photo by: Garst Museum

March 6, 2019

How Wild West Sharpshooter Annie Oakley Made It in a Man’s World

"When I began shooting in public, it was considered almost shameful for a woman to shoot. That was a man’s business, you see." So goes a quote from Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley in the 2006 Autobiography of Annie Oakley, compiled by Marilyn Robbins.

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Annie Oakley with a rifle, dated 1880.

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 in rural Darke County, Ohio, Oakley was no stranger to adversity or blazing her own trail. After her father died when she was 6 and her stepfather passed away soon after, Oakley was sent to live and work with another family whom she called "the wolves" for their mistreatment. She eventually ran away and returned to her mother.

Chronic poverty, however, was not so easy to escape. Oakley began shooting at age 8 as a matter of necessity. "She took her father’s percussion rifle down from the fireplace," says Eileen Litchfield, chairwoman for the Annie Oakley Center Foundation. "She stuffed it so full of gunpowder [that] the force of the shot from the butt of the gun broke her nose, [but] she shot a rabbit."

That experience was Oakley’s introduction to guns. She continued hunting and sold her kills at local hotels and the grocery store in Greenville, Ohio. Her earnings helped pay the mortgage on the family home and provided a much-needed source of income for them.

A petite woman, standing at just five feet tall, Oakley brought a certain femininity to the seemingly rough-and-tumble role of Wild West sharpshooter. Contrary to popular depictions (such as in the Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun"), Oakley was not a tomboy. In fact, she kept fancy tableware, china, and lace, and took care to always wear dresses. "It’s kind of a shame but the way that pop culture has represented her is so incorrect on this rough and tough Wild West girl," says Clay Johnson, President of the Garst Museum, home to the National Annie Oakley Center and a National Trust Distinctive Destination. "She really was more of this refined, Victorian lady that had this wholesomeness in her character."

Still, Oakley was a darn good shot. In 1885, the 25-year-old Oakley joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show and was part of the traveling show almost from its inception. According to Oakley herself, "I went right in and did my best before 17,000 people, and was engaged in 15 minutes." She would perform in the show, along with her husband and fellow performing sharpshooter, Frank Butler, for the next 17 years.

Besides extensive U.S. tours, the Wild West show also visited London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. There Oakley made an impression on Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife Alexandra by choosing to shake the princess’ hand instead of kiss it. The princess was delighted, calling Oakley "a wonderful little girl." The prince was equally impressed, lamenting, "What a pity there are not more women in the world like that little one."

Princess Alexandra excepting, Oakley was often greeted coolly by women even as she made a name for herself in the predominantly male field of sharpshooting. "Sometimes when I was invited to shoot at trapshooting clubs, the wives and women friends would be invited," wrote Oakley. "They would look me over oftimes disdainfully but I would not mind them at all. If they wished to be friendly they would. If they did not, I did not care."

Despite this apparent nonchalance, Oakley actively spoke out and worked towards greater gender equality. She encouraged all women to learn to shoot as she thought it "would give them confidence and the power of self-protection. And above all, it would teach them grace and poise." She trained nearly 15,000 women to shoot and, during the Spanish-American War, offered to President McKinley to to organize and train a group of female shooters in support of the war effort. (He refused her offer.)

photo by: Garst Museum

The bicycle in the photo of Oakley sitting in her tent was used at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Oakley rode in the arena while shooting target balls thrown into the air.

photo by: Garst Museum

An Oakley gun on display at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio.

Despite her celebrity and skills, Oakley remained a small-town girl at heart. Herself childless, Oakley paid for the education of 19 children. After her retirement, she melted all her medals and trophies down and donated the money to charity. The only trophy saved from the fire was one presented by her old hometown friends during a tour stop in Greenville in 1900.

A Garst Museum display plaque quotes Oakley, "After traveling through 14 foreign countries and appearing before all the royalty and nobility, I have only one wish today. That is that when my eyes are closed in death that they will bury me back in that quiet little farm land where I was born."

For Oakley, then, the secret to her success was simple: No matter how far she roamed, she never compromised who she was, what she wanted, or where she came from.

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Zubin Hill is a Content Marketing Intern at the National Trust. She loves exploring how communities negotiate their built history and learning new languages.

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