Tag Archives: Annie Oakley

Little Sure Shot Aimed to Please

Annie Oakley

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Ironically, one of the West’s best known celebrities never crossed the Mississippi until she was well into her career. Yet for Annie Oakley, stories of her incredible shooting talents spread far beyond the west like wildfire. In a time when women were mostly confined to their homes and families, Annie dared to hone her skills in a man’s world – and win. Her achievements earned her a permanent place in history.

Born on August 13, 1860 in Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses suffered an intolerably poor childhood. Her father died when she was very young, leaving Annie’s mother with eight children to feed. Susan Moses was forced to “farm out” her children, a popular term and mode of the day. Poorer families often farmed out their children to other families, who in turn employed them as farm hands around the ranch.

Annie spent much of her uneducated childhood living with such foster families, as well as in the occasional orphanage. One family was especially abusive; punishment was meted out in the form of a coatless and shoeless night spent in the snow. Annie never forgot the severe beatings she received, vowing never to recall the names of those who abused her. In her reflections of her life with the farmer and his wife, she referred to them only as “he-wolf” and “she-wolf”.

Eventually, Annie found her way back to her mother, who had remarried. Having already experienced starvation, Annie became a major source for the family’s food. A missed mark meant a missed meal, but as Annie’s shooting skills improved, she missed less and less. By the time she was twelve, she was shooting game birds for both food and profit. Whatever her family didn’t eat was sold to local eateries. Soon, Annie was earning a reputation for her fine shooting abilities.

Annie’s fame as a markswoman grew when she was invited to participate in a contest at the tender age of fifteen. Her opponent was Frank E. Butler, a professional sharpshooter some ten years her senior. Butler had made a public wager against all shooters who might come up against him. A restaurateur to whom Annie had sold top game encouraged her to go for it. Annie took the bet and met Butler at Cincinnati in November of 1875.  “I almost dropped dead when a little slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me.” Butler later recalled.

It was a match destined to change both their careers and their lives, forever. For Annie, used to shooting live fast-flying birds, the clay pigeons were a cinch. In spite of her victory over Butler, by just one shot, the older man fell in love with his petite successor. Within a year the two were married and on the road in theatrical productions. Annie, glad to cast off her haunted maiden name, took on the stage name of Annie Oakley as she progressed quickly from stage hand to star. Butler served as a sometime partner and more than apt manager.

In about 1885, Annie and Frank were employed by Buffalo Bill Cody to star in his traveling show. Then called Buffalo Bill’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, the show was on the brink of bankruptcy when Annie and Frank joined. Soon, however, Annie rose easily to the top of the playbill. Her incredible feats were unlike anything any other sharp shooting woman in the United States had ever come up with.

Before amazed crowds, Annie could shoot dimes from a man’s hand and cigarettes from his lips. She could also shoot the flame off of a moving candle. Another of her special feats was to shoot the middle of the Ace of Spades over her shoulder, relying on the reflection of a bowie knife. Perhaps her most exciting performance was the shooting of glass balls. As four balls were catapulted into the air, Annie would bolt 20 feet, vault over a table, retrieve her gun and blast each ball before it hit the ground. She could accomplish the same deed while standing on the back of a galloping steed. Chief Sitting Bull is credited with giving Annie her nickname, Little Sure Shot.

With Buffalo Bill’s show, Annie continued to scale the ladder of fame while liberating American women in a clandestine way. The wholesome little figure performed wearing knee-length costumes as her chestnut hair flowed down her backCtwo no-no’s for feminine dress of the day. Little argument was made, due to her honest, simple and private life outside the arena. On the road, Annie was the picture of a gentlelady, engaging in reading the Bible and embroidering. She and Frank lived comfortably in an amply furnished tent on the road. In fact, when Annie and Frank later built a home in New Jersey, closets were left out because Annie preferred to live out of a trunk.

The Buffalo Bill show once traveled to Britain, where the Grand Duke Michael of Russia challenged Annie to a match. Annie easily beat the Duke, 47-36. Her accomplishment amazed even Queen Victoria, who called her “a very, very clever little girl.” For the next fifteen years, Annie and Frank continued with the show, netting $1000 or more per week.

In October of 1901, Buffalo Bill’s renamed Wild West Show suffered its first real tragedy. The show train collided with another, badly injuring Annie Oakley. It took five operations and two years of therapy before she was able to walk again. With determination and grace, Annie also worked to shoot again and resumed performing and giving shooting lessons for another twenty years.

Tragically, a car accident in 1922 resulted in a broken hip, leaving Annie incapable of walking forever more. Gone were the days of the Wild West Show; Annie Oakley was never to fire a gun again. Ever practical, she had her gold shooting medals melted down and sold the lumps for charity. In 1926, Annie Oakley died in her sleep after arranging her own funeral, including a tailored gown for the affair. Frank, her husband of 50 years, followed her just three weeks later. During her lifetime, Annie had taken over $100,000 in prizes for her shooting. It was a fitting reward for the lady who aimed to please.

Woman’s Work: A Look at Victorian Professions

c 2014 By Jan MacKell Collins

“One night I saw something that put a little sense in me…I was sitting at a little table eating when a woman came in…I looked up at her and thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw in the Creek…As she got up to leave, I looked up at her and almost fell out of my chair with shock. The side of her face towards me, from her forehead on down to the neck, had been slashed three or four times with a knife. Her neck was slashed all on one side. It was terrible.”

~ Lizzie Beaudrie
Cripple Creek dance hall girl
circa 1898

Historically, romanticism has run rampant about women’s roles in the American West. Documentation such as Lizzie Beaudrie’s, however, tells us that women were not respected as a whole and were often victims of violence. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in a harsh world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves. The possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, clerks, stenographers, nurses, dressmakers, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives—all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income and a lack of services made for a hard and thankless life.

But although the woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, it somehow persevered. One feminist who proved this point was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. Amazingly she traveled alone much of the time and was unarmed, most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Her companions and hosts included the wealthy and the poor, desperados and ranchers. Most of these were men.

Isabella Bird’s determination to make it in a barren and primitive region would later serve as an inspiration to women like Emily French. Emily, initially a ranch wife on the Colorado prairie, was one of many women who suffered from an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, Emily was forced to do housework in order to support her disabled sister and two children. Sometimes food was scarce. Other times, Emily ached so badly from the cold she could hardly perform her duties. Despite an educated background, Emily could find no other work. Emily did have the luxury of a set of false teeth made of wood, and managed to even secure a date now and then. For the most part, however, Emily spent many lonely days as a woman in a man’s world.

In fact, Emily French had it good compared to the lowest form of poverty. This included thousands of prostitutes, whose complaints often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on the trial of Joe Huser in Cripple Creek: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue, who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.”

Violence and hardship aside, a number of women did strive to make a career for themselves. Many were successful; witness the number of female boarding house proprietors in the Cripple Creek District in Colorado at the turn of the century. There is no doubt that Mrs. Mollie Kathleen Gortner set precedence when she staked one of the first mining claims in the District in September of 1891. By 1893, the Women’s Gold Mining Company had also incorporated in Cripple Creek under the laws of Colorado. An ambitious undertaking, the Women’s Gold Mining Company included officers Miss A. Grimes, President, Mrs. A. Reynolds, Vice President, Miss Mary E. Gover, Treasurer, plus officers Mrs. Lucy G. Pierce of Peabody Massachusetts and Mrs. Joan Hanford of San Bernadino, California. The capitol stock of 800,000 was divided into single shares at ten cents each. It is no surprise that the principal mine of the company was known as the “She”.

More obscure professions fell to women like Mrs. N.H. Chapman, a writer who lived in Victor, Colorado in 1900. Anna Blair and Belle Miles were both artists who resided in Cripple Creek in 1902. Miss Fay Barnes was a “china decorator”. Mae Connor worked as a florist. Mrs. Julia O’Neill worked as a matron at the County Jail. Miss Mayme McAfee was among the musicians in Cripple Creek. Mrs. Kathryn Bates was a voice culture teacher.

As women toiled their way through the Victorian era, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared with the celebrated fame of Annie Oakley. Born in 1860, Annie overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the greatest sharpshooters in the west. During her career she literally made millions performing in exhibitions and traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Annie’s modesty was overshadowed by her contemporary appearance: short skirts and a refusal to tie up her dark curls. Despite her outward appearance, Oakley made no secret of her conservative lifestyle and her devotion to husband Frank Butler.

By the time Annie passed away in 1926, the celebrated markswoman had amassed a lengthy resume and fortune. Surely as women around the world read the obituary of Annie Oakley, they somehow found hope and encouragement to continue taking charge of their lives.

Julia Skolas cropped

Julia Skolas was one of a number of women who found a way to make a living in a man’s world. During the 1890’s and early 1900, Skolas was a most prominent photographer in Cripple Creek, Colorado.