Annie Oakley was born as Phoebe Anne Moses in a log cabin in rural Ohio on August 13, 1860.
Young Phoebe was taught to shoot by her father, Jacob, who hunted game to help feed the family.
Jacob, died of pneumonia when Phoebe was six years old. Her mother, Susan, briefly remarried, but her second husband likewise died shortly thereafter.
At 8 years old, Phoebe made her first shot when she killed a squirrel outside her house.
Phoebe’s mom was struggling to provide for her seven surviving children, so at the age of nine, she was placed to work at the Darke County Infirmary where the infirmary’s superintendent, Samuel Crawford Edington, and his wife Nancy, taught her to sew and decorate.
Beginning in the spring of 1870, Phoebe was taken in by a farming family who exploited her, using her as an unpaid servant. Phoebe spent two years in near-slavery to them where she endured mental and physical abuse.
Around the spring of 1872, Phoebe ran away from the farming family and at the age of 15 she returned to her mother.
Using her hunting knowledge, Phoebe began making money by shooting small game which was sold to restaurants and hotels in northern Ohio. She earned enough money to pay her mom’s $200 mortgage.
In her early 20s Phoebe Moses began appearing at target shooting exhibitions, where she met her future husband, Frank Butler, who was also a skilled marksman.
Moses adopted the stage name Annie Oakley around 1882, and she took to the stage with Butler after they married on August 23, 1876. They did not have children.
Annie had remarkable stage presence and Butler realized she should be the star of the show, and he receded into the background and became her manger.
In 1884 Oakley approached Buffalo Bill Cody about joining his touring company, and the following year she began to appear as a performer in his Wild West Show. She was an immediate hit, and before long the posters for the show prominently featured her.
At five feet tall, Oakley was given the nickname of “Watanya Cicilla” by fellow performer Sitting Bull, rendered “Little Sure Shot” in the public advertisements.
|Wild West show poster|
Oakley temporarily left the Buffalo Bill show but returned two years later in time for the Paris Exposition of 1889. Oakley was cemented as America’s first female star and earned more than any other performer in the show, except for “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself.
When Sitting Bull was touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, he was so impressed with Annie Oakley’s shooting abilities and charmed by her character that he gave her the name “Little Sure Shot” and symbolically adopted her as his daughter.
Whereas other female sharpshooters tried to make a name for themselves by altering their appearance to please their male admirers, Annie Oakley appeared with flowing hair and wore her own homemade costumes on stage. She strived to look attractive while still maintaining a sense of dignity in her appearance. The sharpshooter behaved modestly, and engaged in “proper” female activities such as embroidery in her spare time.
|Annie Oakley Cabinet Card Signed.|
Thomas Edison filmed Annie Oakley on November 1, 1894 for his Kinetoscope movie The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West (see below), an exhibition of rifle shooting at glass balls, etc.
The American sharpshooter nicknamed “Little Sure Shot” could hit a playing card from 90 feet (the thin side facing her), puncturing it at least five times before it hit the ground. It was this display that named free tickets with holes punched in them, Annie Oakleys.
At the age of 62, Annie Oakley broke all existing records for women’s trap shooting. She smashed 98 out of 100 clay targets thrown at 16 yards while at a match at the Pinehurst Gun Club in North Carolina on March 5, 1922. She hit the first fifty, missed the 51st, then the 67th.
|Oakley in 1922|
On October 29, 1901 outside Lexington, North Carolina, a freight train crashed into part of the train carrying Buffalo Bill’s show. 110 horses were killed by the accident or were put down later. No people were killed but Annie Oakley’s injuries were so severe she was told she would never walk again, though she eventually did.
Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 from pernicious anemia in Ohio at age 66. Frank Butler, her husband of 50 years, passed away 18 days later.