Annie Oakley wasn’t born in the West and never lived there, but she looked like a cowgirl for much of her life and earned her living by riding and shooting in Wild West shows which has made her into a Western legend. She is remembered also as a champion of women’s self-defence.

Annie Oakley with one of her famous guns
Annie Oakley with one of her famous guns

Annie was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 in Ohio. She started shooting at an early age but when her father died and her mother was no longer able to support her seven children, she was sent to the local poor house. From there she was hired out to a local farming family where she was abused with long hours and cruel punishments until she ran away. She never identified this abusive family, referring to them always as ‘the wolves’.

Annie returned to her mother who had remarried and given birth to an eighth child, but the new husband died and left Annie’s mother alone again. So Annie undertook to support the family with her shooting of game, at which she was so skilful that she only ever shot her targets in the head. This meant that the body was uncontaminated with buckshot and therefore the birds she sold were in great demand.

When she was fifteen, she competed with a travelling celebrity sharpshooter called Frank Butler, who was surprised to come up against a young girl only five feet tall. She won, however, and they fell in love and eventually married.

The husband and wife began performing together and it was at this time that she first used the stage name of Annie Oakley. Frank realised she could pull more of a crowd than he could so he took on more the role of manager.

In 1884, Annie and Frank met Buffalo Bill and they persuaded him to include Annie in his Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in 1885. She was an instant success, performing feats of marksmanship that scarcely seemed possible to the audience but which were never tricks, only skill. She was an ambidextrous shot, loved playing to the gallery, and would for example shoot a cork out of a bottle or snuff out a candle from a distance of ninety feet. One of her favourite routines was to shoot a playing card when the thin edge was held towards her. This gave rise to punched theatre tickets being called Annie Oakleys

In 1884 Annie had met the Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull who gave her a nickname which translated as ‘Little Sure Shot’. Sitting Bull began performing for Buffalo Bill, just riding round the ring, but he hated it and regularly got upset. It was Annie’s job to try and talk him round but even she wasn’t able to persuade him to continue.

Annie on the other hand loved performing and went to England on tour. She performed in front of Queen Victoria once in 1887 and again in 1892. She had become a superstar celebrity and Buffalo Bill’s top earner, but in 1901 she was in a train wreck which (according to legend) made her brown hair turn white over night. In any case, after touring continuously for almost twenty years, she’d had enough and retired from the show.

Partly thanks to Annie Oakley, there are now women in the military
Partly thanks to Annie Oakley, there are now women in the military

During her retirement she began giving shooting lessons especially to women. She is believed to have taught more than 15,000 women how to shoot. One of her most famous quotes is:

“I would like to see every woman know how to handle a gun as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Annie died in 1926 and her husband Frank, heartbroken and without the will to live, joined her in death less than 3 weeks later. Annie believed not only that women should be prepared to defend themselves, but also that they should be educated and independent. She helped to create the image of the American cowgirl, and proved that women could be as capable as men if they had the chance.

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