Life in the Old West

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Little Sure Shot Annie Oakley first true sweetheart of rodeo


Modern songs and singing groups may use the title, but Annie Oakley, aka “Little Miss Sureshot” probably was the first true sweetheart of the rodeo.

Some time ago, one of my articles centered on the fact that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show is considered by most to be the forerunner of the modern day rodeo circuit. Sure, cowboys well before Buffalo Bill’s day showed off their horsemanship and roping skills in public gatherings, but as far as the modern day rodeo circuits and rodeo competitions, Bill’s was the first recognized mega-show.

And of all the authentic and not-so-authentic performers in the Wild West show, Annie Oakley was the most widely recognized and authentic at what she did. She was a bona fide, physically petite, physically downright glamorous star of the show, second only to Buffalo Bill himself in popularity and recognition.

She was born in 1860 in rural Ohio to Quaker parents who named here Phoebe Ann Mosey, she started hunting as young as six years old to help feed the family. She was called “Annie” by her sisters and added “Oakley” after the town of Oakley, Ohio — where she and then-future husband, Frank Butler, met in a shooting match — for her stage name. (Names are a bit tricky in Annie’s case. Her family name has variously been spelled as “Moses,” Mosey,” and “Mosee.)

Her remarkable shooting skills were well known locally before she was in her teens. Her childhood involved chaotic family life and even several years staying in a sort of orphanage-poor farm. It was in the orphanage where she learned to sew and she used those skills later to design and create her own costumes and performing dresses.

Before her worldwide fame performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Annie and her husband (Frank and Annie were married in 1876, a year after she had met and bested him in a shooting match.) traveled and performed their own sharpshooting act for several years. Annie, acknowledged happily by her husband, was the better shot of the pair and generally did most of the “fancy shooting” as it was publicized. She and Frank had a very happy, wonderful marriage of 50 years, dying just 21 days apart in 1926.

Annie Oakley’s meeting with the famous Lakotah leader Sitting Bull led to her famous nickname, “Little Sure Shot.” She met Sitting Bull in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1883. Robert A. Carter describes the old medicine man’s reaction to the tiny young woman (she was about 5 feet tall) in his book “Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend” this way:

“So impressed was he by her marksmanship that he thought she was certainly possessed of the Good Spirit — that no one could ever hurt her, that only one who was supernaturally blessed could be such a dead shot. When he was introduced to her, they exchanged photographs and he adopted her into his Hunkpapa Sioux tribe, giving her the name Watanya cicilia, which means Little Sure Shot.

Annie Oakley’s career as part of Cody’s Wild West show lasted some 17 years, and she had only good things to say about Cody and the whole experience of traveling with this “wild” bunch of ex-cowboys, Indians, and real-life adventurers. Carter gives her comments about Cody in his book:

“He was the kindest, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew. He was the staunchest friend. He was in fact the personification of those sturdy and lovable qualities that really made the West, and they were the final criterion of all men, East and West … His relations with everyone he came in contact with were the most cordial and trusting of any man I ever knew.”

When Cody and Oakley met, she started performing with his Wild West show that same day. In all the 17 years with the performers, traveling all over America and Europe, Oakley said she never had a written contract with Cody — “His words were worth more than most contracts,” she said in her eulogy of Cody in published in a Wyoming newspaper shortly after his death in 1917.

How good was Annie Oakley as a sharpshooter? In his book, Carter highlights several of her performances as evidence of her expertise:

In 1884 (she would have been 23 or 24 years old), at an exhibition in Tiffin, Ohio, Annie broke 943 out of 1,000 glass balls thrown in the air, using a .22-caliber rifle. At the same shooting exhibition, she shot a “10-cent piece” held between the thumb and forefinger of an attendant — from a distance of 30 feet.

She routinely shot holes through playing cards, shot objects out of hands and off of heads, shot objects behind her using a mirror to aim, and many other trick shots or stunts commonly performed in her day. It was said she could shoot equally as well right or left handed — and she was adept with any sort of rifle, shotgun, or handgun she ever tried.

Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, was also a sharpshooter with the Wild West show (one source refers to him as a protege of Oakley’s) and expressed amazement at how good she was:

“There was never a day when I didn’t try to beat her. But it just couldn’t be done. You know, the ordinary person has nerves. They’ll bob up on him in spite of everything; he’ll notice some little thing that distracts his attention, or gets fussed by the way a ball travels through the air … I wasn’t any different from the average person, but Annie was. The minute she picked up a rifle or a shotgun, it seemed that she made a machine of herself — every action went like clockwork. How was a fellow to beat anybody like that? To tell the truth … it would have made a better show if I could have beat her every few performances. But it couldn’t be done.”
(Quotation taken from Caroline Kim-Brown’s summary account of Annie Oakley’s life at http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2006-05/annieoakley.html)

“Little Sure Shot’s” health went into decline in 1925 and she died of pernicious anemia in 1926 at the age of 66. Her devoted husband, Frank Butler, was so stricken by her death that he refused to eat and died of his grief just 18 days later.

At the height of her popularity with Cody’s show, she was the highest paid performer in the group save for Cody himself. She could rightly be called America’s first and pop culture female celebrity, having traveled the nation and throughout Europe.

During her European travels, she met Queen Victoria and other monarchs. On one occasion, at his request, she shot the ashes off a cigarette held by Kaiser Wilhelm II — leading to some sarcastic comments a few years later in the world press suggesting that if she only had shot a bit differently she might have killed him and prevented World War I! (One source says that after World War I began, she sent a letter to the Kaiser requesting a second shot. He never responded.)

Annie Oakley’s legacy to the popular culture of the Old West was enormous, inspiring a Broadway play (“Annie Get Your Gun”) and a wealth of movies as well as a TV series. Numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about the gentle, strong woman. In her lifetime, it was estimated that she personally taught shooting and gun handling to more than 15,000 women. She strongly believed women needed to learn how to handle guns both for the confidence it bred and for self-defense.