It’s the birthday of American sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860), born Phoebe Ann Mosey in a log cabin just north of what is now Willowdell, in Darke County, Ohio. Her parents were Quakers from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Oakley’s father died of pneumonia when she was six, which sent her mother into a financial tailspin. Oakley was the sixth of nine children, and she and her sister were sent to the Darke County Children’s Infirmary, where they learned to cook and sew. After a few years, Oakley was “bound out” to a local family, who expected her to be able to cook, pump water, and care for their child. Oakley was small and the couple was unkind; they beat and starved her and left her outside in freezing weather without shoes. She called them “the wolves” and after two years, she ran away and returned to her mother.
Oakley had been trapping animals since she was seven and was shooting and hunting animals to support her family by the time she was eight. When she returned to her mother, she began selling her game to local shopkeepers, who shipped it to cities like Cincinnati. Oakley’s shooting prowess became well known in Darke County and greater Ohio.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1875, the Baughman & Butler shooting act came to Cincinnati. Frank Butler, a charming Irish immigrant, bet $100 that no local could best him in a shooting match. Local shopkeepers presented Annie Oakley. Frank Butler said: “I almost dropped dead when a slim girl in a short dress stepped out to the mark with me. I was a beaten man the moment she appeared.” Oakley won and she married Butler a year later.
For more than 50 years, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler traveled the world, wowing audiences with Oakley’s marksmanship. From 30 paces, she could split a playing card held edge-on, hit dimes tossed into the air, and split cigarettes from between her husband’s lips. When she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show (1885), she was the star attraction, earning $100 a week, more than any man in the troupe. Buffalo Bill’s troupe crossed the United States and did several European tours. Oakley met King Umberto of Italy and the Queen of England, who told her, “You are a very clever little girl.” Lakota leader Sitting Bull nicknamed her “Little Miss Sure Shot.”
Oakley campaigned for women’s rights and even volunteered to train 50 women sharpshooters for the Spanish Civil War and World War I, though she was turned down both times. She said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they handle babies.”
Thomas Edison filmed Oakley and the Buffalo Bill troupe at his studio in West Orange, New Jersey, turning the film into nickelodeons. People paid five cents apiece to see Annie Oakley. She was the most famous woman in the world for a time.
Annie Oakley continued to shoot and perform into her 60s. When she died, Frank Butler was said to be so bereaved he stopped eating and died several days later. Annie Oakley is still the most famous cowgirl in history.
She said: “Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time, and maybe not the third time. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting, for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”