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Annie Oakley: The Real Woman Behind the Sharpshooting Legend

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At the age of 15, she won a shooting match against a nationally known marksman. She could hit a playing card at 30 paces and shot cigarettes from her husband’s lips. It’s believed that over the course of her life, she taught over 15,000 women how to use a gun. Annie Oakley is a Wild West legend and one of the most famous sharpshooters in history. But who was the woman behind the gun and why are we still drawn to her story today?

A Wild West Legend is Born

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey (or Phoebe Ann Moses) on Aug. 13, 1860 in a log cabin in Darke County, Ohio. She was the daughter of  Jacob and Susan Mosey, Quakers who raised seven children on their small Ohio farm. Oakley grew up in extreme poverty. Her father died when she was six years old, leaving the family with little means. To help support the family, Annie began shooting and trapping at the age of eight, selling the game to shops and restaurants throughout the region.

When Annie was nine years old, she was sent to the Darke County Infirmary, where she was taught domestic skills. The same year, Oakley was sent to live with a local couple to help care for their infant son. The couple refused to pay Annie and subjected her to mental and physical abuse, once even throwing her out in the cold because she had fallen asleep during a chore. In her autobiography, Oakley would refer to the couple as “the wolves.” She refused to ever mention them by name.

In 1875, after running away from the abusive couple, Annie entered a shooting match against Frank E. Butler, a traveling marksman. Butler had made a $100 bet with a local hotel owner that he could out-shoot any local sharpshooter. Fifteen-year-old Oakley took Butler up on his offer, beating him after 25 rounds. Having bonded over their love of shooting and dreams of travel, the two quickly began dating and later married.

Little Sure Shot

Frank made a great partner for Annie. They developed a stage act and Annie adopted the stage name “Annie Oakley,” after the neighborhood where she and Frank resided.

Oakley really hit her stride when she met Buffalo Bill Cody, the infamous hunter and showman. Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a traveling vaudeville performance show that included several fixtures of the old west and helped shaped the public’s view of the historic Wild West. The show made Oakley a bona fide star. Chief Sitting Bull gave her the name “Watanya Cicilla,” which was translated to “Little Sure Shot” in the press. Soon, Oakley was in every paper in America. She traveled the world, performing for Queen Victoria in Europe, King Umberto I of Italy, President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot of France and shooting the ashes of a cigarette in the mouth of Kaiser Willhelm II.

During this time Annie developed a much-publicized professional rivalry with Lillian Smith, a 15-year-old trick rider and trick shooter. Cody even encouraged the feud between the female sharpshooters to drum up publicity for his Wild West show. The tension caused Oakley to take a three year break from the traveling show.

Oakley was an advocate for women to have a more active role in the United States armed forces. She contacted President William McKinley, offering to recruit and train ’50 women sharpshooters’ to serve should the U.S. go to war with Spain.

Annie Get Your Gun

After Annie was seriously injured in a train accident in 1901, she left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West for a less grueling schedule as the star of a show, The Western Girl.

Oakley continued to perform publicly throughout her life. At age 62, she hit 100 clay targets in a row during a North Carolina shooting contest.

She was a champion of women’s rights, making a point to teach shooting skills to as many women as possible. She was also a fierce critic of the double standards against women. “When a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When I hit a target, they call it a trick,” Oakley once said.

Annie Oakley died of pernicious anemia on Nov. 3, 1926 at the age of 66. Frank Butler died just two weeks later. After Oakley’s death, it was revealed that she had donated nearly all the funds she’d made from performances to family and charities.

Oakley has been inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The hugely popular Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun is based on Oakley’s life, capturing her bravery and passion for sharpshooting. Annie Oakley lived her life with a fearlessness that would come to define the image of the American cowgirl.

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Annie Oakley: The Real Woman Behind the Sharpshooting Legend