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Annie Oakley the "Little Sure Shot"

Updated on August 28, 2015

“Annie Oakley” was born Phoebe Ann Oakley Mosey in a log cabin on the Ohio frontier Aug. 13, 1860. But her sisters just called her Annie. Her birth place is listed as Woodland, now Willowdell, in Partentown, Darke County, Ohio and reportedly she never attended school.

Her parents, Jacob Mosey and Susan Wise were Quakers originally from Hollidaysburg, Blair County Pennsylvania who moved to Ohio after a fire burned down their tavern. Annie was the fifth of seven children. Her mother remarried and had another child after her husband died in 1866 from pneumonia. But he died as well.

During this time Annie was shuffled off to the county poor farm, where she learned to embroider and sew. While there she spent some time working for a local family which mentally and physically abused her. When she returned home her mother had married a third time.

Annie began hunting game at age nine to help support her family. She quickly discovered she had a natural talent with firearms and soon gained a reputation as a dead shot. At age sixteen, Annie had gained a measure of fame with her deadly aim.

She decided to enter a shooting contest in Cincinnati with renowned marksman and former vaudeville performer and dog trainer Frank E. Butler (1850-1926.) Butler had placed a $100 bet with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost, that he could beat any local shooters. Annie won the match by one point. Butler immediately became enamored of her. Sometime later they married and the pair became a duo in his traveling shooting act.

1887

1922

However, Butler became aware Annie was by far a more talented marksman and gave the lead billing to her. In 1885 they joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and for seventeen years the five foot tall Annie was the show's star attraction. Her height was one reason Chief Sitting Bull nicknamed her “Little sure shot.”


At the beginning of her association with the show, Annie became entangled in professional rivalry with rifle sharpshooter Lillian Smith. Smith, being eleven years younger, promoted herself as such and therefore, more billable than Annie. Not one for petty scraps, Annie temporarily left the show, but returned after Smith departed.


Annie could shoot a dime tossed in midair at 90 feet. Using a .22 caliber rifle she shot 4,472 out of 5,000 glass balls tossed in midair in one day. There were many just as amazing examples included in their act such as making "Annie Oakley’s”. This act took placing a playing card with the thin edge facing her at 90 feet, Annie could hit the card and hit it five or six more times before it hit the ground. The theatre business began referring to complimentary tickets as "Annie Oakley’s" because such tickets would have holes punched into them to prevent reselling them…reminiscent of cards Annie shot in her sharpshooting act.


Shooting the ashes off a cigarette held in Frank's mouth was another part of the Butler and Oakley act. Once, while touring in Europe, Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Germany, asked Annie to perform the feat…with him holding the cigarette in his own lips. Although Annie was confident she could easily make the shot, she decided not to risk an international incident and had Wilhelm hold the cigarette in his hand. She accomplished his challenge effortlessly.


In a train wreck in 1901, Annie suffered a spinal injury requiring five operations. She was partially paralyzed for a while but she soon recovered with her shooting abilities still intact. Although Annie toured less frequently afterwards she continued to set records. At a match in Pinehurst, N.C. in 1922, sixty-two -year-old hit 100 clay targets straight from the 16 yard mark.

She left the Buffalo Bill show in 1902 to begin an acting career in a stage play written especially for her, The Western Girl. Annie played the role of Nancy Berry who used a pistol, rifle and rope to outsmart a group of outlaws.


During her lifetime it is believed instructed over 15,000 women how to use a firearm. She firmly believed it was of utmost importance, not only a form of physical and mental exercise, but also for self defense.

Annie Oakley was a master with pistol, rifle, or shotgun. Her sharp shooting skills won her many awards and captivated audiences far and wide. She showed great compassion and generosity to orphans, young women and widows.

In late 1922, Oakley and Butler suffered a debilitating automobile accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg. Yet after a year and a half of recovery, she again performed and set records in 1924.

However, at the age of sixty-six in Greenville, Ohio, Annie Oakley died of pernicious anemia on Nov. 3, 1926. She was buried at Brock Cemetery in Greenville, Ohio.. Butler was so devastated by her death he stopped eating and died just 18 days later.

She had become a legend in her own time and would later be honored in the 1946 Herbert and Dorothy Fields musical production of Annie Get Your Gun. It was later discovered her entire fortune had been spent on her family and charities. She was later inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.

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