Known for her marksmanship and her time spent performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Annie Oakley made a name for herself in what, at her time, was considered a male dominated space.
Born to the name Phoebe Ann Moses in August of 1860 in Darke County, Ohio, Oakley experienced family losses early on in life. Both her father and step father died when she was a just a kid.
Until 10, Oakley lived at the county poor farm as a child. At the age of 10, Oakley was sent to work for a family that did not treat her well, which consequently led to Oakley running away and eventually reuniting with her mother. As a teen, Oakley honed in on her shooting and used her talent and marksmanship to earn money for her family by shooting game in the woods and selling it to a local shopkeeper. In fact, Oakley earned enough money to pay off her mother’s mortgage.
Rising to be a Sharpshooter and Star
Shortly after this, in 1875, Oakley decided to enter a shooting competition against a top touring shooter, Frank Butler. At only age 15, Oakley won not only the Thanksgiving Day match, but also Butler’s heart. The following year, the couple married and Butler continued touring with his male partner, until 1882, when his partner died and Oakley stepped on stage to join her husband. Crowds were so impressed by Oakley’s shooting that she soon became the main star and Butler stepped back to manage his wife’s widely popular act. Oakley made her own costumes, often described as modest or conservative, which helped distinguish her as she toured along the vaudeville circuit.
In 1885, Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a show where for the next 17 years she would perform and entertain audiences by shooting corks off bottles, holes through playing cards and more tricks . Two years later, at the American Exposition in London, Oakley gained international fame when she performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s show in front of influential audience members such as Queen Elizabeth who remarked that Oakley was a “clever little girl.”
In 1901, both Oakley and Butler suffered injuries in a train accident, which stopped Oakley from performing in the short term, but she was able to recover and return the stage. Not long after the accident, Oakley left the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and began starring in a different role, one written for her, in the melodrama The Western Girl. Later in the decade, Oakley once again joined another western show before retiring with Butler in 1913.
World War I and Later Life
During the Great War, Oakley offered to both organize and train a regiment of women sharpshooters, but her petition to do so was ignored by the government. After this, Oakley transferred her efforts into raising money for the Red Cross through shooting demonstrations at Army camps.
Oakley died on Nov. 3, 1926, and 18 days later, Butler, her husband of 50 years also passed. Oakley’s contribution and mark in the west as a strong woman made a sharp, long lasting impact.