Annie Oakley was about as tough as they come. She paved the way for women to take the reins on their own gun-slinging ways, showing girls everywhere that they were just as important as men. If she had her eye on something, watch out! She was going to get it. She was small, but she was mighty; not someone to be messed with. In fact, she shot her way into one man’s heart and never looked back. Early on, her life wasn’t the best—but life is what we make of it, right? And oh, what a life Oakley had! Keep reading to take a small glimpse into the incredible life of the sharp-shooter known as Annie Oakley.
28. Just Call Her Sure-Shot Phoebe
Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 to a poor family. Her father died when she was about six years old, which put an even bigger strain on her family. She was able to trap small animals to help feed them—I’m thinking a little Katniss Everdeen here. By the time she was eight, she shot her first animal: a squirrel. “It was a wonderful shot,” she said, “going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months.”
27. It’s a Hard-Knock Life
Oakley’s mother did the best she could for her daughter, which also meant sending her away to work at the infirmaries when she was only nine years old. From there, Oakley was sent to live with and work for a family. Her years spent there weren’t that great. She suffered both physical and mental abuse, having been forced to spend time in the freezing cold without proper clothing, like shoes, as a form of punishment. Oakley simply referred to this family as “the wolves.” Eventually, Oakley was able to get back home to her mother.
26. Family Matters
The age difference between her parents was quite wide: her mother 18 and father 49 when they married and started their family. Oakley’s father was born in 1799 and fought in the War of 1812. How crazy is that? They had nine children altogether, though two of them didn’t survive. Oakley had a half-sister from her mother’s second marriage, which ended when that husband also passed away.
25. A Meat of a Deal
Hunting animals was in Oakley’s veins. When she came home, she continued the hunting to help support her mother, in the hopes of paying off her mortgage—all $200 of it. That may seem like pennies now, but back then? It was a lot. “Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off!” Oakley had made a deal with a local grocery store, selling them the meat from the animals she caught.
24. She Was Born to Stand Out
A girl among men, Oakley was definitely the odd one out during shooting competitions. Not only was she, well, a girl, but she was also pretty petite. None of that really seemed to bother her, and she didn’t even worry about the clothing she wore, either. She still kept true to herself, wearing her own costumes that were handmade. Likely by her own hand too–she practiced embroidery in her spare time.
23. Anything Men Can Do, Women Can Do–Better!
Oakley was firm in her belief that women could be just as skilled with guns as men, and that women should have guns just the same as men. She taught women how to shoot and hunt, though many men weren’t happy about it. Later, she wrote essays that talked about women’s rights when it came to bearing arms and having the skills needed to use them. “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies,” she said.
22. The Two Best Friends That Anyone Could Have
She made friends with Sitting Bull, a chief among the Sioux, in 1884. They had been travelling across America together at the time and became very close. Sitting Bull gave Oakley the name “Watanya Cicillia,” or “Little Sure Shot.” Pretty accurate! He even gave her his own special moccasins, which was his way of essentially adopting her.
21. Royal Affairs
Oakley didn’t only travel across the United States showing off her gun skills. She also travelled over to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the late 1880s. While there, she made quite the name for herself, especially among royalty. The Queen of England said that Oakley was “very clever” after seeing Oakley perform. She also displayed her talents while in Italy and Spain and even had Senegal’s king wanting her help to control their population of tigers.
20. Just in Case the Sharpshooting Didn’t Work out
Not just a whiz with a gun, Oakley tried her hand at a few acting gigs in two plays and one film. The first play, Deadwood Dick, was largely unsuccessful, but then she met Thomas Edison. Through his Kinetoscope, we saw Oakley shooting in the film The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West. The only other time she acted was for her second play, The Western Girl, in which she played, naturally, a sharpshooter. Do you even think she had to audition for that?
19. Turn-of-the-Century Fake News
Not everyone seemed to be a fan of Oakley. Two Chicago newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst ran false stories in 1903 accusing Oakley of being addicted to drugs and said that she had been arrested for stealing pants from a black man. Soon, other newspapers picked up the piece, leading Oakley to defend herself. “The terrible piece … nearly killed me … The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character,” she said. In reality, the woman who actually did steal the man’s pants was a burlesque dancer by the name of Any Oakley. The majority of the publications who printed the false stories wound up retracting them–except for those from Hearst’s papers.
18. She’s Squeaky Clean!
Hearst really wanted to find anything negative about Oakley that he could, going so far as to hire a private investigator to dig up any kind of dirt that could be found. Oakley eventually lost money trying to defend herself and clear her name. Of the 55 suits she filed against the newspapers who ran the false stories, she won or settled with all but one of them, including Hearst. Her legal costs ended up being more than the settlements she received.
17. Not-So-Friendly Competition
There was a bit of competition for Oakley by way of a girl named Lillian Smith. She was 15 years old when she joined Buffalo Bill’s tour, but the two girls didn’t like each other one bit. The show even set back Oakley’s age by six years to help “compete,” if you will, with Smith. Oakley and her husband left the Buffalo Bill show for about a year, coming back after Smith ran away with a cowboy (you can’t make that kind of stuff up).
16. Tricks of the Trade
Oakley became known for being able to shoot at, and hit, very small targets. Things like dimes, playing cards—even once getting the cigar that was still inside her husband’s mouth! Even more incredibly, she was able to shoot at objects that were behind her. Her only aid in that trick was a mirror.
15. Just Like a Fine Wine
Her sharpshooting skills didn’t wane with age. During a shooting contest in North Carolina when she was 62, she shot 100 clay targets in a row. What’s even more incredible is that she did it from 16 yards away, which is equal to 15 meters. There’s no doubt her talent was ever-lasting.
14. Get Your Annie Oakleys Here!
The name Annie Oakley doesn’t just represent the woman behind the name. It’s also indicative of free admission tickets to shows. You see, tickets given for free to important people or reporters had holes punched into them beforehand. Because these holes were so similar to the holes Oakley could shoot herself, naturally they were named for her.
13. Long Live Annie
Her legacy still lives on today, in film and on stage. Have you ever heard of the 1946 Broadway play Annie Get Your Gun? It’s based on her life. It even came back in the late nineties with Bernadette Peters. The play only bolstered Oakley’s story, with films and books also helping to tell her tale.
12. A Home All Her Own
Taking some time off, she and her husband settled in Cambridge, Maryland. They built their ranch-style home there in 1912, which is now aptly known as the Annie Oakley House. In 1996, it made the list on the National Register of Historic Places. Just five years after moving to Maryland, they set off for North Carolina to resume their shows.
11. That’s a Bet She’d Always Take
During Thanksgiving weekend when Oakley was just 15 years old, she went out and beat another shooter, an Irish-American expert by the name of Frank Butler. He had even bet $100 that she couldn’t win against him. But she did—by just a single clay pigeon too.
10. Whirlwind Romance
Normally, men might feel a little embarrassed when they get beat by a girl. Not Butler. He was so impressed by Oakley’s sharpshooting that he was captivated by her and pursued a relationship. It worked in his favor, too. The two got married soon after.
9. The Timeline Is a Bit Shady
There’s a bit of controversy over when Oakley and Butler met and married. Get this: Butler was married to a different woman before he met and wed Oakley. Now, that doesn’t seem so controversial, but there’s talk that his divorce wasn’t finalized before he and Oakley married. Those that go with this theory say that Oakley and Butler married in Windsor, Ontario in 1882–which is when the only recorded marriage license for the couple came from. The other theory, that he was already a man free and clear to marry, means that he and Oakley could have married as early as 1876.
8. Annie Oakley: The Best Aunt Ever
Oakley and Butler never had children, though the latter did have a daughter in his first marriage. Their nieces and nephews benefited from their generosity, though, receiving gifts from their aunt and uncle from their travels. With a life led on the road, it likely would have been very difficult trying to raise their own children in such a manner.
7. Dave the Dog
The couple may not have had children, but they did have a dog! Dave, an English setter, was even part of their show, sitting calmly waiting for his mama to shoot an apple off of his head. He even had his own Christmas cards that Oakley and Butler sent out on his behalf! Sadly, Dave was hit by a car in Florida and didn’t survive. My favorite part of Dave’s story is that Butler wrote a book called The Life of Dave, As Told by Himself.
6. Shot of a Lifetime
Known for her accuracy, Oakley is said to have had one shot she wished she had missed. In 1890, she nailed the cigarette that was in the mouth of Kaiser Wilhelm II. She didn’t just hit the part that was lit, either. Her shot actually knocked the whole of the cigarette out of his mouth in the process. After World War I and the Kaiser’s disastrous leadership, Oakley remarked that she should’ve missed the shot.
5. Free to in-Need President: Women Who Can Shoot
In 1898, Oakley offered up her services to then-President William McKinley during the Spanish-American war. She proposed sending some 50 women, all trained in sharpshooting and even having their own guns and ammunition, to the front lines. Unfortunately, the President never got back to her, so she didn’t have the opportunity to help her country at that time.
4. Good Old American Pride
The Spanish-American war wasn’t the only time Oakley tried to help her country. During the First World War, she decided to get in touch with the Secretary of War. Her intention was again to teach American women how to shoot, but once again she never heard a thing back. Failing twice at trying to aid in training women fighters, she decided to help in any way she could, visiting the troops at their camps, helping to raise money for charities like the American Red Cross, and simply volunteering at any charity associated with the war that she could find.
3. Runaway Train
Oakley had to stop her sharpshooting performances for a good year after sustaining injuries during a train accident in 1901. Her injuries were so bad that she was temporarily paralyzed and had to go through five different spinal operations.
2. End of an Era
Ultimately, Annie Oakley died at just 66 years of age while in Ohio because of pernicious anemia. Her husband Frank was so struck by his grief over her death that he stopped eating and died 18 days after his beloved wife. A broken heart can kill you.
1. Annie Get Your Gun
We won’t bore you with the types of guns Oakley used, or what calibre they were. I mean, there were a lot! But what we will tell you is that Oakley knew her guns quite well. She knew enough that she didn’t want to use a cheap gun, saying, “nobody should trust their lives behind a cheap gun.” Oakley used guns manufactured by numerous companies like Winchester, Lancaster, Remington, Smith & Wesson, Ithaca, and more. There was one stipulation for her guns, though: that they be six pounds and measured so that they fit perfectly her arms and shoulders. Charles Lancaster (yes, of the same Lancaster guns) made one specifically for her using these dimensions, and she never looked back.
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