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An illustration of Miss Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley: Biography

Image Credit: Everett Collection / | Above: Miss Annie Oakley in 1885

Annie Oakley was a pioneer of sexual equality and a star performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Moses, to a poor Quaker family and spent her early years living in a cabin in Darke County, on the western border of the state. Her father died when she was six.

In 1870, Annie and her older sister Sarah Ellen were put into the care of the Darke County Infirmary and learned skills there including sewing and decorating.

As a child she was known for her shooting skills, helping to support her family, by selling game to local shops and restaurants. She was so successful that she was able to repay the entire mortgage on the family farm.

Her fame spread and, in 1875, she was invited to participate in a shooting contest in Cincinnati, against the well known marksman Frank E Butler. He is reported to have laughed when he heard about his opponent. Annie, however, won the contest.

Annie Oakley and Frank fell in love and were married in 1882. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage but never had children. They began a touring demonstration of their shooting skills, and Annie adopted her famous stage name (Watanya Cicilla). For the next couple of years, the Butlers travelled across the country, giving shooting exhibitions with their dog, George, as an integral part of the act.

The two sharp shooter stars joined up with Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show in 1885. Annie is associated with the 'Wild West' to this day, although in reality she came from a farming family. Frank became her manager and they travelled throughout America and Europe for 17 years with the Wild West Show, of which Annie quickly became the star.

She also befriended Sitting Bull, who symbolically adopted her and named her 'Little Sure Shot'. She performed in front of Queen Victoria on a trip to Europe and King Umberto I of Italy.

In addition, Annie Oakley did sharp shooter exhibitions for Union Metallic Cartridge Company, appeared in an early film, and cheered American troops during World War I.

She left the Buffalo Bill Show and began a quieter acting career in 1902 starring in a play especially written for her called 'the Western Girl'. She played the character Nancy Berry who used a pistol, rifle and rope to outsmart a group of outlaws.

In 1904, she was the subject of a story claiming she had been caught stealing to fund a cocaine addiction. In fact, a burlesque performer had been caught and had stated her name was 'Annie Oakley'. Over the next six years, Oakley won 55 out of 56 libel cases against newspapers that had printed the story, restoring her reputation.

In her later years, the couple retired to Maryland, where they lived comfortably. Annie continued to set shooting records even in her 60s. She also campaigned for women's rights and showed that she had lost none of her skills when she shot 100 clay targets in a row during a shooting contest at the age of 62. Throughout her career she is thought to have taught more than 15,000 women how to use a gun as not only a form of physical and mental exercise but so they could defend themselves.

In 1922, Oakley and her husband were involved in an automobile crash that left Annie requiring a brace on her leg. Despite this, she was back performing just a year and a half later.

Oakley's health began to decline from 1925 and died the following year at the age of 66 from pernicious anaemia.

Butler was so heartbroken by the loss of his wife that he refused to eat and passed away himself just over two weeks later. He was buried next to her in Ohio.

Following her death, Annie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas. Her incomplete autobiography was sold to comedian Frank Stone.

Annie Oakley has been portrayed several times since her death including the highly fictionalised 1937 film 'Annie Oakley' starring Barbara Stanwyck.

The 1946 Broadway musical 'Annie Get Your Gun' was loosely based on her life and when it was made into a film in 1950, Betty Hutton portrayed Annie.