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Annie Oakley | Article

Biography: Lillian Smith

This brassy Californian emerged as Annie Oakley's only serious female rival in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. Oakley eventually prevailed, but at a price — she lopped six years off her age to compete with the younger shooter.

"California Girl" Lillian Smith. Buffalo Bill Historical Center

The California Girl

Lillian Frances Smith was born in 1871 in Coleville, California. At the age of seven, she became bored with dolls and asked her father for a "little rifle" instead. She performed in San Francisco at age 10, and soon her father offered a $5,000 wager that no one could beat her. This was not an idle boast -- she challenged Doc Carver, one of the era's best-known marksmen, to a competition in St. Louis, and he never showed up. Buffalo Bill Cody discovered her while touring in California, and she joined the Wild West in time for its summer 1886 run on Staten Island. The 15-year-old Smith became "the champion California huntress."

Lillian Smith with a rifle. Buffalo Bill Historical Center

The Rivalry

Annie Oakley had made her name besting male sharpshooters, and Smith represented her first female rival. The two women were experts in different weapons -- Oakley favored the shotgun, while Smith preferred the rifle. But relations between the two quickly deteriorated. One reason was Smith's personality, she liked to brag and could be heard declaring "Annie Oakley was done for" now that Smith was part of Cody's show. Smith spoke coarsely and wore flashy clothing, both qualities anathema to the more conservative Oakley. In addition to these other shortcomings in Oakley's eyes, Smith was apparently a shameless flirt. Smith was also younger, and that may have threatened Oakley. Her actions certainly suggested that Oakley felt some pressure -- that summer she started telling people that she was born in 1866, chopping six years off her real age and narrowing the gap with 15-year-old Smith. Oakley had a new outfit made for the Wild West's opening parade, one that said "Oakley" on both sides.

Oakley Leaves the Show

The growing feud between the two intensified when Cody's show went to London in the spring of 1887. Oakley was criticized in the press for shaking the hand of Prince Edward's wife first, while Smith, who had done the same thing, was not singled out. Although it was Oakley whom Queen Victoria praised when they met, a London illustrated newspaper chose to run a drawing of Smith being presented to Her Majesty instead. Most galling of all, an American magazine ran a crude letter from "a California[n]" saying Smith was "knocking the English shooters crazy" while Oakley "was being left out in the cold." This was nonsense -- Oakley still received the lion's share of praise in the press and from British sportsmen. But Cody declined to reply, leaving the task to Oakley's husband Frank Butler and the Wild West's announcer Frank Richmond. Oakley had the last laugh where it counted, on the nearby shooting field of Wimbledon. Two days after Smith had embarrassed herself with a poor showing, Oakley arrived and shot so well that Prince Edward stepped forward to congratulate her. Still, relations with both Cody and Smith had deteriorated to the point that Oakley decided she could no longer go on with the Wild West show, and she left it at the end of the London season.

California Girl champion rifle shooter. Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Not a Major Draw

It is likely that the "California" author was one of Smith's friends in the Wild West, perhaps her new husband Jim "Kid" Willoughby, also known as Jim Kidd, a cowboy from Wyoming. Whatever its objective, the publicity campaign on her behalf failed -- her performance at Wimbledon was ridiculed, and a California newspaper mocked the polished language ascribed to her in one interview. Saying things like, "Swing de apple dere, young fellers, an' let me bust his skins," was more her style, the paper reported. Even worse, allegations surfaced that Smith was cheating in her Wild West act. Although Cody himself would snub Oakley and talk up Smith in his later account of the meeting with Queen Victoria, he must have realized that Smith would never be the draw that Oakley was. Sure enough, Smith left Buffalo Bill's show just in time for Oakley to rejoin it in 1889.

Down into Obscurity

Smith would never work with Cody again, but she tried to remain in the public eye, challenging Oakley to a shooting match. Oakley declined. Smith turned up a year later, in Mexican Joe's Wild West with her skin darkened and her stage name changed to "Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot." The two female shooting stars did meet once more, both competing in the 1902 Grand American Handicap. Oakley out shot Smith that day, and then they went their separate directions, Oakley upward and onward into general acclaim, and Smith down into obscurity.

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