Biography of Sharpshooter Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Blessed with a natural talent for sharp-shooting, Annie Oakley proved herself dominant in a sport that was long considered a man's domain. Oakley was a gifted entertainer as well; her performances with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show brought international fame, making her one of the most celebrated female performers of her time. Annie Oakley's unique and adventurous life has inspired numerous books and films as well as a popular musical.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860 in rural Darke County, Ohio, the fifth daughter of Jacob and Susan Moses. The Moses family had moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania after their business—a small inn—had burned to the ground in 1855. The family lived in a one-room log cabin, surviving on game they caught and crops they grew. Another daughter and a son were born after Phoebe.

Annie, as Phoebe was called, was a tomboy who preferred spending time outdoors with her father over household chores and playing with dolls. When Annie was only five, her father died of pneumonia after being caught in a blizzard.

Susan Moses struggled to keep her family fed. Annie supplemented their food supply with squirrels and birds that she trapped. At the age of eight, Annie began sneaking out with her father's old rifle to practice shooting in the woods. She quickly became skilled at killing prey with one shot.

By the time Annie was ten, her mother could no longer support the children. Some were sent to neighbors' farms; Annie was sent to work at the county poor house. Soon afterward, a family hired her as live-in help in exchange for wages as well as room and board. But the family, who Annie later described as "wolves," treated Annie as an enslaved person. They refused to pay her wages and beat her, leaving scars on her back for life. After nearly two years, Annie was able to escape to the nearest train station. A generous stranger paid her train fare home.

Annie was reunited with her mother, but only briefly. Because of her dire financial situation, Susan Moses was forced to send Annie back to the county poor house.

Making a Living

Annie worked at the county poor house for three more years; she then returned to her mother's home at the age of 15. Annie could now resume her favorite pastime—hunting. Some of the game she shot was used to feed her family, but the surplus was sold to general stores and restaurants. Many customers specifically requested Annie’s game because she shot so cleanly (through the head), which eliminated the problem of having to clean buckshot out of the meat. With money coming in regularly, Annie helped her mother pay off the mortgage on their house. For the rest of her life, Annie Oakley made her living with a gun.

By the 1870s, target shooting had become a popular sport in the United States. Spectators attended competitions in which shooters fired at live birds, glass balls, or clay disks. Trick shooting, also popular, was usually performed in theaters and involved the risky practice of shooting items out of a colleague's hand or off the top of their head.

In rural areas such as where Annie lived, game-shooting competitions were a common form of entertainment. Annie participated in some local turkey shoots but was eventually banned because she always won. Annie entered a pigeon-shooting match in 1881 against a single opponent, unaware that soon her life would change forever.

Butler and Oakley

Annie's opponent in the match was Frank Butler, a sharp-shooter in the circus. He made the 80-mile trek from Cincinnati to rural Greenville, Ohio in the hopes of winning the $100 prize. Frank had been told only that he would be up against a local crack shot. Assuming that his competitor would be a farm boy, Frank was shocked to see the petite, attractive 20-year old Annie Moses. He was even more surprised that she beat him in the match.

Frank, ten years older than Annie, was captivated by the quiet young woman. He returned to his tour and the two corresponded by mail for several months. They were married sometime in 1882, but the exact date has never been verified.

Once married, Annie traveled with Frank on tour. One evening, Frank's partner became ill and Annie took over for him at an indoor theater shoot. The audience loved watching the five-foot-tall woman who easily and expertly handled a heavy rifle. Annie and Frank became partners on the touring circuit, billed as "Butler and Oakley." It is not known why Annie picked the name Oakley; possibly it came from the name of a neighborhood in Cincinnati.

Annie Meets Sitting Bull

Following a performance in St. Paul, Minnesota in March 1894, Annie met Sitting Bull who had been in the audience. The Lakota Sioux chief was infamous as the warrior who had led his men into battle at Little Bighorn at "Custer's Last Stand" in 1876. Although officially a prisoner of the U.S. government, Sitting Bull was allowed to travel and make appearances for money.

Sitting Bull was impressed by Annie's shooting skills, which included shooting the cork off a bottle and hitting the cigar her husband held in his mouth. When the chief met Annie, he reportedly asked if he could adopt her as his daughter. The "adoption" was not official, but the two became lifelong friends. It was Sitting Bull who bestowed upon Annie the Lakota name Watanya Cicilia, or "Little Sure Shot."

Buffalo Bill Cody and The Wild West Show

In December 1884, Annie and Frank traveled with the circus to New Orleans. An unusually rainy winter forced the circus to close down until summer, leaving Annie and Frank in need of jobs. They approached Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show (a combination of rodeo acts and western skits) was also in town. At first, Cody turned them down because he already had several shooting acts and most of them were more famous than Oakley and Butler.

In March of 1885, Cody decided to give Annie a chance after his star shooter, world champion Adam Bogardus, quit the show. Cody would hire Annie on a trial basis following an audition in Louisville, Kentucky. Cody's business manager arrived early at the park where Annie was practicing prior to the audition. He watched her from afar and was so impressed, he signed her on even before Cody showed up.

Annie soon became a featured performer in a solo act. Frank, well aware that Annie was the star in the family, stepped aside and took on a managerial role in her career. Annie dazzled the audience, shooting with speed and precision at moving targets, often while riding a horse. For one of her most impressive stunts, Annie fired backward over her shoulder, using only a table knife to view the reflection of her target. In what became a trademark move, Annie skipped offstage at the end of each performance, ending with a little kick in the air.

In 1885, Annie's friend Sitting Bull joined the Wild West Show. He would stay one year.

The Wild West Tours England

In spring of 1887, the Wild West performers—along with horses, buffalo, and elk—set sail for London, England to participate in the celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (the fiftieth anniversary of her coronation).

The show was immensely popular, prompting even the reclusive queen to attend a special performance. Over a six-month period, the Wild West Show drew more than 2.5 million people to the London appearance alone; thousands more attended in cities outside of London.

Annie was adored by the British public, who found her modest demeanor charming. She was showered with gifts—and even proposals—and was the guest of honor at parties and balls. True to her homespun values, Annie refused to wear ball gowns, preferring instead her homemade dresses.

Leaving the Show

In the meantime, Annie's relationship with Cody was becoming increasingly strained, in part because Cody had hired Lillian Smith, a teenaged female sharpshooter. Without giving any explanation, Frank and Annie quit the Wild West Show and returned to New York in December 1887.

Annie made a living by competing in shooting competitions, then later joined a newly-formed wild west show, the "Pawnee Bill Show." The show was a scaled-down version of Cody's show, but Frank and Annie weren't happy there. They negotiated a deal with Cody to return to the Wild West Show, which no longer included Annie's rival Lillian Smith.

Cody’s show returned to Europe in 1889, this time for a three-year tour of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. During this trip, Annie was troubled by the poverty she saw in each country. It was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to donating money to charities and orphanages.

Settling Down

After years of living out of trunks, Frank and Annie were ready to settle down in a real home during the show's off-season (November through mid-March). They built a house in Nutley, New Jersey and moved into it in December 1893. The couple never had children, but it is unknown whether or not this was by choice.

During the winter months, Frank and Annie took vacations in the southern states, where they usually did a lot of hunting.

In 1894 Annie was invited by inventor Thomas Edison of nearby West Orange, New Jersey, to be filmed on his new invention, the kinetoscope (a forerunner of the movie camera). The brief film shows Annie Oakley expertly shooting out glass balls mounted on a board, then hitting coins thrown up in the air by her husband.

In October 1901, as the Wild West train cars traveled through rural Virginia, troupe members were awakened by a sudden, violent crash. Their train had been hit head-on by another train. Miraculously, none of the people were killed, but about 100 of the show's horses died on impact. Annie's hair turned white following the accident, reportedly from the shock.

Annie and Frank decided it was time to leave the show.

Scandal for Annie Oakley

Annie and Frank found work after leaving the Wild West show. Annie, sporting a brown wig to cover her white hair, starred in a play written just for her. The Western Girl played in New Jersey and was well-received but never made it to Broadway. Frank became a salesman for an ammunition company. They were content in their new lives.

Everything changed on August 11, 1903, when the Chicago Examiner printed a scandalous story about Annie. According to the story, Annie Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. Within days, the story had spread to other newspapers around the country. It was, in fact, a case of mistaken identity. The woman arrested was a performer who had gone by the stage name "Any Oakley" in a burlesque Wild West show.

Anyone familiar with the real Annie Oakley knew that the stories were false, but Annie couldn't let it go. Her reputation had been tarnished. Annie demanded that each and every newspaper print a retraction; some of them did. But that wasn't enough. For the next six years, Annie testified at one trial after another as she sued 55 newspapers for libel. In the end, she won about $800,000, less than she had paid in legal expenses. The entire experience aged Annie greatly, but she felt vindicated.

Final Years

Annie and Frank kept busy, traveling together to advertise for Frank's employer, a cartridge company. Annie participated in exhibitions and shooting tournaments and received offers to join several western shows. She re-entered show business in 1911, joining the Young Buffalo Wild West Show. Even in her 50s, Annie could still draw a crowd. She finally retired from show business for good in 1913.

Annie and Frank bought a house in Maryland and spent winters in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where Annie gave free shooting lessons to local women. She also donated her time to raising funds for various charities and hospitals.

In November 1922, Annie and Frank were involved in a car accident in which the car flipped over, landing on Annie and fracturing her hip and ankle. She never fully recovered from her injuries, which compelled her to use a cane and a leg brace. In 1924, Annie was diagnosed with pernicious anemia and became increasingly weak and frail. She died on November 3, 1926, at the age of 66. Some have suggested that Annie died from lead poisoning after years of handling lead bullets.

Frank Butler, who had also been in poor health, died 18 days later.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Daniels, Patricia E. "Biography of Sharpshooter Annie Oakley." ThoughtCo, Mar. 8, 2022, Daniels, Patricia E. (2022, March 8). Biography of Sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Retrieved from Daniels, Patricia E. "Biography of Sharpshooter Annie Oakley." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).