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With a widowed mother and six siblings, Annie Oakley first became a trapper, hunter, and sharpshooter simply to put food on the table. Yet her genius with the gun eventually led to her stardom in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The archetypal western woman, Annie Oakley urged women to take up shooting to procure food, protect themselves, and enjoy healthy exercise, yet she was also the proper Victorian lady, demurely dressed and skeptical about the value of women’s ...
With a widowed mother and six siblings, Annie Oakley first became a trapper, hunter, and sharpshooter simply to put food on the table. Yet her genius with the gun eventually led to her stardom in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The archetypal western woman, Annie Oakley urged women to take up shooting to procure food, protect themselves, and enjoy healthy exercise, yet she was also the proper Victorian lady, demurely dressed and skeptical about the value of women’s suffrage. Glenda Riley presents the first interpretive biography of the complex woman who was Annie Oakley.
"We managed to struggle along"
Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) was a late summer baby, born on August 13 in 1860. Even at the beginning she shook her tiny fists in the air and let the world know she intended to deal with life head on. As the fifth surviving child of a poor Ohio farm family, she could hardly expect ease and plenty, but the want, loss, and abuse that challenged her resourcefulness and forced her to become a survivor would have defeated most little girls. Annie, as her four older sisters dubbed her, seldom asked for trouble; it simply came to her unbidden.
Soon, for example, Annie began to notice the continuing strain on the family's limited resources. "When I was two," she later wrote, "there was a baby brother, worshipped by his five sisters," even though he represented another mouth to feed. When yet another child came along less than two years later, Annie felt torn between her love for the little girl and her own resentment of an increasingly difficult situation. The family home already bulged and the larder barely met the family's needs, although the children helped by feeding the stock, helping repair the fences, planting a garden, working in the fields, and gathering wild berries and nuts, including hickory, butternuts, and walnuts.
Of course, other Darke County children worked to help their families, but many of them, unlike Annie, also attended school. In addition, many other children knew what leisure time and entertainment meant. Hopscotch, jump rope, and "button, button, who's got the button?" were favorite games among the younger children. Older boys and girls attended singing school, learned to dance, and enjoyed sleigh rides, circuses, and county fairs. Annie experienced none of this. Instead, Annie stood on the cabin's plank floor, working alongside and watching her mother, whose back ached as she bent over a kettle of boiling laundry, whose face grew grimy as she cooked over the greasy smoke of the fireplace, and whose eyes squinted as she worked on the never-ending pile of mending. Sometimes, Annie must have wondered about the pretty pencil sketches and few paintings that her mother had stashed away until there was time to work on them once again.
Annie's parents, Jacob and Susan, recognized that their log-cabin farm, situated in the tract known as "fallen timbers" near Woodland township and eighteen miles from the county seat of Greenville, lacked the amenities and social graces. But it was far better than the inn that had once provided a meager living back in Pennsylvania before it burned down and left them homeless. Only four years before Annie's birth, they had picked up and followed the trail of the numerous Dunkards and Quakers who had begun to migrate to southwestern Ohio's fledgling Darke County earlier in the century.
Jacob and Susan soon discovered that Darke County, organized in 1817, had developed slowly. Although blessed with rich soil and plentiful trees, the area also suffered from drainage problems. As a result, throughout the 1840s, farming had struggled to survive. During the early 1850s, agriculture, based on the staple crop of corn, began to revive somewhat. Only in 1851 was the first flour mill erected. Then, in 1852, the Darke County Agricultural Society organized. But throughout the 1850s, the area still fought to establish itself. People worked their fields with the help of sickles, scythes, grain cradles, and oxen, lit their homes with candles or kerosene lamps, and cooked in fireplaces or on wood-burning stoves. Drainage continued to pose a problem, and primitive plank roads inhibited the transportation of goods to market. At the same time, the dissension leading to the Civil War tore at the young society's fragile roots. Some Darke County residents, notably Pennsylvania Quakers, assisted the Underground Railway; others, especially some of the numerous Southerners in the county, opposed it mightily.
Consequently, Susan and Jacob found that they could survive only by expending a huge amount of energy and ingenuity. They gleaned every resource possible from land and animals. Susan spent hours canning, drying, and packing fruits and vegetables in straw: apples, peaches, pears, cabbage, green beans, beets, turnips, parsnips, and potatoes. Jacob gathered, shocked, and cribbed corn for the stock; he butchered some of the stock, smoking the meat with hickory chips. When Jacob butchered a beef every fall, he tanned its hide for shoes. "The measurements were taken and the shoes made from daddy down," Annie explained. "The tops were stitched with heavy white floss for the younger children."
Annie was not yet six when a major tragedy struck the struggling family. Although a high proportion of Darke County men volunteered for the Civil War, at age sixty-two Jacob was too old and had too many dependents to serve at the front. He met disaster instead during the winter of 1865 when an early blizzard swirled about him and his horses as they tried to get grain to the mill and carry winter supplies home from the general store. Susan and her daughters awaited Jacob's return until midnight. When they heard the sound of horses' hooves muffled by the mounting snow, they rushed to the door. Jacob sat atop his horse, a frozen specter who had lost the use of both his hands and his voice. Susan and the oldest daughter, Mary Jane, dragged him inside and tried to restore him while the other children unloaded the horses and got them_bedded down in the barn.
During the desperate winter that followed, Jacob remained an invalid. He never again rode the mail route that brought in the family's only cash income. Early in 1866, he succumbed to pneumonia and left Susan, at age thirty-three, with seven children under the age of fifteen. A year later, the eldest child, Mary Jane, also died, a victim of overexposure and tuberculosis. Susan sacrificed the farm as well as the pet cow, "Pink," to pay medical and funeral bills. "How we cried when she [Pink] left us!" Annie remembered. Susan then moved her dwindling family to a smaller farm she cash-leased from a sympathetic neighbor. Here Susan and the children did the housework, including processing food and making clothing, as well as tended the animals and farmed the land. "But every night," Annie remembered, "no matter how tired we all were, mother washed our hands and feet, brushed and plaited our hair into pigtails, took little John and Baby Huldie onto her lap, and sang hymns with us and prayed God to watch over us."
Annie, who was not yet seven, studied the situation to see what more she might be able to contribute. "I donned my homespunlinsey dress ... and started for the woods," she recalled. "There were plenty of quail, squirrel and rough grouse ... I busied myself with traps made from the heaviest cornstalks, laid up like a loghouse and tied together by strings." Under these ingenious traps, Annie dug trenches and stocked them with grains of corn. Almost daily, several little birds fell victim to her cleverness.
Susan made the most of Annie's catches. She fried, broiled, and even fricasseed them.
"Somehow we managed to struggle along for several years," Annie later wrote. But it wasn't enough for Annie. Sometime during this period, she climbed up above the fireplace and took down the old forty-inch cap-and-ball Kentucky rifle that had hung there since her father's death. She stuffed it with enough powder "to kill off a buffalo" and shot her first small game, perhaps a rabbit or a squirrel, through the head, just as her father had told her to so that the meat would remain unspoiled by shot.
Susan, who feared for Annie's safety and adhered to Quaker principles against firearms, forbade her daughter to use the rifle again for months. Within the year, however, Annie strode through nearby fields and woods, rifle in hand, confident of her ability to supplement the family's sparse diet with fresh meat. Still, the family's situation worsened. Susan, who earned only approximately $1.25 a week as a district health nurse, farmed out her children to helpful neighbors and friends who offered to relieve part of Susan's burden. At about age eight or nine, Annie reportedly moved in with Samuel C. and Nancy Ann Edington, superintendents of the Darke County Infirmary, or poor farm.
Coincidentally, the first inmate had arrived at the infirmary in 1856, the same year that Annie's parents had come to Darke County. By the time Annie got there, the infirmary housed an assortment of orphans, indigent Irish and African Americans, and people classified by the standards of the time as idiots. Certainly the infirmary was a sign of progress, for before its establishment, such people were "leased" to the lowest bidder, most of whom wanted to profit rather than provide quality care. Still, the three-story, brick infirmary that sat squarely on the Greenville and Eaton pikes just south of Greenville must have presented a dismal and frightening front to a young farm girl.
Under Nancy Ann Edington's direction, Annie claimed that she learned to knit and use a sewing machine. She earned a little money by sewing, darning, and patching inmates' clothing. In her spare time, she improved her skill at fancy embroidery. Within a few weeks, a better offer came along in the guise of a man Annie called a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and later identified only as the "he-wolf." He wanted a girl to watch a three-week-old baby boy while his wife cared for the house and older children. There would be plenty of opportunity to go to school, he promised, and to trap and shoot.
When Annie declared her desire to take the job, Nancy Ann, who Annie referred to as "Auntie," wrote to Susan, who gave her permission. "All went well for a month," Annie later remarked, "then the work began to stack up." She rose at four o'clock in the morning to get breakfast, milk the cows, wash dishes, skim milk, feed the calves and pigs, weed the garden, pick wild berries, get dinner, and care for the baby. In between, the "wolf" family, as she called them, expected her to trap and hunt.
"I was held a prisoner," she said. "They would not let me go." The "she-wolf" kept Annie out of school, fed her poorly, and one night, when Annie nodded over the stockings she was darning, struck her and threw her out into the snow. "I was slowly freezing to death," Annie remembered. "So I got down on my little knees, looked toward God's clear sky, and tried to pray. But my lips were frozen stiff and there was no sound." The return of the "he-wolf," generally believed to be a member of the Studabaker family, precipitated Annie's rescue. As he lumbered toward the house, his wife yanked Annie inside and tried to warm her by the fire. When he ducked through the door, his wife confessed her deed. They sent Annie to her loft bed in a feverish delirium and let her rest the next morning, although they brought her neither food nor drink.
In the meantime, the "wolves" regularly wrote to Susan, reporting that Annie was making progress in school and had made a good adjustment to their household. Believing she was helping her family and that her wage of fifty cents a week went to her mother in every letter, Annie hung on for almost two years. Then, "one fine spring day the family was gone." She wrote: "I was ironing a large basket of clothes. Suddenly I thought, why not run away?" Annie's loyalty to her mother and her family had gained the frail child scars and marks across her shoulders and back. She was no closer to knowing how to read and write than when she had arrived. And she had only a few sparse belongings to tie up into a bundle. Yet she locked the "wolves'" door and "put the key in a tin cup that set on a shelf in the spring house" before she started toward Woodland.
On that spring day, Annie made her way to the railroad station, where she boarded a crowded car and slid into a seat beside a kindly-looking gentleman who moved over to make room for her. When she told him she was running away and had forty-eight cents, he paid her fare and asked another passenger to put her off at the stop nearest Woodland. Annie later wrote that for the rest of her life, she regretted that she had neglected to ask her benefactor his name before he left the train. "But for years," she said, "I prayed to God each night to keep the good man who helped me get away from the wolves."
Annie walked the rest of the way home. During her absence, her mother's second husband, Daniel Brumbaugh, had died, leaving Susan with a baby girl named Emily. Susan had soon embarked on a third marriage with a widower named Joseph Shaw. Annie liked Shaw; she thought him a good man and a scholar who "was always reading one of his history books." Annie reveled in their warm welcome. But when she learned of her mother's bout with typhoid, her stepfather's bad knee and fading eyesight, and their loss of his land to a scoundrel, she said she returned to the Edingtons to earn her keep and contribute what she could to the family.
Here, according to Annie, one day the "he-wolf" burst into the schoolroom in search of her. She told Nancy Ann Edington of her troubles with the "wolves." "I could not sit down or sleep on my back for over three weeks. I had to milk the cows with my head braced against the cow's flank." When Nancy Ann saw Annie's shoulders, she cried out: "Your poor little shoulders and back are still green! How did you live through it?" She instructed her husband and son to throw the "he-wolf" out, with orders never to return. "That night," Annie wrote, "I slept untroubled for the first time in long months."
For the next few years, Annie lived first with the Edingtons, then with her own family. Legend says that because Annie had always disliked the name Moses and perhaps had even suffered the cruel taunts of other children regarding her name, she now called herself Annie Mozee. More likely, a long-standing variation in the spelling of the name underwrote Annie's choice. The 1860 census for Patterson Township, Darke County, for example, reported the family's name as "Mauzy"; a family Bible dated 1867 spelled the name "Mosey," and the headstone on Jacob's grave near Yorkshire, Ohio, says "Mosey." Annie, who lacked both a birth certificate to supply a spelling and the education to pursue the prevailing spelling in documents, probably heard it as "Mozee," but her brother John chose "Moses."
During her "Mozee" years, hard work and economic privation continued to dominate her life. Yet Annie later remembered these years as the "happy" part of her childhood. Because she had learned that death and cruelty abounded in the world, she cherished the security she found with the Edingtons and her own family. Also, she finally had an opportunity to learn to read and write, thus remedying a deficiency that bothered her greatly. Annie recalled that at the Edingtons, "there was a half-hour of reading aloud each night" and an occasional few hours in the schoolroom. Also, Nancy Ann Edington, who believed that Annie would be "a great woman if given the chance," encouraged Annie. Nancy Ann's son remembered that his mother moved Annie into the Edington family's living quarters rather than allow her to crowd together with the other children and the infirmary's collection of unfortunates.
For the most part, however, Annie had to sacrifice her thirst for knowledge to the need to earn money. She remembered that during her first week after returning to the infirmary, she "went to work on pinafores for the little school girls." She finished two for each child, six baby dresses, and six comforters. What Annie chose to remember from her first months of toil was not the hard work but rather her ability to buy Christmas presents for her brother and sisters. Instead of "the blows on her back given by a cruel Santa" on prior Christmases, she now received a skirt "finished in exquisite needlework" from her mother, hemstitched handkerchiefs from her older sisters, and a box of hazelnuts picked by her brother and two younger sisters.
After the holidays, Annie continued to work at the sewing machine and tackled other jobs as well. When the Edingtons asked her to take stock of the goods in the storeroom, she sat "by a kerosene lamp till midnight, listing the things we needed. It was a big job for so young a girl and my heart thumped for fear I could not do it." She concluded her inventory with a personal request. "And please may I have five yards of oil-boiled turkey red [fabric]?" She wanted to make bright cuffs and collars for the little girls' dark dresses; she thought the "little tots" should have "something pretty." Annie also oversaw the springhouse. With the help of Fannie, an inmate who "had lost her mind because her husband did not keep his marriage vows," Annie halted the perennial theft of butter and cream, produced "enough butter for everyone," and "saw that each tot had a glass of milk a day." Annie wrote with pride, "I got a raise that January."
Excerpted from The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley by Glenda Riley. Copyright © 1994 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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