Buffalo Bill” Cody while performing with a circus in New Orleans. Frank and Cody negotiated for a three-day trial with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in early 1885—Annie and Frank would go on to perform with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show for 16 seasons. Cody called Annie “Li’l Miss,” an apt nickname for the five-foot-tall markswoman, and had her perform early in the show to help audiences get used to the sound of gunfire. Her charisma and her skill with many firearms endeared audiences to her and to the show. At 90 feet, she could shoot a dime or a cork out of a bottle or snuff out candle flames. She could also shoot a playing card with the thin edge held facing her multiple times—the theatre business began referring to free tickets, which had holes punched in them, as “Annie Oakleys.”

During the 1885 season, Cody also hired Sitting Bull to perform with the show, for which the government had allowed the chief to leave the Standing Rock Reservation. Although Sitting Bull only had to ride once around the arena in his role as “Show Indian,” he did not take well to performing. Cody often asked Annie to talk to Sitting Bull when he became upset, but her presence and cajoling were ultimately not enough to keep him touring, and he returned to Standing Rock.

Annie Goes To London With The Wild West Show

In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show traveled to London as part of the American Exhibition, which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In early May, they gave several special performances for the royal family. During the performance for Queen Victoria on May 11, the queen rose and bowed deeply when the American flag came into the arena—it was the first time a British monarch had saluted the American flag and the members of the show roared their approval. The show stayed in London until October, giving over 300 performances that helped Annie hone her showmanship. The London newspapers gave her very favorable press for her shooting skills and began to embellish her western background.

In May 1888, the Wild West Show returned to the U.S. after stops in Birmingham and Manchester, England. Annie and Frank left the show for reasons that were “too long to tell” that spring and toured with various other shows and independently for the rest of the year. In December, she made her debut as an actress in a play called Deadwood Dick, but the play and the theater company weren’t successful. In the spring of 1889, they rejoined the Wild West Show for a tour of Europe, beginning with the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France, from May to October. They toured southern France, Spain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany before returning to the States in the spring of 1890. The show returned to Europe for two more tours in 1891 and 1892, including another performance for Queen Victoria in 1892.

Annie Becomes A National Superstar

Annie was a celebrity, reportedly earning more than any other employee in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, when the show returned to the U.S. in 1892. Annie and Frank bought a house in Nutley, New Jersey, which they lived in between the tours that typically took them to about 130 towns each season. In 1894, Buffalo Bill, 15 of his Indians, and Annie Oakley were filmed by Thomas Edison in his Black Maria Studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison turned the films into nickelodeons—the public could go to Kinetoscope parlors and, for a nickel, see Annie shoot.

On October 29, 1901, the show members were traveling north in North Carolina to the final performance of the season in Danville, Virginia. Because of a misunderstanding at the switching station, the second train, the one Annie and Frank were on, ran head-on into a southbound train. Whether because of this accident or because it was just time—the 41-year-old sharpshooter had been touring continuously for nearly 20 years—she retired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Around this time, her hair had begun to turn white as well, which was an obvious liability for a performer.

In retirement, Annie tried her hand at acting again, appearing in a play called The Western Girl in 1902, wearing a wig to conceal her hair. She also began giving shooting lessons at exclusive shooting clubs. Frank became a representative of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, a position that allowed Annie and Frank to continue their shooting exhibitions while endorsing the company’s products.

Annie Oakley Retires

In 1910, they attended a Wild West show known as “The Two Bills Show” at Madison Square Garden—Cody had merged his show with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. Cody asked Annie to join his show, but Annie refused, although she did tour some with another show until 1913, when she retired for good. She and Frank remained good friends with Buffalo Bill. When Bill died on January 10, 1917, she wrote a glowing eulogy of the old showman.

In 1912, Frank and Annie had began building a house in Cambridge, Maryland, which is on Maryland’s eastern shore. The roof of the house was designed so that Annie could step out onto it and shoot game off the Choptank River. They spent the rest of their lives in that house, spending some of their time at resorts in North Carolina and Florida. Hunting and shooting remained important parts in their lives. In 1922, Annie performed at a benefit show on Long Island and was rumored to be making a comeback, but she did not—in November, at the age of 62, she was in a car accident in Florida and fractured her hip and ankle. The brace she had to wear may have kept her from performing again, but it did not keep her from hunting and shooting.

Over the next four years, her health began to decline, and she and Frank returned to her roots in Ohio. On November 3, 1926, she died of pernicious anemia at the age of 66. Frank mourned so deeply, he stopped eating and died 18 days later on November 21. They are buried at Brock Cemetery near Greenville, Ohio.

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