Best Of The West 2012: Annie Oakley
Photography: Courtesy Annie Oakley Center at Garst Museum
To begin to understand the enigma that was Annie Oakley, it helps to know where the famed sharpshooter came from. Born Phoebe Ann Moses in a log cabin in rural Darke County, Ohio, she became acquainted with the privations of the Midwestern frontier during a rough childhood. When she was just 5, her father died tragically from pneumonia and her mother was forced to give up Annie (one of seven children) to the county infirmary. When she was 10, she was sent to live for two years in near-slavery with a couple who abused her mentally and physically.
By about age 12, Annie was back home, but her family was destitute. To help make ends meet, she began hunting and trapping game and selling it to grocers. Competitive shooting was hugely popular in those days, and over the next few years the girl began to establish a reputation as a gifted shot. In 1875, when professional shooter Frank Butler came to town looking for a challenger, the locals submitted Annie, then only 15.
She won, and Butler was smitten. They were soon married (and would be for nearly 50 years). The pair would go on to tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for 17 seasons, during which Annie, going by her stage name Oakley, became an international phenomenon. One famous trick involved Frank holding up a playing card edgewise and Annie splitting it in two, then shooting it several more times before it hit the ground.
Following a train wreck in 1901 in which she suffered a spinal injury that required five operations and left her partially paralyzed for a time, Annie, though recovered, toured less frequently. But her shooting expertise was not diminished, and in a contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in 1922, a 62-year-old Oakley hit 100 clay targets in a row from the 16-yard mark.
Ever the lady in her trademark calf-length skirts and long sleeves, Annie thought every woman should know how to handle firearms “as naturally as they know how to handle babies.” The gun had certainly served her well. “The girl of the Western plains” had bested poverty, abuse, and injury to become the country’s best-known cultural icon. The toast of European royalty and the adopted daughter of Sitting Bull (he had nicknamed the diminutive 5-footer Watanya Cecilia — “Little Sure Shot”), she was also a quietly generous philanthropist on behalf of widows and orphans, young women, and women’s rights.
When she died in 1926 of pernicious anemia at age 66 inOhio, her husband Frank stopped eating and died 18 days later. They are buried together near the woods where Annie first hunted and trapped. But that wasn’t the end of their story. In 1946, a fictionalized account of their life by Herbert Fields and his sister Dorothy spawned Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Starring Ethel Merman as Annie, the Broadway hit featured songs like “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” and “Anything You Can Do.” The production was first translated to the screen in the 1950 movie starring Betty Hutton; the film took home the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
The story behind the name might now be mostly remembered by Berlin’s lyrics, but Annie Oakley herself might have preferred her motto: “Aim at a high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting, for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”