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Published on Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Annie Oakley:

Little Sure Shot

By Janett L. Grady



Reading through history about the American wild west, it's easy to conclude that men were the gunslingers, the pistoleers and the good shots. In reality, however, the greatest shot who ever lived was a woman. The most grandly picturesque, the most flamboyant figure of them all, was Annie Oakley. Neither modern history, nor even the pages of old west fiction, can furnish a tale of actual talent more stirring and thrilling than the epic Annie wrote with her phenomenal marksmanship.

Born in August of 1860, Annie was known in later years as The Girl of the Western Plains, but she grew up well east of the Mississippi in Darke County, Ohio, seventy miles north of Cincinnati. Named Phoebe Ann Moses, she was born near the village of Willowdell, the fifth daughter and fifth of eight children to Jacob and Susan Moses, simple Quaker people from western
Pennsylvania who had settled in Ohio in 1855. When Jacob died in 1864, Susan was no longer able to take care of her children, and the children were scattered. At the age of nine, Annie was placed in an orphanage.

While at the orphanage, Annie was teased, the other children calling her Moses Poses, a taunt which caused Annie in later years to change her name to Mozee. She even changed her name in the family Bible.

From the orphanage, 10-year-old Annie was placed with a farm family who used and abused her, overworking her to the point of forcing her to run away. Annie found her way back to her mother, who had remarried and was living on a small farm. The next few years were the happy part of Annie's childhood.

A spirited teenager, Annie roamed the woods of Darke County trapping quail and rabbits. Then one day she found the old cap-and-ball rifle her parents had brought from Pennsylvania, and discovered a natural skill. She never missed her targets.

Annie sold game in the Cincinnati marketplace, and it was said her birds were always shot through the head. Her earnings using that rifle helped to pay off the mortgage on the family farm.

At the age of fourteen, while staying with a married sister in Cincinnati, Annie visited a local shooting club and challenged a professional marksman named Frank Butler to a shooting match. Annie won the match and captured Butler's heart. They were married on June 22, 1876, and began touring together as Butler and Oakley, a name Annie apparently took from a Cincinnati suburb.

For the next five years, Annie and Frank traveled the mid-western vaudeville circuits with a dual shooting act. Frank, ten years older than Annie, taught his unschooled wife to read, and he refined her marksmanship and stagecraft.

In 1882, Annie and Frank joined Sells Brothers Circus, and that winter went south to perform in New Orleans during the Cotton Centennial Exposition. There at the time was Buffalo Bill Cody's Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition. Annie was hired in April 1885 by the renamed Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Frank now became her manager.

Annie and Frank remained with the show for sixteen years.

Annie was the featured performer, riding a spotted pony into the arena just after the Grand Entry.

Less than five feet tall and weighing less than a hundred pounds, Annie wore fringed skirts and embroidered blouses and a wide felt hat with a single star on the upturned brim.

Dismounting, she'd draw her revolver and shatter glass balls in midair. Then, mounting her horse, she'd smash targets thrown by another rider. She'd stand on her galloping horse and shoot out the flames of a revolving wheel of candles. She'd toss a playing card into the air, and then perforate it with bullets as it fluttered to the ground.

(Any repeatedly punched ticket to the show became known as an Annie Oakley.)

Graceful and soft spoken, Annie did needlework in her tent between performances. She was well liked by the Indians and cowboys of the show.

Sitting Bull, who had joined the show in 1884, gave Annie the Sioux name meaning Little Sure Shot and regarded her as an adopted daughter.

In the spring of 1887, the show went to London, playing a long season at the Earl's Court Exhibition Grounds. Annie was an immediate hit with the English audiences and was presented to Queen Victoria. Indeed, Annie's popularity eclipsed that of Buffalo Bill, which resulted in a personal rivalry between the two.

Annie left the show, at least for a while.

On their own, Annie and Frank went to Germany, where during one performance Annie shot the ashes off a cigarette in the mouth of Kaiser Wilhelm, who had volunteered after seeing Annie's incredible marksmanship.

After their visit to Germany, Annie and Frank returned to the United States, and they joined Pawnee Bill's Frontier Exhibition.

But when Buffalo Bill came home from abroad, Annie and Frank went back to the show that had made Annie famous.

In 1889, the Wild West Show began a four-year tour of Europe, playing in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and England. On their return to the United States, Annie and Frank bought a house in Nutley, New Jersey, where they lived during the off-season in a congenial colony of actors, artists, and writers.

Annie's career in the arena came to an abrupt end at the close of the 1901 season, when the Wild West show-train was wrecked near Danville, Virginia. Annie suffered severe injuries.

Months of convalescence followed the accident, after which Annie played Western heroines on the stage for about three years. After leaving the stage, Annie and Frank gave demonstrations and lessons in trapshooting at resort hotels in New England and the South. During World War I, they toured Army camps and Army firing ranges demonstrating their incredible marksmanship.

Then came a final tragedy. A motor vehicle accident in Florida in 1922 left Annie bedfast and partly paralyzed.

In 1926, Annie and Frank returned to Annie's native Ohio.

Suffering from pernicious anemia, Annie lay in bed in Greenville, the county seat of Darke County. She died there that fall at the age of sixty-six. Just three weeks later, Frank followed his loving and much loved companion into cowboy heaven. They're buried in the country cemetery at Brock, Ohio, near Annie's birthplace.

Annie Oakley was a remarkable person, and the greatest shot who ever or woman.

Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.

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