Lillian Smith: The On-Target 'California Girl' | HistoryNet MENU

Lillian Smith: The On-Target ‘California Girl’

By Julia Bricklin
11/25/2014 • Wild West

Our home page photo shows Lillian Smith in 1886, the year she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West. By 1904, however, the year this image was taken, Smith had transformed herself into Wenona, a hard-riding, straight-shooting Indian princess. (Home page image: Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas; above: Library of Congress; marqee image: www.thecircusblog.com)
Our home page photo shows Lillian Smith in 1886, the year she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West. By 1904, however, the year this image was taken, Smith had transformed herself into Wenona, a hard-riding, straight-shooting Indian princess. (Home page image: Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas; above: Library of Congress; marqee image: www.thecircusblog.com)

‘Lillian felt she was Wenona. She had found a way for her sun-toughened skin and stout figure to be something beautiful and respected—even mysterious and private, since so much of her life had been public’

The 14-year-old girl exhibited no anxiety or hesitation when she hoisted her 7-pound Ballard .22-caliber rifle. From a distance of 33 feet she targeted swaying glass balls hanging by wires from the wooden figure of a deer suspended in midair. With unfailing aim she fired from her right shoulder, then from her left shoulder, and, finally, shooting with the rifle held upside down and backward over her shoulder, sighting with a hand mirror. Not once did she miss. Still aiming backward using the same mirror, she shot at 10 glass balls sprung in quick succession from a trap—and burst them all before they hit the floor. Wing-shooting champion Crittenden Robinson was so confident in the marksmanship of this girl performing at an April 1885 exhibition in San Francisco that he volunteered to hold up an ace of clubs, the middle of which she perforated without pause. For her finale the little lady performed her most noteworthy feat: Using a Winchester rifle, she burst 100 glass balls in 2 minutes, 35 seconds, beating by a heartbeat champion William Frank “Doc” Carver’s record of 2 minutes, 36 seconds.

Conventional wisdom suggests only William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s female sharpshooter par excellence Annie Oakley (see cover story in the February 2015 Wild West) could have pulled off such a sterling display of marksmanship. Not so. Oakley was 24 years old in April 1885, the month she and husband Frank Butler signed on as a trick-shooting duo with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The young shooter who broke all those glass balls was Lillian Smith. By age 14 she had traveled up and down California, breaking records at gun clubs and exhibition halls. Audiences flocked to see the “California Girl, Champion Rifle Shot of the World,” who later became an accomplished trick rider, too. The press made much of the alleged rivalry between the two female sharpshooters. Smith, though, had little interest in specifically besting Oakley, even if many shooting sports fans of the era wagered Smith the better shot. In 1887 Cody himself offered a purse of $10,000 to anyone who could outshoot Smith; no one ever claimed the prize.

Smith’s and Oakley’s shooting skills were similar, though Smith favored a rifle, while Oakley preferred a shotgun. Their personalities and motivations, however, were vastly different. Oakley acted the proper Victorian lady who just happened to be a crack shot. She had competed against and gotten the best of male sharpshooters but always maintained that shooting was something any woman could do with her spouse. She could barely conceal her disdain for her younger female rival, who was more outspoken and brash. “The word ‘champion’ I have never used myself,” Oakley said in an 1889 interview. “If the title benefits her any…I hope she will make better use of it than she did at Wimbledon”—a snipe at Smith’s impromptu and reportedly embarrassing shooting performance at Britain’s hallowed rifle grounds two years earlier.

Their interactions were largely limited to the period when both were in Cody’s employ. Oakley might have been the bigger draw, but Smith attracted her fair share of fans. Her reputation was so well established by 1886 that Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum and Elizabeth Custer came to see her perform. Author Glenn Shirley notes a July performance during Cody’s summer in New York that year when some 200,000 spectators were “brought screaming to their feet with her amazing ability.” But while Oakley’s celebrity endured, Lillian Smith fell into obscurity, even though around 1900 she reinvented herself as a Sioux princess named Wenona.

Lillian Frances Smith was born in 1871 (her exact birth date remains elusive) in Coleville, Calif., to boatbuilder Levi Smith and wife Rebecca, who hailed from Massachusetts and had moved to California with their young son about four years earlier. Levi later recounted that while most kids in Mono County were “little William Tells,” he was still surprised one day to see Lillian—at age 6—shoot and kill a sparrow with a simple bow and arrow he had made for her.

In the late 1870s Levi moved the family from Coleville to the more temperate Sandy Mush, near Los Banos, in Merced County. He built ships for San Joaquin River commerce but also used his shooting prowess to make extra money from the Miller and Lux ranch in Merced. “Mr. Smith is the most successful hunter of which we have any knowledge, having within the last five months killed and shipped to San Francisco over 9,000 head of geese and ducks,” the Merced Express reported in 1877. “He owns an ox, which is trained to allow his master to walk in bent posture by his side to within easy range of the geese, when the shooting is done either over or under the animal.” The reporter added that while this method was not exactly sporting, it was of great advantage to the hunter, not to mention the farmer hoping to keep his grain from being eaten.

It was an advantage to Lillian, too, who received a Ballard .22 rifle for her ninth birthday and often accompanied her father on shooting excursions. In no time she was roaming the San Joaquin marshlands alone, packing home rabbits and fowl for the family to eat. On one outing she brought down “40 redheads and mallards, mostly on the wing.” Another time, while stalking cottontails at age 10, Smith heard her dog yelp in terror as a wildcat attacked it. She fired twice at the predator’s hindquarters, spurring it to attack the horse. The little girl then gut-shot the wildcat and let her dog finish it off. Similar encounters with bears were probably exaggerations by the press. Regardless, her father decided it was time to take his young “California Huntress” to a safer (and more profitable) arena—the exhibition circuit.

Smith caught the attention of locals in summer 1881. “Santa Cruz County has a shooting prodigy in the person of Lillian F. Smith, a 10-year-old girl who lives near Corralitos,” reported the Sacramento Daily Record-Union in June 1881. San Francisco amusement park owner Robert Woodward was so impressed that he signed Smith to her first formal exhibition, at Woodward’s Gardens on July 24. “She showed no embarrassment,” the Daily Record-Union reported, “and proceeded to shatter glass balls in a businesslike way worthy of Dr. Carver, reloading her rifle like a veteran. Of 50 balls thrown into the air, but four were missed. Ten balls were broken inside of three minutes, though they were only seen in a hand mirror and shot at over the shoulder.…Balls made to revolve in a large circle at the end of a cord were demolished and their fragments sent flying over the orchestra, seriously interfering with the high notes of the tuba.” Smith appeared next at the state Agricultural Park in Sacramento, and then returned to Woodward’s Gardens at the end of the summer for a “positively last performance.”

The New York Clipper stated she was “now able to accomplish all of the difficult shots made by Dr. Carver, Dr. [John] Ruth and other well-known experts.” For the next two years Levi Smith wagered through national newspapers that his daughter could beat anyone and offered purses of $500 to $5,000. “I have not received any reply from any one yet,” Levi lamented in late 1884. “I once more will say, I will match my daughter against Dr. Carver, Eugene Bogardus, Captain E.E. Stubbs…” and described any number of options, from hitting English pins to breaking glass balls with either rifle or shotgun, mastery of the latter being relatively new to Lillian. In April 1885 came the young sharpshooter’s impressive exhibition in San Francisco, during which she used a Winchester to break Carver’s speed record for shooting 100 glass balls.

Time, distance and a lack of funds precluded most marksmen from accepting challenges from one other, and Carver was no exception. On May 13, 1886, the St. Louis Republican reported Doc’s failure to show for a match with 15-year-old Lillian. “The young lady,” it crowed, “has every right to say she frightened off ‘the Evil Spirit of the Plains.’” While the press made a big deal out of his no show, there really was no upside for Carver to appear, if indeed he had ever committed to the challenge. Carver had settled a long-running business dispute with Cody the year before, but it had ruined him financially. To best a teenage girl would not necessarily further his more profitable vaudeville aspirations, while a loss to Smith would spell certain humiliation.

Historians differ as to where Buffalo Bill Cody first encountered Smith, but it seems likely he met her in northern California. Whatever the case, Lillian showed up for practice for his Wild West show at Erastina on New York’s Staten Island in May 1886, much to the chagrin of Annie Oakley, who had debuted with Cody just over a year earlier. “The show was a decided success,” wrote The New York Times when the Wild West opened in June, “and the sham fights between the cowboys and the red men and the scalping of the fallen Indians were events that filled the dime-novel boy’s heart with delight.” Lillian wowed the spectators, alternating between a revolver and Winchester rifle to hit the bull’s-eye time and again, both on horseback and afoot. During her act she broke 25 glass balls in a minute, struck a plate 30 times in 15 seconds, shot two balls revolving rapidly on a string around a pole and made many other trick shots.

Oakley biographer Shirl Kasper writes of the increasing tension between Cody’s two female shooting stars. As Smith’s press coverage became as favorable as Oakley’s, the latter responded quickly and decisively—Annie simply lopped six years off her age. “Instantly,” writes Kasper, “little Annie Oakley was a youthful girl of 20 again.” This wasn’t hard to do, given the sharpshooter’s slight stature. Oakley seldom spoke publicly about her feelings toward Smith—at least not by name—but signs of her resentment surfaced now and again. Kasper notes that Annie sneered at Lillian’s “ample figure” and her “poor grammar,” both true assessments, if not very kind. It didn’t help matters that Smith, really still a child, told fellow performers “Oakley was done for” once the public saw “her own self shoot.”

That summer Oakley, in anticipation of the June 26 opening day parade of the Wild West in New York City, had sewn a fancy new costume with matching saddle trappings stitched prominently on either side with the name OAKLEY, so no one would mistake her for Smith. And despite running a high fever on opening day, Oakley insisted on joining the parade. She was laid up in bed the next four days before deciding that, with Smith grabbing all the attention, she’d better get back into the arena.

While Smith enjoyed the attention of adoring fans, she soon enjoyed the even more attentive James “Jim Kid” Willoughby, nearly 14 years her senior. Willoughby was a bronc buster, famous for winning the 1884 Montana riding and roping championship. According to Smith, her parents—camped near the show grounds—were averse to her mingling with the opposite sex, believing her too young. Smith disagreed. “I never had any children playmates,” she told one reporter, “so I suppose I may consider myself prematurely old.” That September, against her parents’ wishes, Lillian secretly married Jim Kid in the tent of fellow Wild West performer Buck “King of the Cowboys” Taylor. When her father got wind of it, the papers exclaimed, he whisked her away 200 miles to stay with relatives in New Bedford, Mass. Truth is, they had already planned the visit, and whatever Levi’s feelings about the marriage, he allowed the couple to reunite by Thanksgiving.

Next up was Lillian’s first trip to Europe. Except for some Oglala Sioux children, Smith was among the youngest passengers to sail out of New York Harbor on March 31, 1887, on the steamship State of Nebraska with an assemblage of ponies, bison, American Indians and frontier heroes. Two weeks later Cody and Wild West co-owner Nate Salsbury arrived at Gravesend, England, with their troupe and set up camp at the newly constructed Earl’s Court arena in London.

The Wild West—and its accompanying American Exhibition—exceeded everyone’s expectations, each show drawing a sell-out crowd of 20,000. On May 11 Queen Victoria herself rounded up a retinue of royals to attend a private, command performance. From her special box she watched Agnes Lake Hickok square dance atop her horse, Lt. Col. George Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn, an attack on a settler’s cabin, a buffalo hunt and a run of the Deadwood Stage and the Pony Express. Oakley and Johnny Baker did their shooting acts, and Lillian, according to one account, “broke glass balls all over the place.”

Both women performed admirably, and afterward the queen asked for “the American girls.” There are many versions of this encounter. Oakley supposedly made “the prettiest of curtseys” and was surprised by the regent’s words, “You are a very clever little girl,” for Annie was a married woman and thought herself not so small. Lillian also apparently curtsied before the queen, showed Victoria her rifle and also received praise. “Young California spoke up gracefully and like a little lady,” Cody later said. “She showed the Queen the mechanism of the firearm…all the time conversing with her Majesty as if she had been a member of the troupe.” It’s likely Victoria was enamored of both women, but more so by the Sioux “papooses.”

Lillian returned to New York with the Wild West in May 1888, but Annie and husband Frank decided to strike out on their own due to a strained relationship with Cody. While Oakley never spoke publicly of the reasons for her split with Cody, and most certainly never brought Smith’s name into the matter, it is probable Lillian’s departure from the show was a condition of her return. Indeed, in 1889 Smith did leave the show, for reasons that remain hazy, and shortly thereafter Oakley and Butler came back into Cody’s fold. Smith and Oakley remained subjects of gossip and comparison, but they may have crossed paths only once again. In April 1902 they competed with a third woman, Mrs. S.J. Johnstone of Minneapolis, at the Grand American Handicap wing-shooting contest in Kansas City. Only Johnstone was on the mark that day, hitting all eight of the eight birds released. Oakley missed two birds and Smith three.

Smith and Willoughby’s marriage came to an ignominious end in 1889, supposedly over her dalliance with a half-white, half-Indian cowboy named Bill Cook. Lillian returned to California and engaged in shooting matches with Civil War veterans and anyone else who would pay. She lent her name and expertise to a shooting range in Chico, operated by her brother Charles, and other ranges in California’s Central Valley. In 1890 Levi and Rebecca, acting as agents and managers, took their daughter touring north through Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Smith performed at the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland but spent most of her days teaching women and girls how to shoot and appearing at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, where she dutifully shot down banners dramatically revealed to be too high. Though her new routine likely left her somewhat bored, she was on occasion able to find adventure. “Lillian F. Smith, the venturesome young California girl, who left Fresno several weeks ago for a trip to this city by water, arrived here on Tuesday evening after a very pleasant passage,” The San Francisco Call reported on July 7, 1892. “On her way down the [San Joaquin] river the young woman amused herself with her gun and fishing rod. At night she pulled her boat out of the water and used it as a couch.” Smith announced she would put her tiny homemade skiff on display at the Chicago World’s Fair the following year.

After her stint at the World’s Fair, Smith remained in northern California with her family through most the 1890s. The Smiths traveled the local vaudeville circuit, at which Rebecca collected tickets, Levi threw glass balls in the air, and Lillian’s younger sister, Nellie, opened the cartridges and swabbed out the guns. The San Francisco Call suggested the Smith family had “found life worth living since Lillian learned to shoot.” In 1897 Lillian married local saloon owner Theodore Powell, but they apparently had split by 1898 when she took up with Charles “California Frank” Hafley, a lawman who had recently made headlines after capturing the robbers of a Southern Pacific train in Fresno. Lillian and Frank, in turn, married in 1899 and toured the country as…“Lillian and Frank.” The California Girl marveled crowds by shooting the ashes off California Frank’s cigar and breaking small glass balls dangling from his hat brim. But the show was about to take a dramatic turn.

Around the turn of the 20th century Lillian changed her name to Wenona and began to darken her face with makeup and dress in a beaded suede tunic as part of “Colonel” Frederick T. Cummins’ Indian Congress, which appeared at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She added “Princess” to her name when she and Frank later joined Pawnee Bill’s Wild West. The California Girl was now an Indian girl. According to various press accounts, Wenona was either the daughter of a white mother and Sioux chief or a Sioux mother and white pioneer, or she was a full-blood Sioux raised by a white family. She wore beaded buckskin dresses or jumpers and routinely styled her hair in braids, sometimes crowned in feathered headpieces.

There are several reasons for Smith’s transformation, some more obvious than others. She had no remaining close family ties: Her mother had died alone and destitute in 1901, her brother shortly before that. Father Levi’s attention had since shifted to Nellie, as the pair toured Arizona Territory, riding on Lillian’s fame to showcase the newest “California Girl.” Smith’s only family was Hafley, who almost certainly encouraged his wife’s Indian princess moniker as a way to capitalize on America’s obsession with a fading people. The persona also differentiated Smith from her previous lives under the tutelage of both her father and Cody. Most important, Lillian felt she was Wenona. She had found a way for her sun-toughened skin and stout figure to be something beautiful and respected—even mysterious and private, since so much of her life had been public.

By 1907 Lillian and Frank had bid farewell to Pawnee Bill and joined the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show in Ponca City, Oklahoma Territory, which made its national debut at the Jamestown Exposition in Virginia that year. The Hafleys’ contract with the 101 Ranch allowed them to pursue side ventures, and in 1908 Frank accepted the post of amusement manager at Dreamland Park, on New York’s Coney Island. There he showcased what Billboard magazine deemed “one of the biggest sensations ever seen in this country, in the person of Mamie Francis,” who dove from a 50-foot-high platform into a tank of water on the backs of her performing horses, Lurline and Serpentine.

Frank and Mamie fell in love. Tellingly, Lillian did not renew her contract with the 101 that year. Shortly thereafter she and Frank divorced, and Frank and Mamie married. But in 1910 the three were thrown together professionally as part of the 101 Ranch Wild West troupe. This had to be hurtful for Wenona, who frequently had to lodge with Frank and Mamie on the road. Regardless, Wenona gamely performed with Mamie as a shooting act, which incorporated their horseback tricks. Decades later Mamie credited Wenona as the only woman who could perform a shooting trick Oakley failed to master—to ride a galloping horse and hit clay balls tossed into the air. Mamie eventually learned the trick as well, and she likely learned it from Wenona. As late as 1911, according to Billboard, Wenona remained a “peerless horseback rifle shot.”

Michael Wallis’ comprehensive book The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West details the last third of Princess Wenona’s life. Wallis notes that she married cowboy Wayne Beasley shortly after divorcing Hafley, and while this must have been a very short-lived union (Beasley moved to Europe in 1913), Wenona clearly regarded him highly, as evinced by her letters to Joe Miller, begging him to hire Beasley: “Now in regard [to] Wayne—you will find him a first-class man—sober—and the best all-around worker you ever had—a man that you can put in any part of your show.” Wenona, according to Wallis, also briefly married Eagle Shirt, a fellow 101 Ranch Wild West performer.

Princess Wenona performed with a 101 Ranch road company at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, but she began to slow down after that, cherry-picking the odd Wild West or Orpheum show whenever she needed money. She preferred to spend her time on the 101 Ranch with German-born artist Emil Lenders, with whom she had started a romantic tryst a year or two before. In 1922, writes Wallis, the 101 Ranch Trust granted the couple a mortgage of 20 acres in Noble County, south of Bliss, Okla., despite the fact Lenders still had a wife and a child in Philadelphia. They called their spread Thunderbird Ranch and kept an array of animals, including as many as 48 stray dogs. They also raised chickens, planted an orchard of 500 peach trees and as many blackberry vines, and operated a vineyard.

But their romance, too, faded, and in 1926 Lenders left Wenona and moved his studio to Ponca City. The princess was alone once again, except for her animals, and when her beloved pony, Rabbit, died in 1928, she moved into Bliss proper. “In spite of her failing health and lack of money,” Wallis writes, “Lillian continued to care for her dogs and chickens and became a familiar sight in Marland and Ponca City, shuffling along on foot or riding in an old buggy with some of her faithful hounds trailing behind.” Forlorn and forgotten, the princess died of heart failure during the harsh winter of 1930.

In her will Smith left $100 to the Ponca City Salvation Army and the rest of her money, clothes, household items, jewelry and real estate to trusted friends. Items of historical import—including four Winchester carbines, two gold-plated Winchester rifles, two gold-plated Smith and Wesson revolvers, a bulletproof vest, silver spurs, horse trappings and a life-sized portrait of Princess Wenona—went to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “I wish to be buried in my Indian clothes,” she wrote, and her adoptive family in Ponca City obliged. The death of the onetime champion rifle shot of the world garnered just a few lines in the papers. As Glenn Shirley wrote in his 1973 article about Smith, “Public interest in lady sharpshooters and outdoor tent shows waned with the advent of the silent screen, and ‘talkies’ loomed on the horizon.” There was a time when Smith could have trained this next generation of performers, but she instead spent her last years trying to create the stable family life she never had, exchanging food and labor with other orphaned entertainers and 101 Ranch inhabitants, with the memories of being the true California Girl to keep her warm.

Julia Bricklin, associate editor for the quarterly journal California History, is writing a book about Lillian Smith. Suggested for further reading are Michael Wallis’ The Real Wild West and Laura Browder’s Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities.

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