If you think of the American West and, specifically, sharpshooters, one person likely comes to mind. Her name? Annie Oakley! That’s right. A star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and an unparalleled sharpshooter, Annie Oakley turned her marksmanship skills into worldwide fame.
But did she start out life as Annie Oakley? Nope! On August 13, 1860, Phoebe Ann Moses (some sources spell her last name Mosey or Mozee) was born in a log cabin in Darke County, Ohio. She was the sixth of seven children.
After losing both her father and a stepfather as a child, Phoebe went to live at the Darke County Infirmary. There she received a basic education and was taught to sew while she helped care for orphaned children.
In her early teens, she returned home when her mother remarried once again. She learned to shoot a variety of guns, so that she could help her family by hunting game to sell to a local grocery store. She earned so much money that she was able to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s house by the time she was 15.
In 1875, Phoebe met her future husband, Frank E. Butler, when she beat him in a Thanksgiving shooting competition. Butler, a sharpshooter and vaudeville performer, married Phoebe the next year, and the two started on a memorable journey that would last more than 50 years.
Phoebe joined Frank’s show in 1882 when his male partner became sick. Phoebe took the stage name Annie Oakley, borrowing the name of a town outside Cincinnati. Her career really took off a couple of years later, when she met Native-American leader Sitting Bull in 1884.
Sitting Bull was so impressed with Annie’s abilities with a rifle that he unofficially “adopted” her and gave her a new nickname: “Little Sure Shot.” In 1885, Annie and Frank joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with Annie performing as a top performer with Frank as her manager.
The two toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for the next 15 years. Annie became famous throughout the United States and around the world for her incredible feats of marksmanship. Annie could shoot off the end of a cigarette held in Frank’s lips. She could also hit the thin edge of a playing card from 30 paces away.
One of her most famous tricks was looking in a mirror to shoot distant targets behind her. She also would shoot holes in playing cards that had been thrown in the air before they hit the ground. Some of Annie’s fans included royalty from that time, such as Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In 1901, Annie and Frank were in a train accident that left her partially paralyzed for a while. She left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, eventually recovered, and still performed off and on in smaller shows. She also pursued acting in plays and movies. Annie and Frank finally retired in 1913. On November 3, 1926, Annie died in Greenville, Ohio. Frank died 18 days later.
Annie Oakley left a lasting impression on American Western culture. Her legacy lives on today in a variety of films and books. Most notably, however, is probably the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, which is based on her life story and debuted in 1946 with Ethel Merman playing the lead role.