The Legendary Annie Oakley


"I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies." 

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey on 13th August 1860, in a cabin in Willowdell, in Darke County, a rural western border county of Ohio. Annie's parents were Quakers and of English descent from Hollidaysburg, Blair County, Pennsylvania. Her mother Susan Wise, aged 18, and Jacob Mosey, aged 49, married in 1848. They moved to a rented farm (later purchased with a mortgage) in Patterson Township, Darke County, Ohio, sometime around 1855. Annie was the sixth of Jacob and Susan's nine children, and the fifth out of the seven surviving. Annie's father, who had fought in the War of 1812, became an invalid from overexposure during a blizzard in late 1865 and died of pneumonia in early 1866 at age of 66. Her mother later married Daniel Brumbaugh, had one more child, Emily and was widowed for a second time. 

Annie did not regularly attend school as a child, although she did attend later in childhood and in adulthood. Annie began trapping before the age of seven, and shooting and hunting by the age of 8 to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She sold the hunted game to locals in Greenville, and it was shipped to hotels in Cincinnati and other cities. She sold the game herself to restaurants and hotels in northern Ohio. Her skill eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother's farm when Annie was 15 years old. 

On 15th March 1870, at age nine, Annie was admitted to the Darke County Infirmary where she was put in the care of the infirmary's superintendent, Samuel Crawford Edington, and his wife Nancy, who taught her to sew and decorate. In the spring of 1870, she was ‘bound out’ to a local family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of fifty cents a week and an education. The couple had originally wanted someone who could pump water, cook, and who was bigger. She spent about two years in near-slavery to them where she endured mental and physical abuse. She would often have to do boys' work. Around the spring of 1872, Annie ran away, returning to her mother's home around the age of 15. Annie's mother married for a third time, to Joseph Shaw, on 25th October 1874. 

Annie was well known throughout the region and on Thanksgiving Day 1875, the Baughman & Butler shooting act was being performed in Cincinnati. Travelling show marksman Frank E. Butler placed a $100 bet per side with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost, that Butler could beat any local fancy shooter. Frost arranged a shooting match between Butler and the 15-year-old Annie, saying, “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall, 15-year-old girl named Annie.” After missing on his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet. He soon began courting Annie, and they married on 23rd August 1876. They did not have children. 

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati for a time before joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1885. At five feet tall, Oakley (her adopted stage name) was given the nickname of ‘Watanya Cicilla’ by fellow performer Sitting Bull, rendered ‘Little Sure Shot’ in the public advertisements. Oakley temporarily left the Buffalo Bill show but returned two years later, in time for the Paris Exposition of 1889. This three-year tour only cemented Oakley as America's first female star. She earned more than any other performer in the show, except for ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody himself. She also performed in many shows on the side for extra income. 

In Europe, she performed for Queen Victoria, King Umberto I of Italy, President Marie François Sadi Carnot of France and other crowned heads of state. Oakley had such good aim that, at his request, she knocked the ashes off a cigarette held by the newly crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, she was not the source of a widely repeated quip related to the event: ‘Some uncharitable people later ventured that if Annie had shot Wilhelm and not his cigarette, she could have prevented World War I.’ After the outbreak of World War I however, Oakley sent a letter to the Kaiser requesting a second shot. The Kaiser did not respond. 

From 1892 to 1904, Oakley and Butler made their home in Nutley, New Jersey. Oakley promoted the service of women in combat operations for the United States armed forces. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on 5th April 1898, “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.” The Spanish-American War did occur, but Oakley's offer was not accepted.