Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West

by Isabelle S. Sayers

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Wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of Annie Oakley. More than 100 rare photographs, posters, handbills, and other memorabilia chronicle her life, especially her 17 years touring with Buffalo Bill.See more details below


Wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of Annie Oakley. More than 100 rare photographs, posters, handbills, and other memorabilia chronicle her life, especially her 17 years touring with Buffalo Bill.

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Dover Publications
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8.30(w) x 10.98(h) x 0.22(d)

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By Isabelle S. Sayers

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1981 Isabelle S. Sayers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14075-9



No more unlikely a background for an internationally known markswoman could be imagined than that of Annie Oakley! Her parents, Jacob and Susan Moses, were Quakers who reared their children in a quiet, religious manner. Yet from this modest environment emerged one of the world's most famous entertainers.

Family tradition tells how a mature Jacob fell in love with 15-year-old Susan Wise and, after obtaining permission from her parents, placed her on a pillion and took her away on his horse. After their marriage in Blair County, Pennsylvania, in 1850, they became the parents of Mary Jane, Lyda and Elizabeth.

The Moseses kept a small inn near the termination of the eastern division of the Pennsylvania Canal at Hollidaysburg. One night, after a careless guest upset an oil lamp, the log tavern burned to the ground and the family was homeless. The year was 1855. Jacob had heard so much about the fertile Ohio country that he decided to pack up what few possessions they had left and to move West. The Quakers allowed their members to carry a gun as a necessary tool of survival on the frontier, and we know Jacob took his muzzle-loader with him. It was this very gun that later launched one of his daughters into a phenomenal career.

Mr. and Mrs. Moses settled on a small rented farm in northern Darke County, Ohio, and five more children were born. After Sarah Ellen came Phoebe Ann (Annie) on August 13, 1860, and later John and Hulda. One daughter died in infancy.

Jacob died of pneumonia on February 11, 1866, leaving Susan with little but their lively family of seven. She tried to keep her home together by going into the community as a practical nurse, but jobs were scarce and the pay small.

When the widow Moses married Dan Brumbaugh, it looked as if the family fortunes were greatly improved—but not for long. He died after an accident and she again had to assume the responsibility of supporting her growing family. At his death, their daughter Emily was only five months old.

Mrs. Crawford Edington, matron at the Darke County Infirmary, offered to take Annie and train her in exchange for help with the children. In a Darke County history, George W. Wolfe describes what must have been a deplorable condition at the home:

Many persons incapable of attending to their own wants were housed at the Infirmary and a shortage of rooms compelled the children to associate with these unfortunates, whose habits of life and language were not intended to exert that influence for good that should always surround the child.

Apparently, the Infirmary was the dumping ground for the elderly, the orphaned and the insane. Perhaps this early experience, working at such a place, aroused in Annie the tremendous compassion she had for children wherever she went.

Mrs. Edington taught her a skill and appreciation for fine sewing which helped when she later made her own costumes. It must be pointed out that the Edingtons tried to make life tolerable for the inmates with all the resources they could find. Later, a larger home was built and the children were separated from the adults.

Many years after Annie lived with the Edingtons, their son Frank related:

Mother couldn't stand to see her placed with the other children and brought her over to our living quarters in another part of the institution. We went to school together. After she left and became famous, Mother and she kept up a correspondence that continued until Mother's death.

I can't think her skill with firearms was the most important factor in causing the people of the world to hold her in such esteem. It was the fine unexplainable personality that gripped and held them.

When Annie was given an opportunity to work as a mother's helper in a private home south of Greenville, she discovered much more was expected of her than she could possibly endure. She was lonesome and frightened and unable to communicate with her mother, who lived north of town.

Finally, in desperation, Annie ran away from her employer and tried to locate her mother. She discovered that in her absence, Joseph Shaw had become her new stepfather and had built a cabin for his wife and children near North Star. At last Susan had a permanent home—complete with orchard, garden and cellar—where she planted, harvested and stored the surplus for winter.

Like all pioneer children, the Moses brood was expected to do their share of farm chores before play. Since the three oldest Moses daughters were married and gone, Annie, being the eldest girl at home, assumed many household tasks. Though she loved her sister Hulda and half-sister Emily Brumbaugh, she spent most of her free time with her only brother, John.

John, who was two years younger, helped his sister when she first used their father's old gun to down an unwary rabbit. In an interview in 1914, Annie said:

When I first commenced shooting in the field of Ohio, my gun was a single-barrel muzzle-loader and, as well as I can remember, was 16-bore. I used black powder, cut my own wads out of cardboard boxes, and thought I had the best gun on earth. Anyway, I managed to kill a great many ruffed grouse, quail and rabbits, all of which were quite plentiful in those days.

My father [probably her stepfather, Joseph Shaw] was a mail carrier and made two trips a week to Greenville, which was the county seat, a distance of 20 or 40 miles a day—not very far in these days of good roads. On each trip he carried my game, which he exchanged for ammunition, groceries and necessities. A few years ago, I gave an exhibition at Greenville, and met the old gentleman who had bought all of my game. He showed me some old account books showing the amount of game he had purchased. I won't say how much, as I might be classed as a game-hog, but any man who has ever tried to make a living and raise a family on 27 acres of poor land will readily understand that it was a hard proposition, and that every penny derived from the sale of game shipped helped.

The great performer Fred Stone, a friend in later years, reported she once told him: "From the time I was nine, I never had a nickel I did not earn for myself."

The storekeeper mentioned in the quotation was Charles Katzenberger, who bought Annie's game and shipped it to hotels in Cincinnati and Dayton and to the famous Golden Lamb in Lebanon. The diners at Bevis House in Cincinnati often commented to the manager, Jack Frost, how much they appreciated not finding shot in their game dinners. Annie was so good, she shot each critter in the head.

The modest Shaw cabin was home to Annie for several more years, and it was here she returned between show tours in her later life. She delighted in sending money to her mother to buy new berry bushes or an especially fine fruit tree, because she knew how much pleasure her mother took in "putting up" fruit for the winter.


Marriage and Early Career

When Jack Frost, the Cincinnati hotelkeeper who bought some of Annie's game, discovered she was visiting her sister, Mrs. Joseph Stein, in town, he decided to match the youthful huntress with a professional sharpshooter. A trio of marksmen headed by Frank Butler was appearing at a local theater, and Frost thought this competition would be a great Thanksgiving afternoon entertainment. Butler agreed to the contest but was dumbfounded when he discovered his opponent was a diminutive country girl.

"Kentucky Frank," who later ran a shooting gallery on North Vine Street in Cincinnati, told a reporter about witnessing the famous match between Annie Moses and Butler. Butler killed his first bird. Annie stepped to the post and when she called, "Pull," got a dark, lively pigeon, which she managed to shoot. They were tied until Butler missed a fast, quavering bird. Annie was ahead until she too had a miss, leaving them tied. The last bird was a hard one and Butler missed. She killed her twenty-fifth bird and won the match. This was quite a feat for a girl who had never shot trap-released birds before. As far as can be determined, the match was held in 1875. The area in which it was held, northeast of Cincinnati near the route of the Cincinnati Northern Railroad, was called Oakley.

Frank Butler was hardly what a Quaker mother would choose as an ideal mate for her shy daughter Ann, but nevertheless court her he did. Besides his vaudeville career, Mrs. Shaw might have objected to the fact that Frank was divorced and in debt when he and her daughter first met.

Frank was a sentimental Irishman who had emigrated to the States when just a boy. Unskilled but determined, he managed to support himself with a variety of jobs. First he delivered milk with a pony cart in New York City, next he was a stable boy and later became a fisherman.

Mrs. Shaw liked Frank and, after gaining her consent, Annie and Frank were married in 1876, thus beginning a happy 50 years together. During the first years, while Frank was on tour, Annie stayed with her mother and tried to improve her education, which had been inter-rupte das a child. In 1877 Frank became a naturalized American citizen.

Always patient with animals, Frank had started his stage career with a group of trained dogs, but eventually developed a shooting act that was booked into theaters. Frank later teamed up with a performer named Baughman and they were billed in the Sells Brothers Circus Courier for 1881 as "The Creedmoor Champion SharpShooters and Most Illustrious Rifle Dead-Shots" and as "The Sportsmen's Famous Hunting Heroes."

A devoted husband wrote the following from Quincy, Illinois, on May 9, 1881:


There's a charming little girl
She's many miles from here.
She's a loving little fairy
You'd fall in love to see her.
Her presence would remind you
Of an angel in the skies,
And you bet I love this little girl
With the rain drops in her eyes.

Some fine day I'll settle down
And stop this roving life;
With a cottage in the country
I will claim my little wife.
Then we will be happy and contented,
No quarrels shall arise
And I'll never leave my little girl
With the rain drops in her eyes.

Evidently, this tribute was sent with a gift, because Frank also wrote: "Now you can wear this to church Sunday, as I am going to send it now. Aren't you my little girl?"

John Graham was Frank's partner. On May 1, 1882, the act "Graham & Butler" was booked into Crystal Hall, Springfield, Ohio. When Graham became ill, Annie took his place in the act. Even though she was unaccustomed to appearing before an audience and shooting by artificial light, she was determined to do her best, and this she did. Courtney Ryley Cooper, in Annie Oakley, Woman at Arms, wrote about this occasion, the start of her long career, as follows:

That was an attribute of Annie Oakley that she took nothing into consideration save her determination to do the thing upon which she had set her mind. A strange combination of human nature, this little woman of Darke County beginnings. As mild as an April shower, apparently as unsophisticated as though she had come but yesterday from the backwoods which produced her beginnings, kindly to a point that went far beyond the usual definitions of thoughtfulness, her nature contained also a quality that savored of the strength of steel. Perhaps it came from the exigencies of her youth, the trials, the sufferings; perhaps it was ingrained from a mother who had been forced to smile in the face of misfortune for the greater part of her life, but it was there; a sublime form of self-confidence, wholly without ego, which caused Annie Oakley, once she had considered a feat or a task, to believe wholly and utterly that she could perform it—and then go ahead and do that which she believed! It was with this attitude that she looked upon a future career as a stage shot, and she went to her first performance with the assurance of one who had been doing it always.

The Springfield Daily Republic makes no mention of Annie's first stage appearance, but it does mention that an epidemic was rampant in Springfield at the time—smallpox! Persons dying in the night were buried before sunup. It is a wonder there were any public gatherings allowed.

When Annie joined her husband's act, she decided she needed a stage name, and since they had first met on the shooting grounds at Oakley, Ohio, this was what she chose. Today, a hundred years later, Oakley is part of greater Cincinnati.

She also decided she needed a costume that was more appropriate for the theater than street clothes. Being a practical person, she used durable material, but designed her costumes with such a flair they were often copied by couturiers during her later European tours. She ruled out the use of leather as being too hard to keep clean. She even fashioned her own leggings, which she wore with short skirts.

"Butler and Oakley" and their valuable acting dogs, Jack and George, often appeared as a "specialty." This was a rather brief entertainment that went on while the scenery was being shifted between acts of a play. Gradually their fame as rifle experts spread, and their bookings weren't so chancy.

As part of their act, George, a standard-bred poodle, sat on a pedestal with an apple on his head and allowed his master to shatter it. At the end of the performance, he too would bow. An elderly George accompanied the Butlers during their first season with Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1885. When the dog died in Cleveland, Ohio, his casket was fashioned by one of the Wild West carpenters, and he was wrapped in the elaborate pedestal cover that had been part of his act.

An unusual document included in the Annie Oakley files at the Garst Museum, Greenville, Ohio, is a copy of a marriage certificate indicating that Francis E. Butler and Annie Moses, both of Saginaw, Michigan, were united in the rite of holy matrimony by Thomas Manon, officiating minister, on June 20, 1882, in Windsor, Canada.

Frank Butler had been married previously and was the father of a son and a daughter, but was divorced when he first met Annie. Perhaps he later discovered his divorce was not final at the time of his marriage to the Ohio lass in 1876, and this necessitated another ceremony in 1882. By that time both of them were signed up with the Sells Brothers Circus.

The four Sells Brothers of Dublin, Ohio-Ephraim, Lewis, Allen and Peter—organized their first wagon circus in 1871 with one tent and a few sideshow features. By 1878 they had added more performers and tents and now traveled by rail (unfortunately, two wrecks marred that season, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio). In the early 1880s the circus was doing quite well.

Since the Butlers were now a team, it was natural that Annie wanted to travel with her husband during his engagement with Sells in 1883, but she appeared only as an equestrienne that first year. In the course of the season she led a sit-down strike against the Sells management when she felt a saddle was unsafe. She was told the saddle was all right, but she jerked the rotted girth and the saddle fell to the ground. It was show time and the opening feature, the "Rose Garland" executed by 12 riders, was omitted on this particular day. On another occasion, she protested against the living quarters contracted for by the management.

In the fall and winter 1883-1884 Annie and Frank toured with a three-act play, Slocum's Oath, a companion piece to Frank I. Frayne's Si Slocum. The publicity described the play as a "poetical sensation replete with thrilling situations and wonderful mechanical effects." The "Premier Shots," Butler and Oakley, were competing with the abilities of a trained bear named Jenny and the $2,000 acting dogs Jack and George.

While acting in St. Paul, the Butlers had a famous backstage visitor—Sitting Bull. He was tremendously impressed with Annie Oakley's performance and thought she was possessed of the Good Spirit—that no one could ever hurt her, that only those supernaturally blessed could have so sure an aim. When he was introduced to her, they exchanged pictures and he adopted her, giving her the name "Watanya cicilia," translated as "Little Sure Shot."

Although still a political prisoner, Sitting Bull was permitted to leave the Standing Rock Agency at Fort Yates, Dakota Territory, on several occasions (permission first had to be granted by James McLaughlin, Indian agent at the fort). One of Sitting Bull's trips was to the St. Paul gala that marked the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883; this transcontinental line now linked Lake Superior with Puget Sound. It was probably during this trip that he first met Annie Oakley.

Kate E. Glaspell, in the North Dakota Quarterly, tells an interesting story about why the Indian leader was there:

Probably the greatest celebration [of the railway] was the first, given in St. Paul. Many wealthy men of that city were interested in the venture and they thought it would be unique and interesting to have one of the welcoming speeches given by an Indian, so they asked a soldier, familiar with their language, to bring Sitting Bull, chief of the great Sioux tribe, down with him and to prepare a speech for his delivery, to be interpreted by the soldier himself. Everything worked out well and they arrived prepared to make a good impression upon the guests.


Excerpted from ANNIE OAKLEY AND BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST by Isabelle S. Sayers. Copyright © 1981 Isabelle S. Sayers. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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