Annie Oakley is born Phoebe Ann Moses on the family farm in Darke County, Ohio, fifth of seven surviving children. Her Quaker parents, Jacob and Susan, have moved from Pennsylvania, where they ran an inn. In Ohio, the family supports itself with subsistence farming.
Abraham Lincoln is elected president, and in December South Carolina becomes the first Southern state to secede from the Union. The Civil War will begin in April 1861, and many men from Darke County will serve in the military, but Jacob Moses is too old for active duty.
On a trip to the local general store, Jacob is caught in an early blizzard and, half-frozen, barely makes it back to the farm. He soon dies of pneumonia, plunging the family into financial crisis.
Mary Jane, the oldest child, dies of tuberculosis. The Moses family must leave their farm and move to a smaller plot, where they struggle to get by. Anxious to help, Annie begins to set traps for birds in the nearby woods, bringing home quails and grouse.
According to later stories, eight-year-old Annie takes her father's old rifle from above the fireplace, packs it with powder, heads off to the woods, and shoots a squirrel. Her horrified mother forbids her to fire a gun again.
Unable to support 10-year-old Annie at home, her mother sends her to live with Samuel and Nancy Edington at the county poor farm near Greenville, Ohio. She is subsequently sent to work for a cruel family that she will never identify, referring to them only as "the wolves."
After two years of hard labor and abuse, Annie runs away from the wolves and rejoins the Edingtons, who take her in and teach her to sew.
Annie, who has returned to her mother's house, starts shooting game in the woods and selling it to a Greenville shopkeeper. Annie does so well that she is able to pay off the $200 mortgage on her mother's home.
Annie participates in a shooting contest near Cincinnati against an Irish immigrant named Frank Butler. Butler is a well-known marksman who is performing at a theater in town and has offered to challenge any local champions. Lured by a $100 prize, Annie competes against, and defeats Butler -- she hits 25 targets in a row, while he misses the final one. Butler, though 10 years older than Annie, is smitten by this diminutive crack shot.
Annie and Frank marry. He continues to tour with his shooting act, eventually pairing up with a male partner named Baughman.
Baughman and Butler team up with the Sells Brothers Circus, joining a show that features "sixty tons of animal actors." Touring with the circus for the next year, they perform feats of marksmanship and refer to themselves as "Champion Rifle Dead-Shots of the World."
His contract with the circus finished, Butler finds a new partner John Graham and returns to performing in theaters in an act they call "America's own rifle team and champion all around shots." One night before a performance in Springfield, Ohio, Graham falls ill, and Butler, needing someone to replace him, turns to Annie. She causes an immediate sensation with her shooting prowess, and soon Butler and Graham have been replaced by Butler and Oakley, as Annie is now referring to herself. The married couple join the vaudeville circuit, but in contrast to the behavior of the more risqué female players, Oakley dresses conservatively and lets her rifle do the talking. Butler handles the business and promotional aspects of their act, while Oakley becomes the star on stage.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show opens in New York, one week before the new Brooklyn Bridge.
Butler and Oakley perform in St. Paul, Minnesota, in front of an audience that includes famous Native American warrior Sitting Bull, who had defeated General George Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Part of Oakley's act involves shooting out the wick of a burning candle, and Sitting Bull is so impressed by her prowess that he wants to meet her, offering $65 for a photograph of the two of them together. The meeting goes so well that Sitting Bull "adopts" Oakley, giving her the Indian name "Watanya Cicilla," or "Little Sure Shot." Ever the savvy businessman, Butler places an advertisement in a trade publication talking up the meeting.
After a couple of years on the vaudeville circuit, Butler and Oakley sign with the Sells Brothers Circus for a 40-week engagement. That year the circus visits 187 towns in 13 states, journeying some 11,000 miles. The two welcome the steady pay but grow tired of the incessant travel under difficult conditions.
The Sells Circus season concludes in New Orleans at the Industrial and Cotton Exposition, leaving Butler and Oakley without a job for the winter. Also in town is Cody's Wild West show, and the Butlers ask him for a job. But Buffalo Bill already has a champion shooter named Captain Bogardus, so he turns them down.
After his shooting equipment is lost in a steamship accident, Bogardus quits Cody's show. Oakley promptly renews her request for a job. Buffalo Bill is still skeptical, but he agrees to an April try-out in Louisville, Kentucky. While preparing for the audition, Oakley catches the attention of Cody's business manager, who hires her on the spot. That season she appears before 150,000 people in 40 cities, and Oakley will perform in Cody's Wild West show for almost all of the next 17 years.
Sitting Bull signs a contract to appear in the Wild West show.
The Wild West show spends the summer performing on Staten Island. Almost 360,000 people attend, taking a ferry from Manhattan past the brand-new Statue of Liberty, set to be dedicated that fall, and then riding a newly constructed rail line four miles to the event grounds. A 15-year-old female sharpshooter named Lillian Smith joins Cody's show and quickly becomes Oakley's rival. Oakley responds by lopping six years off her own age, now telling the press that she was born in 1866.
Cody takes his show indoors, debuting the revamped Wild West in front of 6,000 people at Madison Square Garden on the day before Thanksgiving.
Oakley and the rest of Cody's performers depart New York for London on the steamer State of Nebraska. Some 180 horses and 18 buffalo also make the journey.
The American Exposition opens in London and draws 30-40,000 people a day -- the Wild West show, which the British soon dub the "Yankeeries," is its main attraction. In the course of its run, the show attracts both Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, both of whom meet with Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith afterwards. As the show proceeds, the two sharpshooters' rivalry intensifies.
Oakley quits the Wild West show just as it finishes its London run.
Oakley returns to the stage, debuting in a variety show in Philadelphia. She engages in shooting competitions on the side, joins a rival Wild West show, and even acts in a play called Deadwood Dick.
After Lillian Smith leaves Cody's Wild West show, the stage is set for Oakley to return. A newspaper announces that she will be rejoining the show in time for its trip to Paris to participate in the Universal Exposition there.
The Paris Exposition, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, opens. It features the newly built Eiffel Tower and a Wild West show fronted by Oakley. Some 32 million people visit the Exposition, and Oakley's performance attracts two remarkable offers -- the president of France says she can have a commission in the French army, and the King of Senegal wants to buy Oakley for 100,000 francs so she can kill the tigers that are plaguing his country. Oakley declines both offers, but upon meeting famed inventor Thomas Edison, she has a request of her own -- she wants to know if he can design an electric gun. Edison says he will consider it.
When the Wild West show ends its six-month Paris run, Cody and his company embark on a three-year tour of Europe.
The United States Census Bureau declares that widespread settlement has brought an end to the American frontier.
Oakley returns to America a superstar, with newspapers clamoring for interviews and the public hanging on her every word.
The Chicago Columbian Exposition opens, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Americas. While historian Frederick Jackson Turner gives a paper describing the closing of the American frontier, Cody's celebration of frontier life is doing brisk business. Although the Wild West show is not part of the official "White City" exposition, it attracts record crowds in its venue across the street. This year will be Cody's best, with the show playing before six million people and making a profit of one million dollars.
The Butlers move into their new home in Nutley, New Jersey, more than a thousand miles from the "wild west" she has never lived in but has come to symbolize.
The Wild West show sets up shop for the summer in Brooklyn. For the first time, the show can be performed at night, thanks to an enormous array of new electric lights.
Oakley travels to electric light inventor Thomas Edison's studio in West Orange, New Jersey, to give a shooting demonstration in front of another one of his contraptions called a kinetoscope. Edison wants to see if the kinetoscope, forerunner of today's motion picture cameras, can capture the smoke from Oakley's shots, which it does.
The Wild West show closes for the season, a financial disappointment that Cody blames in part on the country's economic depression and the cost of running all the electric lights.
In an effort to restore its past profitability, Cody takes his Wild West show back on the road, visiting 131 towns. Oakley continues to tour with the show for the next several years, crisscrossing the country by train while firing, in her estimation, more than 40,000 shots in a single year. Oakley's act is celebrated throughout the country, but life on the road is exhausting for her.
Oakley performs in her home town of Greenville, Ohio, for the first time as a part of the Wild West show. Given a commemorative silver cup by the townspeople, Oakley says she prizes it "more highly than anything ever presented to me."
Near the end of the Wild West season, the Butlers are in a train accident. Neither is injured but they are shaken up and decide to leave the show. Shortly thereafter, she retires from Cody's Wild West show for good, and Frank accepts a job as representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.
Oakley returns to the stage, starring as the sharpshooting heroine in The Western Girl. She receives good reviews, and the play will run until March 1903.
In Chicago, publisher William Randolph Hearst's popular, sensationalist newspapers report that Annie Oakley is in prison, sentenced for "stealing the trousers of a negro in order to get money with which to buy cocaine." Though completely false, the story is picked up by newspapers from coast to coast. Oakley is livid and demands retractions -- even though most of the newspapers comply, she is not mollified and ends up filing 55 libel suits. The legal battles will run until 1910, with Oakley traveling the country testifying in various courtrooms. Hearst will try to smear Oakley's reputation, even hiring a detective to travel to Greenville, Ohio and dig up dirt about her. But there is nothing to find, and Oakley will end up winning or settling 54 of her suits. She will collect awards ranging from $900 to $27,500, but ends up losing money when legal and other expenses are factored in.
Oakley, who has been appearing in various shooting events, learns that her mother has died and returns to Ohio.
Oakley pays a visit to Cody's Wild West, then performing at Madison Square Garden. Buffalo Bill asks her to return to the show, but she declines.
Oakley joins a rival show called Young Buffalo Wild West and performs with it for the next two years. Although now over 50, she keeps up with the show's grueling pace, traveling more than 8,000 miles in one 27-week span.
Annie Oakley's career in Wild West shows comes to an end -- she retires after a performance in Marion, Illinois, and moves with Butler to a waterfront cottage near Cambridge, Maryland. Meanwhile, Cody has gone bankrupt, and a creditor sells off the show's memorabilia.
The Butlers embark on an automobile road trip and visit Buffalo Bill, who is now in failing health. The Butlers decide to winter in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where Oakley gives lessons to women who want to learn shooting.
Buffalo Bill Cody dies in Denver, Colorado. Neither of the Butlers attends the funeral, but Oakley composes a eulogy for her old friend that runs in several newspapers. In it she calls Cody "the kindest, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew... the personification of those sturdy and lovable qualities that really made the West."
The United States enters World War I. Oakley soon telegraphs the secretary of war, offering to raise a "regiment of women" to join the fight, but the government does not reply. Oakley ends up giving shooting demonstrations to raise money at various army camps around the country.
World War I ends in Allied victory -- Oakley joins the celebration at Pinehurst.
Oakley appears at a charity event on Long Island to benefit wounded soldiers. Although a bit out of practice, she still dazzles the crowd with her shooting abilities.
A car accident in Florida fractures Oakley's hip and right ankle -- for the rest of her life, she will walk with a leg brace.
The Butlers move to Dayton, Ohio.
Famed cowboy and humorist Will Rogers visits Oakley and later writes a glowing tribute to her in his Sunday newspaper column.
In failing health, Oakley moves back to Darke County.
Oakley dies in Greenville, Ohio -- her husband of 50 years will pass away just 18 days later.
The first film version of Oakley's life, the movie Annie Oakley starring Barbara Stanwyck, debuts.
Rogers and Hammerstein's musical Annie Get Your Gun opens in New York with renowned singer Ethel Merman in the title role. The show will later be made into a film, and a TV series called Annie Oakley will run from 1954 to 1957.
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.