The name Annie Oakley conjures up images of a gun-wheeling, thigh-slapping, buxom and brassy, trigger-happy, pony-riding cowgirl. That image, I’m pleased to say, is only partly right. Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Anne Moses on 13 August 1860, had a quiet and demure character – and a surprising story leading to her many great successes.
Annie’s carefree childhood ended on a snowy day early in 1866 with the death of her father from hypothermia. Her mother then had to undertake desperate measures to fend off extreme poverty. Following the death of Annie’s sister from TB, her youngest sister was soon given away to another family to prevent a similar fate. Annie was just 10 when she too was sent away, this time to a poor house where her day began at 4am and ended after dark when all her chores had been done.
Annie’s life at the poor house improved greatly as she showed more and more responsibility and capability in her work. She also had a deep yearning to save every penny she could, and at 15 she returned to the family home, with ideas about avoiding poverty and helping the family.
A local grocery store near her home formed part of the plan. The store had a reputation as a trading post where wild turkeys and rabbits could be exchanged for wheat, flour and ammunition, and Annie’s game plan was to shoot and trap her way from poverty’s door, having had no lessons and using a hand-me-down gun.
Despite Annie’s slight build, she had no problem spending most of her working day trapping and shooting with her muzzle-loader for game for the trading post. Annie’s first proper breech-loader was a 16-bore hammer gun, providing quicker reloading in the field and allowing her to shoot more game. Legend says that Annie’s shot game was highly sought after in hotels, as it was all shot in the head and there were never any complaints about shot in the cooked meat.
By the time Annie was in her late teens she had already been barred from local ‘turkey shoots’ as she would always win against the male farmers and labours. But live pigeon shooting had become a popular sport at this point. Many men were becoming household names for their fantastic shooting abilities, and the era of the exhibition shooter was born. One day Annie was put up to challenge an exceptionally capable and well-known live pigeon and exhibition shooter by the name of Frank Butler. The prize purse was $100 and Frank was confident, not knowing his new challenge of opponent was a ‘country unknown’ or a woman.
Annie stepped up to the plate with an unruffled confidence that she would display for the rest of her public life. She won with 23 to Frank’s 21. Not only was it her first huge purse for shooting, but at 20 it was her first romance. Frank and Annie were married in 1882.
Although there was no doubt of Annie’s ability with a gun, it wasn’t until early in 1883 that she stepped into the limelight during a performance given by her husband. Frank liked to miss tricky presented targets on purpose to keep the interest of his audience, but on one occasion a man shouted out from the crowd that perhaps the little girl with him could do better in hitting the objects than him. Frank handed Annie the gun, and to the uproar of the audience she broke the targets in a flash. The crowd wanted more, and Annie’s life of fame had begun. It wasn’t long before Annie was heading the bill ahead of her husband.
One of the greatest turning points in Annie’s career came in late 1884 when the couple were introduced to Buffalo Bill after he arrived to watch one of their shooting performances. It was but a short time before an opportunity arose for Annie to prove her worth on the big stage with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – one of the biggest travelling shows of the time.