by Tom Clavin
Annie Oakley is one of those Wild West figures whose name is familiar to many people but they don’t know much about her. In honor of the anniversary of her birthday on August 13, let’s find out more than what was offered in various portrayals ranging from Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun to Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley to Geraldine Chaplin in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. A bonus is her life includes a long-running love story.
She was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio. When Annie, as she was called, was six, her father, Jacob Moses, died of pneumonia, leaving her mother, Susan, with six children to feed. She remarried but her second husband died soon after, leaving her with a seventh mouth to feed.
A year or so later, Annie went to live at the Darke County Infirmary, which housed the elderly, the orphaned, and the mentally ill. In exchange for helping with the other children there, she received an education and learned the skill of sewing, which she would later use to make her own costumes. By the time she returned to her family at age 14, Annie’s mother had married a third time. Even with this remarriage, the family finances were tenuous. Annie used her father’s old Kentucky rifle to hunt small game for a grocery store in Greenville, Ohio, where it was resold to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati, 80 miles away. Annie was so successful at hunting that she was able to pay the $200 mortgage on her mother’s house with the money she earned.
Word of her shooting ability spread, and Annie was invited by Jack Frost, a hotel owner in Cincinnati who had purchased her game, to participate in a shooting contest against a well-known marksman, Frank E. Butler, an Irish immigrant who was on tour with several other marksmen. While on the road, Butler typically offered challenges to local shooters. The 15-year-old Annie won the match with 25 shots out of 25 attempts, while Butler missed one of his shots. Annie entranced Butler, and the two shooters began a courtship that resulted in marriage on August 23, 1876.
The couple first appeared in a show together the following May. Butler’s usual partner was ill and Annie filled in by holding objects for Frank to shoot at and doing some of her own shooting. It was at this time that Annie adopted the stage name of Oakley; off stage, she was always Mrs. Frank Butler. For the next few years, the Butlers traveled across the country giving shooting exhibitions with their dog, George, as an integral part of the act.
At a March 1884 performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, Annie befriended the Lakota leader Sitting Bull. The victor over George Armstrong Custer at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull was impressed with Oakley’s shooting, her modest appearance, and her self-assured manner. Although Sitting Bull was still a political prisoner at Fort Yates, he was in town for an appearance and had arranged to meet Oakley. They became fast friends. It was Sitting Bull who dubbed her “Little Sure Shot.”
The same year, the Butlers joined the Sells Brothers Circus as “champion rifle shots,” but stayed on there just the one season. After a brief period on their own, Butler and Oakley joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West traveling show. This was a significant turning point in Annie’s life and in her relationship with Butler. Until this time either he had received top billing or they had shared the limelight. However, with the Wild West show, Oakley was the star. It was her name on the advertising posters as “Champion Markswoman.” Butler was apparently fine with the position as her manager and assistant. They prospered with the Wild West show and remained with it for 17 years.
In 1887, the show—headed by its biggest star, Buffalo Bill Cody, of course—toured England to join in the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. When the show opened that May, Annie was the subject of considerable press due to her shooting skills and presence. This tour also helped Annie increase her growing collection of shooting medals, awards, and trophies. By the time the Wild West returned to Europe in 1889, Annie, not yet 30, had become a seasoned performer and earned star billing. The troupe stayed in Paris for a six-month exhibition, and then traveled to other cities in Europe. Her repertoire included classics like shooting moving targets as well as more showy tricks like shooting the ash off cigars being smoked by volunteers. (Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was one of her assistants at his request.) Annie proved especially popular with women, and Buffalo Bill made the most of her fame to demonstrate that shooting was something like a healthy exercise for women and children.
Annie and Butler’s desire for less extensive traveling as well as a serious train accident that injured her back caused them to leave the show in 1901. However, she continued to perform and eventually joined another traveling troupe, “The Young Buffalo Show,” in 1911. During this period, Butler signed a contract as a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company in Connecticut. This was a position that allowed both Butler and Annie to make endorsements for the company and to continue their shooting exhibitions. Finally, in 1913, the couple retired from the arena and settled down in Cambridge, Maryland.
While there, the Butlers welcomed a new member into their family, a dog named Dave. He was to be a constant companion to the Butlers. When they returned to the arena, Dave was part of the act. One trick had Annie shooting an apple from the top of Dave’s head. In 1917, the Butlers moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina. That same year, Buffalo Bill Cody died. Annie Oakley wrote a touching eulogy for Cody about the “passing of a golden era.”
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Annie offered to raise a regiment of woman volunteers to fight in the war. She had made the same offer during the Spanish-American War, but neither time was it accepted. She also volunteered to teach marksmanship to the troops. Annie gave her time to the National War Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association, War Camp Community Service, and the Red Cross. Dave became the “Red Cross Dog” by sniffing out donations of cash hidden in handkerchiefs.
Several years after the war, bored with retirement, Annie began making plans for a comeback. After attracting large crowds in New York and other major cities, she had plans to star in a motion picture. But toward the end of 1922, she and Butler were severely injured in an automobile accident. It took her more than a year to recover from her injuries. By 1924, she was performing again, but her recovery did not last long, and she was soon in poor health. The Butlers moved to her hometown in Ohio to be near her siblings and their families. They attended shooting matches in the local area and Annie began to write her memoirs, with excerpts published in newspapers across the country.
Annie Oakley and Frank Butler had quite a long love story that lasted through 50 years of marriage. Annie died on November 3, 1926, and Butler passed away 18 days later.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.