Annie Oakley ~ 1860-1926
- Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses - called Annie by her family-
on August 13, 1860 in Darke County, Ohio. This unassuming woman, who
would perform before royalty and presidents, came from humble
beginnings. When Annie was 6, her father, Jacob Moses, died of
pneumonia - leaving her mother, Susan Wise Moses, with six children
and little else. Annie's mother remarried but her second husband,
Dan Brumbaugh, died soon after, again leaving her with a new baby.
At the age of eight or nine, Annie went to live with Superintendent
Edington's family at the Darke County Infirmary - which housed the
elderly, the orphaned and the mentally ill. In exchange for helping
with the children, Annie received an education and learned the skill
of sewing from Mrs. Edington, which she would later use to make her
own costumes. Perhaps this early experience of working in such a
sobering place aroused Annie's lifelong compassion for children. She
remained with the Edington's until she was 13 or 14.
When she returned to her family, Annie's mother had married a third
time to Joseph Shaw. Even with this remarriage, the family finances
were marginal. Annie used her father's old Kentucky rifle to hunt
small game for the Katzenberger brother's grocery store in
Greenville, Ohio where it was resold to hotels and restaurants in
Cincinnati - 80 miles away. Annie was so successful at hunting that
she was able to pay the $200 mortgage on her mother's house with the
money she had earned. She was 15 years old.
Her noted shooting ability brought an invitation from Jack Frost, a
hotel owner in Cincinnati who had purchased her game, to participate
in a shooting contest against a well-known marksman, Frank E.
Butler was on tour with several other marksmen. While on the road,
Butler typically offered challenges to local shooters. Annie won the
match with twenty-five shots out of twenty-five attempts. Butler
missed one of his shots. This amazing girl entranced Butler, and the
two shooters began a courtship that resulted in marriage on August
Annie and Frank Butler first appeared in a show together on May 1,
1882. Butler's usual partner was taken ill and Annie filled in by
holding objects for Frank to shoot at and also doing some of her own
shooting. It was at this time that Annie adopted the stage name of
Oakley. Off stage, she was always Mrs. Frank Butler. For the next
few years, the Butlers travelled across the country giving shooting
exhibitions with their dog, George, as an integral part of the act.
At a March 1884 performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, Annie befriended
the Lakota leader Sitting Bull. The victor over George Custer at the
1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull was impressed with
Oakley's shooting, her modest appearance and her self-assured
manner. Although Sitting Bull was still a political prisoner at Fort
Yates, he was in town for an appearance, and had arranged to meet
Oakley. They became fast friends. It was Sitting Bull who dubbed
her "Little Sure Shot."
In 1884, the Butlers joined the Sells Brothers Circus as "champion
rifle shots", but only stayed with the circus for one season. After
a brief period on their own, Butler and Oakley joined Buffalo Bill's
Wild West in 1885. This was a significant turning point in Annie
Oakley's life and in her relationship with Butler. Until this time
either Butler had received top billing or they had shared the
limelight. However, with the Wild West Oakley was the star. It was
her name that was on the advertising posters as "Champion
Markswoman." Butler happily accepted the position as her manager and
assistant. Oakley and Butler prospered with the Wild West and
remained with the show for sixteen years.
In 1887, Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured England to join in the
Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. When the show opened that May,
Oakley was the subject of considerable press due to her shooting
skills and presence. This tour also helped Oakley increase her
growing collection of shooting medals, awards, and trophies.
When the Wild West returned to Europe in 1889, Oakley had become a
seasoned performer and earned star billing. The troupe stayed in
Paris for a six-month exhibition, then travelled to other regions of
France, Italy, and Spain. Oakley proved to be especially popular
with women, and Buffalo Bill made the most of her fame to
demonstrate that shooting was neither detrimental nor too intense
for women and children.
Oakley and Butler's desire for less extensive travelling, as well as
a serious train accident that injured her back, caused them to leave
the show in 1901. However, she continued to perform and eventually
joined another wild west show, "The Young Buffalo Show" in 1911.
During this period, Butler signed a contract as a representative for
the Union Metallic Cartridge Company in Connecticut. This was a
position that allowed both Butler and Oakley to make endorsements
for the company and to continue their shooting exhibitions. Finally,
in 1913, the couple retired from the arena and settled down in
While in Cambridge, the Butlers welcomed a new member into their
family, their dog Dave. Named for a friend Dave Montgomery, of the
comedy team of Montgomery and Stone, Dave was to be a constant
companion to the Butlers. When they returned to the arena, Dave was
to become an important part of the act - one trick was Annie
shooting an apple from the top of Dave's head. In 1917, they moved
to Pinehurst, North Carolina. That same year, Buffalo Bill Cody
died. Annie Oakley wrote a touching eulogy for Cody, and the passing
of a golden era.
The United States was pulled into World War I in 1917, and Oakley
offered to raise a regiment of woman volunteers to fight in the war.
She had made the same offer during the Spanish-American War -
neither time was it accepted. She also volunteered to teach
marksmanship to the troops. Oakley gave her time to the National War
Council of the Young Men's Christian Association, War Camp Community
Service and the Red Cross. The Butlers' dog, Dave, became the "Red
Cross Dog" by sniffing out donations of cash hidden in handkerchiefs.
Oakley began making plans for a comeback in 1922. Attracting large
crowds in Massachusetts, New York and major cities; she had plans to
star in a motion picture. Unfortunately, at the end of the year, she
and Butler were severely injured in an automobile accident. It took
Oakley more than a year to recover from her injuries. By 1924, she
was performing again, but her recovery did not last long. By 1925,
she was frail and in poor health. She and Butler moved to her
hometown in Ohio to be near her family. They attended shooting
matches in the local area, and Oakley began to write her memoirs,
which were published in newspapers across the country.
In 1926, after 50 happy years of marriage, the Butlers died. Annie
Oakley died on November 3 and Frank Butler died November 21 - within
three weeks of each other - both died of natural causes after a long
and adventuresome life.
From her humble roots as Phoebe Ann Moses to taking center stage as
a Annie Oakely - champion shooter and star of Buffalo Bill's Wild
West, this remarkable woman is remembered as a western folk hero,
American legend and icon. Throughout her career, Oakley maintained
her dignity and propriety while quietly proving that she was
superior to most men on the shooting range. Thanks to Hollywood and
history, the legend of Annie Oakley endures into the 21st century
through motion pictures, television, on the stage, in history books
Havighurst, Walter. Annie Oakley of the Wild West. New York: The
MacMillan Co., 1954. Reprinted by Bison Books with new introduction
by Christine Bold, Lincoln, Nebraska University of Nebraska Press,
Kasper, Shirl. Annie Oakley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
Krensky, Stephen. Shooting for the Moon: the Amazing Life and Times
of Annie Oakley. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books, 2001.
Macy, Sue. Bull's-Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley. Washington,
D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001.
Riley, Glenda. The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley. The Oklahoma
Western Biographies series, Volume 7. Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Swartout, Annie Fern. Missie: An Historical Biography of Annie
Oakley. Blanchester, Ohio: The Brown Publishing Co., 1947. 2nd
ed. was published as Annie Oakley: Her Life and Times, edited by
Ronald Swartout, NY: A Hearthstone Book, Carlton Press, Inc. 1970.