Annie Oakley was Buffalo Bill’s “Little Sure Shot”

August 13, 1860

On this day America’s favorite cowgirl, sharp shooter Annie Oakley, was born into a short and difficult childhood on a farm in Drake County, Ohio.

Phoebe Ann Moses (some accounts say Mosey or Mozee) was the sixth of seven Mosey siblings and just age six when her disabled father died in 1866.   Her mother remarried that same year and gave birth to an eighth child.  But second husband Daniel Brumbaugh died four years later, as well.

Her poverty-stricken mother placed nine-year-old Annie and her older sister, Sarah Ellen, in the Drake County Infirmary.  Popularly referred to as the “poor house,” the institution housed both children and  indigent elderly.  

Drake County Infirmary, built in 1856

According to Oakley’s unfinished autobiography, the superintendent and his wife took charge of her for a time, but she was soon “bound out” to a farm in Preble County. 

Hoping for a teenage boy who could do more heavy work, the couple Oakley referred to as “the wolves” were extremely abusive, at one point putting outdoors in freezing weather without shoes to punish her for falling asleep while darning.    Her mistreatment was a bridge too far and Annie ran away, returning to the infirmary before finally being reunited with her mother who had married for a third time.  

Already skilled with a rifle, she began selling game to local residents, hotels and grocers, her hunting enterprise so succesful she earned enough to pay off her mother’s mortgage.

In a Thanksgiving Day shooting exhibition in 1875, the 15-year-old defeated her husband-to-be, fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler (right).  Butler apparently took the loss well.  The couple married the next year and  work together professionally for the next five decades.

Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exposition 1885 and Annie wowed audiences with her marksmanship, hitting the thin edge of a playing card at 30 paces and shooting targets behind her back by looking in a mirror.   In one stunning exhibition of trust and daring, she would shoot off the tip of a lit cigarette Butler held between his lips.

Sitting Bull (left with Cody), returned from exile in Canada following the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn and joined the Cody’s exposion the same year as Oakley.  The pair had met  a year earlier, when the Lakota chief was paroled into the hands of a promoter for a 15-city tour called “The Sitting Bull Connection.”  So impressed with the diminutive sharpshooter, he gave her the Lakota name “Watanya Cicilla,” Little Sure Shot.  The name stuck. 

While Oakley may have been without peer, she was not without rivals.  The 15-year-old sharpshooter and trick rider, Lillian Smith, joined Cody in 1886 and  made no secret of the fact she considered herself superior to Oakley.  The conflict with Smith became so bitter that Oakley eventually left the show.     

The Exposition went to England a second time. this time without Oakley and it proved to be Smith’s undoing. Participating in a Wimbledon rifle competition that Oakley had won handily before, Smith (right) lost badly.  Receiving a drubbing in the media for her defeat, Smith left Cody’s show in 1889, eventually joining the Miller Brothers Ranch Wild West Show in Oklahoma.   

A serious train accident in 1901 injured both Oakley and Butler and left Annie partially paralyzed.  Recovering after five grueling and dangerous spinal surgeries, she retired from the Wild West show and  starred in a stage play entitled “The Western Girl.”

Perhaps her biggest challenge came in 1904, however, when William Randolph Hearst (right) published a false story that she had been arrested for theft to support a cocaine addition.  It was, in fact, a Chicago burlesque queen who told the police her name was “Annie Oakley.”

Newspapers that had reprinted the Hearst story hastily issued apologetic retractions.  Hearst, however, always a penny pincher, tried to avoid the inevitable court costs by sending investigators to Drake County to search out scandal. They found none.    

Oakley spent the next six years suing newspapers for libel, winning 55 of 56 cases but at a cost that far exceeded the damages she was awarded.   

Two decades after the train accident, Oakley received another debilitating injury to her right leg in a car crash, forcing her to wear a steel brace.  After several years of declining health she died of pernicious anemia at age 66 on November 3, 1926.  She was buried in Brock Cemetery, Greenville Ohio, not far from where she hunted as a girl. Inconsolable after her death,  Butler died just 18 days later. (Right, Oakley and Butler, 1924)

  A lifelong advocate for women in military combat, it was estimated that Oakley taught upwards of 15,000 women to shoot.  Always philanthropic, after her death lawyers for the estate reported the popular celebrity had donated most of her fortune to various charities for women and orphans and to her family.

 A  wildly inaccurate, 1935 movie entitled “Annie Oakley” starring an unlikely Barbara Stanwick (left) was followed in 1946  by Irving Berlin’s musical “Annie Get Your Gun” starring Ethel Merman.  She has since been portrayed in countless movies and on television by actresses ranging from the legendary Mary Martin to Jamie Lee Curtis and country singer Reba McEntire.  In addition, she is the subject of countless books for both adults and children and was inducted into the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.The Garst Museum and National Annie Oakley Center, 205 North Broadway, Greenville, Ohio, gives visitors  a look at the real Annie Oakley, opposite the Hollywood persona of a tom boy.  In addition, the Garst includes exhibits on native son, broadcast legend Lowell Thomas, as well as Native American and pioneer history.  Administered by the Drake County Historical Society, admission is $10 for adults , $9 for seniors 60 and older, $7 for children 6 to 17 and kids 5 and under are free.  Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 4 and Sunday 1 to 4.  Closed the month of January and Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  For more information go to,  call (93) 548-5250 or e-mail​ 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.