Just under the wire, on the last day of 2019, I was able to squeeze in my goal of visiting the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. There, I was introduced to Annie Oakley.
Born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio in 1860, Oakley’s father died when she was 6-years old. She was sent to live at the city poor house, but returned home as a teenager. She helped feed her family and eventually paid off their farm’s mortgage with her hunting skills, selling the excess to a local hotelier. When the hotelier set up a shooting contest between the fifteen-year old, five-foot tall Oakley and well-known marksman, Frank Butler, Oakley won, scoring 25 out of 25 shots. Smitten with her moxie, the two courted and eventually married, traveling together as a shooting act. When Butler realized it was Oakley the crowds wanted to see, he took a step back and became her manager. It is said the stage name Oakley came from the Cincinnati neighborhood they lived in.
They soon set their sights on becoming a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. William F. Cody was a soldier, hunter and showman who turned his real life adventures into the first outdoor western show. Known for his foresight and business acumen, he was soon celebrated as one of the most famous Americans in the world. His use of press agents and poster advertising was innovative for the times. Realizing how essential Indians were to the shows, he paid them the same wages as the other performers. Their families traveled along with them and were encouraged to retain their language and rituals.
In 1885, Oakley auditioned and was hired on the spot. That year, she performed in 40 cities and then made a grand three year tour of Europe. In 1893 alone, the show performed for 6 million people and made a profit of $1 million. Patrons were fascinated with the ingenuity and efficiency behind the scenes as they were the show itself. Every night, the cast and staff of over 500 plus horses and buffaloes (along with grandstands and acres of canvas cover for the 20 thousand ticket holders) moved to the next town. Depending on the destination, they were housed in either walled tents or railroad sleeping cars. Three hot meals a day were served and their entourage even included its own fire department.
In a male dominated profession, Oakley was able to retain her femininity and become the most famous sharp shooter in American history. She was known for her ability to hit small size objects, such as a dime at 90 feet or the ash from a cigarette, once held in the lips of the Crown Prince of Germany. She headlined with the show for almost 20 years, retiring after a car accident. She still kept shooting even with the brace she wore due to a fractured hip and ankle, giving exhibitions, holding charity events and teaching women to shoot. The celebrity cowgirl died at age 66 and it is said that Frank died of a broken heart a few weeks later.
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