In 1926, just a few months before Annie Oakley's death, Will Rogers described her as "the greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced." As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she thrilled audiences around the world with her daring shooting feats. Her act helped fuel turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the vanished, mythical world of the American West. Over time she became an American legend -- the loud, brassy, cocksure shooter celebrated in the musical "Annie Get Your Gun." But that legend had little to do with the real Annie Oakley. Although famous as a Western sharpshooter, Oakley lived her entire life east of the Mississippi. A champion in a man's sport, she forever changed ideas about the abilities of women, yet she opposed female suffrage. Her fame and fortune came from her skill with guns, yet she was a Quaker.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Annie Oakley, the story of a five-foot-tall sharpshooter who pulled herself out of the depths of poverty to become known the world over as a symbol of the Wild West. From producer Riva Freifeld, this one-hour film chronicles Oakley's life, from her childhood in Ohio to her world tours with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
Phoebe Anne Moses, called Annie, first picked up a gun in 1875 at age 15 not to become a superstar, but to save her family from destitution. She taught herself to shoot and took to the woods of Greenville, Ohio to hunt quail, which she could sell to support her struggling family. "She was a market hunter, and turning a very nice profit," says women's studies professor Mary Zeiss Stange in the film. "Certainly not something that was at all appropriate for a woman to be doing in that time and place." Thanks to her prowess with a shotgun, she became her household's primary breadwinner and paid off the mortgage on the family farm.
Frank Butler, who was making a name for himself on the variety stage, soon noticed the shooting prodigy. On a trip through Ohio, Butler challenged that he could outshoot anyone around. The 100-pound Ohio teenager didn't just defeat the star -- she also won Butler's heart. They married and went on tour as Butler and Oakley -- the stage name that Annie adopted.
As Annie Oakley, she dazzled crowds around the world, first on the variety circuit, then with the circus, and eventually with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Oakley amazed audiences by splitting playing cards in two, hitting countless moving targets, even once shooting a cigarette out of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia's mouth at 30 paces. She could shoot with her left hand, her right hand, upside down, and sideways. "She was this really remarkable shot," says historian Elliott West. "But what makes her especially interesting is that she was able to combine that with an image of American womanhood that was provocative, but many people felt comfortable with."
In 1885, Oakley entertained crowds in 40 cities across America. By 1895, that number grew to more than 130 cities around the world. She was a star at the Paris Exposition in 1889 and shone again in 1893 when Buffalo Bill set up shop just outside of Chicago's Columbian Exposition. The girl from Ohio had become a living symbol of the Wild West -- a place that was fast disappearing.
In true celebrity style, the end of Oakley's career was plagued with scandal. Erroneous stories of Oakley stealing to pay for cocaine hit the papers in 1903, when the legendary shooter was 43 years old. She spent six years ensnared in legal battles trying to clear her name. "She had fought very hard to earn her own security, to have a good name, to be the kind of person that everybody would see as a role model," says historian Virginia Scharff.
Oakley would perform for just a few years more. She retired from public life in 1913, but continued working as an advocate of women's use of firearms, teaching thousands to shoot. Ever since her death in 1926, the legend of Annie Oakley has been kept alive on stage and screen.
My American Experience
The legend of the Wild West has been played out in American Popular culture since the start of westward expansion. The real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.