Annie Oakley was not her real name.
The fifth of seven surviving children, Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860, in rural Darke County, Ohio. Although she became a Wild West folk hero, the sharpshooter spent her entire childhood in the Buckeye State. Called “Annie” by her sisters, she reportedly chose Oakley as her professional surname after the name of an Ohio town near her home.
Oakley proved an expert shot at a young age.
While her sisters played with dolls, Annie tagged along with her father as he hunted and trapped in the woods. From an early age, Annie showed an extraordinary talent for marksmanship. “I was eight years old when I made my first shot,” she later recalled, “and I still consider it one of the best shots I ever made.” Steadying her father’s old muzzle-loading rifle on a porch rail, she picked off a squirrel sitting on a fence in her front yard with a head shot, allowing its meat to be preserved. The young girl’s shooting not only put food on the table, it eventually allowed her mother to pay off the $200 mortgage on the family house through the money Annie earned by selling the game she hunted to a local grocery store that supplied hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati.
She outgunned a professional sharpshooter—and then married him.
A Cincinnati hotelkeeper who knew of the country girl’s reputation arranged a shooting contest between 15-year-old Annie and a traveling professional sharpshooter named Frank Butler who regularly challenged local marksmen as he toured the country. Butler, who reportedly chuckled when he first saw his opponent, hit 24 out of 25 targets. The teenager hit all 25. After winning the shooting match, Annie won Butler’s heart. The two married the following summer and remained wedded for 50 years. They died within three weeks of each other in 1926.
A steamboat accident led to Oakley’s big show business break.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody refused to hire Oakley for his Wild West show after their first encounter because he already had an expert marksman, world champion Captain Adam Bogardus, as part of his traveling troupe. However, in late 1884 a steamboat carrying the show’s performers sank to the bottom of the Mississippi River. The passengers made it off safely, but the sharpshooter’s prized firearms met a watery demise. Struggling with his equilibrium and his new guns for months after the accident, Bogardus quit Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in March 1885, creating an opening that was filled by Oakley.
Chief Sitting Bull considered Oakley his adopted daughter.
Eight years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Lakota Sioux leader who orchestrated the defeat of General George Custer’s troops attended one of Oakley’s performances in St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1884. Mesmerized by her marksmanship, the Native American chief sent $65 to her hotel in order to get an autographed photograph. “I sent him back his money and a photograph, with my love, and a message to say I would call the following morning,” Oakley recalled. “The old man was so pleased with me, he insisted upon adopting me, and I was then and there christened ‘Watanya Cicilla,’ or ‘Little Sure Shot.’” In addition to a nickname that followed Oakley the rest of her life, Sitting Bull also reportedly gave her a pair of moccasins that he had worn at Little Bighorn. The two became even closer friends the following year when Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for a four-month stint. “He is a dear, faithful, old friend, and I’ve great respect and affection for him,” Oakley wrote of Sitting Bull.
Oakley offered to raise a regiment of sharpshooting women to fight in the Spanish-American War.
As the drums of war sounded on April 5, 1898, Oakley penned a note to President William McKinley on her custom letterhead, which showed her toting a gun while riding a bike and touted her as “America’s Representative Lady Shot.” The performer told the president that she felt confident that his good judgment would prevent war from breaking out between the United States and Spain before adding: “But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.” That offer and a similar one Oakley made during World War I were not accepted.
She sued William Randolph Hearst for libel and forced him to pay $27,000.
On August 11, 1903, two of Hearst’s Chicago newspapers reported that a destitute Oakley had been arrested for stealing a pair of men’s pants to pay for her cocaine addiction. In spite of the fact that Oakley hadn’t been in Chicago since the previous winter, newspapers across the country reprinted the story. The truth was that the woman who was arrested was a burlesque dancer posing as Oakley. Although most newspapers printed retractions, Oakley vowed that “someone will pay for this dreadful mistake.” She spent the next six years filing suit against 55 newspapers in the largest libel action the country had ever seen. She won or settled 54 of those suits, including the judgment against Hearst.
She competed at Wimbledon.
Before Wimbledon became world-famous for its annual tennis tournament, the London suburb was better known in sporting circles for hosting England’s biggest shooting event of the summer. While appearing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in London to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Oakley took part in the rifle competition on Wimbledon Common on July 20, 1887, as the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, watched from the crowd. Although she was more proficient with a shotgun than a rifle, the London Evening News reported Oakley was “far and away” the best shot in the show, surpassing the performance of her rival Lillian Smith.
She was not an advocate for women’s suffrage.
Throughout Oakley’s life, she campaigned for equal pay for equal work. Although vocal in battling discrimination in the economic arena and advocating the participation of women in the military, she did not speak out for the right of women to vote. She hedged that the concept was acceptable “if only the good women voted.”
Her name is synonymous with free tickets.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ushers traditionally punched a hole or two in free tickets to the circus, theater or sporting events in order to differentiate them from those of paying customers when tabulating receipts. The pock-marked tickets resembled the playing cards that Oakley would shoot holes through during her performances, which led to free admissions being referred to as “Annie Oakleys.” According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, the term also became a part of baseball lingo to refer to a walk because it was a “free pass” to first base.