Born Phoebe Ann Moses, Annie Oakley’s persona is one of a Wild West American sharpshooter who could out-shoot any man. For the most part, that’s true, but Annie Oakley is not from the Wild, Wild West at all; she’s from a small farm town in western Ohio called Greenville.
It is here, on the flat plains a few miles from Indiana, that Annie endured a tough beginning.
Her father died after getting caught in a blizzard coming home from a hunt. He left Annie’s mother and children destitute. Annie was only six, and was given to the poor farm. A local couple took her and put her to work on their farm. Her treatment there was so bad that she never referred to them by name, but only ever called them “The Wolves.” After two years with them, she ran away and made her way home where she soon began hunting small game to feed the family. Her first kill was a rabbit, which she had killed with a rifle packed so tightly with gunpowder that the kickback broke her nose.
She became such a good shot that she began selling game to the local grocery. A traveling show came to town that touted Frank Butler, a famed sharpshooter. When a shooting competition was challenged, pitting Frank against a 15-year-old girl, Annie’s future was born.
Annie and Frank shot round after round of pigeons let loose until it was 24 -24 with either yet to miss. Then Frank missed. Annie took aim and shot the final bird down. She’d beat Frank Butler, 25-24 and he was smitten. He encouraged this 100 lb., 5-foot tall woman to join the show. Before long, she became more of a draw than Frank, seeming to never miss her target. She could shoot the heart of a playing card Frank held, shoot the flame off a match, and shoot over her shoulder. Annie quickly became an international star, performing with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show all over the country and even in Paris.
She enjoyed fame and accolades for decades. Chief Sitting Bull was so impressed with her that he adopted Annie into the Lakota tribe and dubbed her “Little Sure-Shot.” The name stuck. She taught other women to shoot and is often quoted on her perspective as a woman who excelled in a male-dominated field :
I would like to see every woman know how to handle firearms as naturally as they know how to handle babies.
At age 66, after years of handling lead and enduring some severe trainwreck and automobile injuries, Annie became ill and returned to Greenville, Ohio where she spent her final days in a boardinghouse. Her husband Frank was visiting family in Detroit and fell ill while there. He did not make it back to Ohio before Annie died in 1926, but died 18 days after his wife.
Annie was cremated and put into a silver cup she’d won until she was later buried with Frank in the Brock Cemetery. A plaque marks their graves and visitors often leave dimes and other coins on her grave in tribute to her ability to shoot a dime out of a person’s hand. It is rumored she is buried with Frank in his grave, so coins are left there, too.
Visitors coming to Greenville will find a town who pays homage to their Little Sure-Shot. There is an Annie Oakley Festival held on the fairgrounds each summer. There is a statue in the town square, and the Garst Museum exhibition gives detailed insight into her life. Annie Oakley is celebrated in many ways in this quiet town full of history.
She was the darling of Greenville, Ohio. Actually — she still is.
How much did you know about Annie Oakley?