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?
Thanks for the fascinating history lesson! I only knew Annie Oakley was from Ohio because of a walking tour I took in Cincinnati a few years back, which mentioned her being from “nearby” and coming through the area while on tour. But it wasn’t this in depth about her (because it was about underground tunnels in Cincinnati haha) so this was really fun to learn. (Well, minus the tragedies of her life, of course.)
Thanks, Kristan. Her life was incredible. Not only because of her shooting skills, but because of the values she upheld. It certainly could not have been easy.
I just came across Annie last week, Juliann. There was a TV series done on her in the 50s with at least some of the episodes being filmed in the Alabama Hills that I just did a post on and will be doing one more. –Curt
Wow! So interesting. Can’t wait to read that. Just goes to show how she was portrayed as being Western; not a Midwestern farm girl. From your pictures of the Alabama Hills, the terrain is very different from her reality.
“From your pictures of the Alabama Hills, the terrain is very different from her reality.” Very different, but if you wanted to be a rooting-tooting gunslinger of the time, it was the place to be. 🙂
So much of this was new to me! I really wasn’t familiar with her life story at all. Very interesting!
Wow, so much of this information was new to me. I really wasn’t familiar with her life at all. And I certainly wouldn’t have guessed she was from Ohio!
I was surprised to learn that, too. And then so proud to be a fellow Ohioan.
Whatever I know is unfortunately just from the movies, I would really love to read a biography about her. And I think we are due for a new movie to come out – there are not enough Westerns these days!
PBS put together a good documentary about her, too, in their American Experiences series.
This post filled out the little I knew of Oakley. Reading further I see that she became Frank Butler’s wife. I’m particularly interested that she was inducted into the Lakota tribe, and not so long before the terrible Wounded Knee Massacre. And she toured the UK & Europe with Buffalo Bill!
Now and again I hit upon a historical figure who draws me in and it seems Oakley will be one of them. Thank you Juliann.
She drew me in, too, Roy. And I didn’t even write about her name being sullied in the newspapers and her suing 55(?) of them and winning all but one case. All because a prostitute used her name and it made huge headlines.
I knew about Annie Oakley and Greenville Ohio before this, but never put the two together. I have driven 36 quite a bit over the years so I’ll have to make it to Greenville and learn all about Annie.
Wow this is actually really sad. Annie Oakley pretty much became the level of folklore, didn’t she? What with ‘Annie get your gun’ and everything. But your story of her death in Greenville Ohio, and her husband, really puts it into perspective that she was just a regular person with a regular life that is sometimes tragic 😦
She did achieve folklore status. Interesting to think you find that sad. I might if it weren’t based on truth, but she did very much enjoy her fame.
While I knew about Annie Oakley, as a Canadian, her history and meaning wasn’t taught in schools. (We do have our own historical badass Canadian women though!) so it was interesting to read about her life and the town that has made her immortal.
We didn’t learn about her in school either. But I’d love to learn about the badass Canadian women you mention!
This was a fun read, thanks for sharing, Julie! Like a lot of other folks, I only knew of Annie Oakley by the caricatures of her that were played in Wild West-themed shows or mentions of her as a reference. But it’s nice to know parts of the story behind the real person. Just goes to show that we often don’t know the facts and just take what we hear for granted until we learn otherwise.
So true. And she was the real deal. The stories and caricatures were not exaggerations. What tremendous talent and such an interesting life.
So I’ve known OF Annie Oakley but not much so this was fascinating! I never knew about all this being in Ohio either. Would love to read more about her!
Thanks, Ashley. I didn’t know much about her either until I went to the festival and took a tour around town. I knew there was a connection to Cincinnati (the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show) but that was as much as I knew.