The Life & Times of:
1860 - 1926
Over ninety years after she retired from show business, when we think about marksmanship and competitive shooting we immediately think of “Annie Oakley”. In her lifetime, this remarkable woman would perform acts of sharp-shooting that could amaze members of today’s modern Olympic shooting teams.
She would display this unique talent in a variety of different ways:
- Shooting the ashes off of her husband’s cigarette - while in his mouth - was an everyday part of her act.
- She would shoot a target behind her using the reflection in a Bowie knife as a mirror.
- At 30 paces, she could slice a playing card held edgewise, and puncture it with five or six more shots as it settled to the ground.
- At 90 feet Annie could hit a dime tossed in the air.
- She would extinguish the flames of candles on a revolving wheel as she rode by on a horse.
These and other feats of showmanship where not parlor tricks. Annie Oakley was actually that good!
At the height of her career, this unassuming woman, who would perform before royalty and presidents, was one of the most famous women in the United States and Europe. In her life, Annie Oakley overcame poverty, mistreatment and physical injury with her determination and strength of character. She played a role in breaking barriers for women with her talent and accomplishments. She is remembered as a Western folk hero, American legend and icon. Throughout her career, Oakley maintained her dignity and propriety while quietly proving that she was superior to most men on the shooting range. Thanks to Hollywood and history, the legend of Annie Oakley endures into the 21st century.
Who was this woman, and how did she acquire such a lofty spot in the chronicles of American history? The chronology below should offer some insight:
1860 - Born Phoebe Ann Moses - called Annie by her sisters - on August 13, in Darke County, Ohio. Annie was the fifth daughter of eight children born to Jacob and Susan Moses, a poor Quaker family originally from Pennsylvania.
1866 - When Annie was 6, her father, Jacob Moses, died of pneumonia.
1869 - Because her mother could not support them, the children were sent to live with various orphanages. At the age of eight Annie went to live with the superintendent's family at the Darke County Infirmary - which housed the elderly, the orphaned, and the mentally ill. Annie lived for two years at the orphanage. Then she was placed in a foster home. At that home she was in near servitude, treated very cruelly, often beaten and overworked.
1871 - After two years she went back to the orphanage and remained there for two more years. In exchange for helping with the children, Annie received an education and learned the skill of sewing and embroidering which she would later use to make her own costumes.
1873 - When she was thirteen Annie ran away and returned to her family. She found that they were suffering through a very difficult period and on the verge of losing the small family farm. In order to put food on the table Annie used her father's old Kentucky rifle to hunt. She soon became a remarkable shot, shooting the animals through the head, so that the meat was unspoiled. She began to earn money by supplying game for the Katzenberger grocery store in Greenville, Ohio where it was resold to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati - 80 miles away. Annie Oakley was so successful that she was able to pay off the mortgage on her mother's house.
1875 - When she was 15, word had spread of her remarkable talent with a rifle, which brought an invitation to participate in a shooting contest against a well-known marksman, Frank E. Butler, who was in Cincinnati on tour. As was his habit, Butler offered a challenge to local shooters. When Annie and her brother put up the $50.00 entry fee, Butler is reported to have laughed as he learned that a girl was to be his competition. However, she won the match with twenty-five hits out of twenty-five attempts. Frank missed one of his shots. The match wasn’t all that Annie won. Frank was entranced by this amazing young woman, and the two shooters began a courtship that resulted in marriage in August of that year.
1882 - Annie Oakley and Frank Butler first appear in a show together, when Frank’s usual assistant took ill. Annie filled in by holding objects for Frank to shoot, and then doing some shooting of her own. For the next couple of years, the Butlers traveled across the country giving shooting exhibitions. Frank recognized that Annie was far more talented and he taught her how to shoot a playing card tossed in the air, and how to stand on a galloping horse and shoot out flames on a revolving wheel. It was at this time that Annie adopted the stage name of Oakley (reportedly after Oakley, Ohio). In private, she was always Mrs. Frank Butler.
1884 - At a performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, Annie Oakley befriended the Lakota leader ‘Chief Sitting Bull’ the victor over George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was impressed with Oakley's shooting, her modest appearance and her self-assured manner. Sitting Bull “adopted” her. In his mind, he was replacing a daughter he lost. It was Sitting Bull who dubbed Annie "Little Sure Shot". Later in life she would often use this name and it became an important part of the lore that developed around her.
1885 - Butler and Oakley join with Buffalo Bill and his “Wild West Show”. Until this time shooting demonstrations had always involved male marksmen and for this reason Oakley proved to be especially popular with women.
Recognizing this Buffalo Bill quickly made Annie the star with top billing. This was a significant turning point in Annie's and Frank’s relationship. Until this time they had shared the limelight, but Frank knew Annie was a better shot and he could see that Bill was right. He happily, stepped to the rear as her manager and assistant. 1886
- Chief Sitting Bull joins the show to be near his adopted daughter, Annie Oakley. She taught him how to write. When he died, he gave her the headdress and uniform he wore in the Battle of Little Big Horn.1887
- The second year that Annie Oakley and Butler were with the show Buffalo Bill took the show to Europe. The production had been invited to England to participate in the Golden Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria's reign. The Queen was fascinated with Annie and gave her an autographed picture of herself. During the two years that the show toured Europe Oakley’s fame and popularity soared when her reputation as a sharpshooter and as a lady became the subject of considerable flattering press. She received a great number of invitations to social and shooting events. In England she was the first woman to shoot at the London Gun Club. Annie won many shooting matches, adding to her growing collection of shooting medals, awards, and trophies. Annie Oakley was easily recognizable by the numerous shooting medals that adorned her chest. She was so popular that she had a falling out with Buffalo Bill Cody, that resulted in Annie and Frank leaving the show, when Buffalo Bill returned to the states. She performed for a short while with Pawnee Bill's Frontier Exhibition.1889
- Annie and Frank made up with Buffalo Bill, and rejoin the Wild West Show for it‘s second tour of the European continent. On one famous occasion during this trip the crown prince of Germany invited her to shoot a cigarette from his mouth, however as a precaution Annie had Wilhelm hold the cigarette in his hand and not his mouth; she then accomplished his challenge with ease. She was also challenged to a shooting contest by the Grand Duke of Russia. Buffalo Bill didn't want her to do it because he thought it might be embarrassing for the Duke to beat by a woman. He was right. Annie won, and the Duke lost face. 1890
- During the next decade "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show" and Annie Oakley toured the world offering everyone a glimpse of the American wild west. Oakley was a featured performer usually second only to Cody himself. 1901
- Buffalo Bill’s troupe received a terrible blow from a train crash that killed four performers and injured almost one hundred others. Annie suffered a spinal injury that required five operations and several months of recuperation before she was able to perform again. As a result of this incident and Oakley's desire for less extensive traveling the Butlers decide to leave the show. During this period, Frank signed a contract as a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. This was a position that allowed both Butler and Annie Oakley to make endorsements for the company and to occasionally perform shooting exhibitions. 1911
- The Butlers joined another wild west show, "The Young Buffalo Show". 1912
- They returned to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for a “goodbye” tour.1913
- Finally Frank and Annie retreated from the arena and settled in Cambridge, Maryland where they built their retirement home. During their retirement the Butlers hunted and fished and became very popular with the local community. Annie even gave shooting exhibitions at the Dorchester County Fair to help raise money for charity.1914
- Annie Oakley wrote her autobiography. She also wrote articles for several magazines.1917
- The Butlers moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina. That same year, Buffalo Bill Cody died. Annie Oakley wrote a touching eulogy for her old boss and dear friend, and the passing of a golden era. When the United States was pulled into World War I, Annie Oakley and Frank contributed to the war effort by training soldiers how to shoot. Annie also gave her time to the National War Council of the YMCA, War Camp Community Service and the Red Cross. 1921
- When 61 years old, Annie Oakley was again injured in an accident, this time by automobile. It took her more than a year to recover from the injuries and she had to walk with a brace forever after that. 1922
- Nonetheless, her shooting expertise did not wane. In a shooting contest in Pinehurst, N.C., the sixty-two-year-old Annie Oakley hit 100 clay targets straight from the 16 yard mark.1924
- Oakley was performing again, but her recovery did not last long. She was frail and in poor health. 1925
- The Butlers moved to Annie’s hometown in Ohio to be near her family, where she writes her memoirs and articles for newspapers across the country. 1926
- After a long and adventuresome life and over 50 years of happy marriage, the Butlers died within three weeks of each other. Annie on November 3rd of pernicious anemia, and Frank on November. At the age of sixty-six this diminutive women with a remarkable ability to shoot had become a legend in her own time.1946
- The remarkable life of Annie Oakley would be celebrated in Herbert and Fields musical “Annie Get Your Gun”
Some facts you should know about Annie Oakley:
- During the seventeen years she toured with Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley only missed five shows.
- Some estimates say she made almost $1,000 a week. A huge sum in those days.
- During their years touring Annie Oakley and Frank Butler had been careful with their money, and a significant portion of that income was sent to Annie's family in Ohio, particularly to her mother.
- She had also sent money to orphans and to others that had come into her life.
- Annie was very generous with free passes to her shows, particularly to orphanages. Possibly due to her early childhood experiences. Even to this day this type of pass is known in the theater business as an "Annie Oakley."
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