The Wild West of Yester-Year

Annie Oakley
By Rachel Kovaciny

Growing up with a father who loved cowboy movies and a mother who enjoyed Little House on the Prairie, it’s not surprising all things frontier-related have fascinated me from childhood. In grade school, I read every biography my small-town library had on anyone connected with being a pioneer or taming the Wild West. I idolized Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, James Bowie, Jim Bridger, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid (I went through an Outlaw Phase). I learned everything I could about them from biographies, historical fiction, and encyclopedia articles. I pretended to be them. I spent many happy afternoons going on imaginary adventures in our big backyard, fighting bears, defending the Alamo, and canoeing through the Bighorn Canyon. 

But you’ll notice something about that list of my heroes: everyone on it is male. And, as you might have guessed by my name, I’m not. Which was not a huge problem as my parents had no problem with me running around in a ‘coon-skin cap proclaiming myself King of the Wild Frontier. But it does explain why one historical figure stood out over the others in my childhood imaginings. Her name? Annie Oakley. Her claim to fame? Being a sharpshooting superstar and the only female to receive a Wild West biography in my local library.


Born Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey—spelling records differ on this point) in 1860, but called Annie by her family, she grew up in Darke County, Ohio. Her father died when she was six. Her mother remarried, but then her stepfather died, leaving her with seven children and no means of supporting them. Annie left home to work for five years at a county home for those who could no longer care for themselves. There she learned to read, cook, and sew while working as a maid-of-all-work. When she went home again, in her early teens, she helped provide for her family by hunting with her father’s old rifle, which she’d been shooting since she was 8 or 9 years old. Local grocers and restaurants paid her well for the game she bagged because she could shoot birds through the head, leaving the meat untouched. She earned so much money, she paid off her family’s mortgage when she was fifteen.


Before long, her reputation as a sharpshooter gained her the attention of other, more famous marksmen. One of these, Frank Butler, asked her to take part in a shooting match. Annie matched him shot for shot for twenty-four shots, then beat him on the twenty-fifth. Frank and Annie courted soon after and married a year later. Frank Butler earned his living by demonstrating his marksmanship skills at various events. In 1882, Annie joined him in show business under the stage name Annie Oakley. They traveled across the country together until 1884, when Annie made friends with Sitting Bull, the American Indian chief who had triumphed over General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn less than a decade earlier. Sitting Bull and Annie became good friends. He gave her the famous nickname “Little Sure-Shot.” Some say he even considered her his adopted daughter.


A year later, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show hired Annie and Frank to tour with them. They gave her top billing. Frank became her manager and assistant. They toured with the show for sixteen years. They traveled all across the US and Europe, then toured with other shows before retiring in 1913. When the US entered WWI in 1917, Oakley offered to raise an all-female regiment for the military and fund it herself, but the government didn’t take her up on it. She then offered to help teach soldiers to shoot, but they again refused. Annie and Frank continued to make public appearances for many years. They both died in November 1926, within weeks of each other.


Annie Oakley showed the world women could excel at generally considered masculine pursuits like marksmanship, but she did this not at the expense of her femininity or her reputation. Instead of dressing or behaving like a man while shooting, she wore pretty skirts she sewed herself and kept her hair long. She was an outspoken advocate for all women learning to defend themselves, whether through firearms or other preferred means. All this explains why, when I visited the National Firearms Museum a few months ago, I stood in front of two different cases with tears in my eyes. I was standing in the presence of several rifles owned and used by Annie Oakley, items she shot during shows, and other cool bits of memorabilia. Sometimes, when we become adults, we learn things about our childhood heroes that dulls their shine. Not so with Annie Oakley, for me.