Happy 161st birthday, Annie Oakley, legendary markswoman and sharp-shooter!
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio on a small rented farm. She grew up in a quiet Quaker family and would grow up to became a famous entertainer. Her father died six years later of pneumonia leaving his wife Susan with seven children. Susan remarried, but her second husband died in an accident a short time later.
In order to help the family, Annie went to work at the Darke County Infirmary, which was a placement for the elderly, orphaned and insane. Annie was taught fine sewing by the Matron, a skill she later used to make her costumes.
She returned to the new family home, where her mother had married Joseph Shaw. As the eldest child not yet married, she took care of her younger brothers and sisters as well as doing household tasks.
Annie’s brother John first took her hunting with the family’s single-barrel muzzle-loader. She became so good at it that she was able to send the extra game with her stepfather to town where he sold it for more ammunition, groceries, etc. The most remarkable part of this is how much those who purchased her game liked it: as she was already such a sharpshooter that, with a head shot, there were no bullets to be found in the meat.
In about 1875 Annie had her first shooting match. She won, even though she had never shot trap-released birds before, against a well-known marksman, Frank Butler. Annie married Frank in 1876 and they enjoyed 50 years together. In the early years Annie stayed home while Frank was on tour. He had a trained dog act and then a shooting act that was booked in theaters. On May 1, 1882 his partner became ill, so Annie took his place in the act. Annie decided she needed a stage name. Since the couple had first met in Oakley, Ohio (Cincinnati) she chose this as her last name. She began creating her own costumes. Their act was seen during intermissions and set changes between acts of plays and included their trained dogs. As time went on, they became a feature presentation.
1884 was the first time that Annie Oakley was advertised as an outdoor markswoman in the Sells Brothers circus. It crossed the Middle West from Ohio to Texas logging in 11,000 miles in one season. After seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Annie joined the group in 1885.
Her husband became her business manager. He helped her plan performances and loft the targets as well as the important task of caring for her guns. She looked young for her age but never failed to impress the crowds who adored her. By the end of their first season in 1885 they had appeared before a million people and made a profit of $100,000.
She made a European tour in 1887. There she appeared before Queen Victoria who stated, “You are a very, very clever little girl.” She was commanded to return in 1887 and appeared before many crowned heads. After this the British people flocked to see the show. It is estimated that 2.5 million people attended.
In 1889 she again went to Europe for the Paris Exposition where the Eiffel Tower had been built. They performed at this world’s fair for seven months with the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. They left France in December of that year and went to Barcelona, only to run into a smallpox epidemic. Annie recovered from her infection, but many of the Native Americans and the show announcer died. After recovery, the show visited across Italy; while there, she visited the Vatican.
By 1892, the show was dubbed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. It opened at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It encompassed 14 acres and had a grandstand that seated 18,000 people, but spectators still needed to be turned away on many occasions for lack of room. Annie had 35 various costumes she would wear for the shows. The partners cleared over a million dollars that year.
Thomas Edison had invented the movie camera in 1893. On May 4, 1894 Annie Oakley performed some of her amazing skills for the camera. She fired 25 shots in 27 seconds in one scene and shot targets in another. These shots were then used in Kinetoscope machines where the 80 second clips were viewed for a nickel. Unfortunately, none of this film has survived.
In 1894, she returned to London to perform in the play Miss Rora, which was written expressly for her as a comedy drama. When she returned to the Wild West show, it was traveling by rail. It required 52 railway cars to transport everything needed over 9,000 miles. She was in another play, The Western Girl in 1902 after she left the Wild West show. She lived a quieter life after that, until 1911-12 when she joined the Young Buffalo Wild West and Colonel Cummins Far East show at the age of 51. They had an impressive 31 distinct tribes of Native Americans represented in this show, as well as Singhalese and Arabs. It included elephants and camels.
Annie Oakley died November 3, 1926. She was cremated and her ashes were placed in a silver cup that had been given to her by the people of France in 1889. This was placed inside her husband’s casket when he died three weeks later.
Books at the Library:
Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Sayers, Isabelle S. New York: Dover Publications. 1981.
Annie Oakley. Kasper, Shirl. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1992.
Annie Oakley (DVD). Burbank, CA: Turner Entertainment Co.: Distributed by Warner Home Video. 1935.