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America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith

America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith

by Julia Bricklin


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Today, most remember “California Girl” Lillian Frances Smith (1871–1930) as Annie Oakley’s chief competitor in the small world of the Wild West shows’ female shooters. But the two women were quite different: Oakley’s conservative “prairie beauty” persona clashed with Smith’s tendency to wear flashy clothes and keep company with the cowboys and American Indians she performed with. This lively first biography chronicles the Wild West showbiz life that Smith led and explores the talents that made her a star.

Drawing on family records, press accounts, interviews, and numerous other sources, historian Julia Bricklin peels away the myths that enshroud Smith’s fifty-year career. Known as “The California Huntress” before she was ten years old, Smith was a professional sharpshooter by the time she reached her teens, shooting targets from the back of a galloping horse in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West. Not only did Cody offer $10,000 to anyone who could beat her, but he gave her top billing, setting the stage for her rivalry with Annie Oakley.

Being the best female sharpshooter in the United States was not enough, however, to differentiate Lillian Smith from Oakley and a growing number of ladylike cowgirls. So Smith reinvented herself as “Princess Wenona,” a Sioux with a violent and romantic past. Performing with Cody and other showmen such as Pawnee Bill and the Miller brothers, Smith led a tumultuous private life, eventually taking up the shield of a forged Indian persona. The morals of the time encouraged public criticism of Smith’s lack of Victorian femininity, and the press’s tendency to play up her rivalry with Oakley eventually overshadowed Smith’s own legacy.

In the end, as author Julia Bricklin shows, Smith cared more about living her life on her own terms than about her public image. Unlike her competitors who shot to make a living, Lillian Smith lived to shoot.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156330
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/27/2017
Series: William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West , #2
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Julia Bricklin, an independent historian and lecturer who focuses on the American West, has published in Wild West, Civil War Times, and Financial History. An editor of the journal California History, she lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

America's Best Female Sharpshooter

The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith

By Julia Bricklin


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5633-0



The Smith girl that was such a good rifle shot was a fine looking girl. She would say: "Let me shoot your hat." You would throw it up and she would shoot it three or four times before it hit the ground. This Smith girl was way ahead of everything when it came to shooting with a rifle.

Joe Heacox, Merced pioneer, 1950

While sleeping off their all-night journey through the Pacheco Wagon pass, Lillian Smith's mother and father did not hear their nine-year-old wander off on her mustang. Exploring a tributary of the Pajaro River in Santa Cruz under the cool canopy of Monterey pines, the little girl heard her dog barking ahead. Later, she explained that she thought her pet had "treed a squirrel, sure," but instead found him shivering in the sights of a hissing and spitting mountain lion. Unflinchingly, the girl took aim with her 7.5-pound Ballard, pulled the trigger, and watched the cat flail as it fell from forty feet high. She let her dog bite the neck and finish off the animal, and then with some effort, slung it behind the saddle of her horse. Lillian's mother nearly fainted but her fellow campers cheered when she unceremoniously dumped the dead cougar at their feet.

The other travelers encouraged little Lillian to write the local papers about her feat, which she did, though the newspaper people mistakenly assumed that this member of the Smith family was a boy. No matter — by the time she turned ten in 1881, Smith was traveling up and down California on the Central Pacific Railroad, breaking records at gun clubs and exhibition halls, and there was no mistaking her gender, her age, or her mastery with a gun. Audiences flocked to see the "California Girl, Champion Rifle Shot of the World" and, later, an accomplished trick horse rider and trainer, too. In April 1885, Sporting Life magazine announced that efforts were being made to arrange a match between the "celebrated lady rifle shots" Lillian Smith and Annie Oakley, noting that both were equally adept in the use of shotgun or rifle, and that they thought newcomer Smith could hold her own against world-famous exhibition shooters Adam Bogardus and William Frank Carver.

The press made much of the alleged rivalry between the two female sharpshooters. Smith, though, had little interest in specifically besting Oakley, even if many followers of shooting sports of their time believed Smith to be the better shooter. In 1887, William Cody himself offered a purse of ten thousand dollars to anyone who could outshoot Smith; no one ever claimed the prize.

While Cody was not able to get a formidable match for Lillian, he paved the way for something that may have been more beneficial to her. Buffalo Bill removed the requirement of ethnic authenticity, making it possible for Lillian to transform herself into Wenona, an "orphaned Sioux Indian Princess," and to distinguish herself from other shooters. Her press biography was repeated often, though some papers made their own embellishments: "During the early struggles of the pioneers in the westward course Wenona's parents were members of an emigrant train which was attacked by the Sioux Indians. Nearly all of the members of the train were massacred. Wenona's mother was among the few who escaped alive but was later captured by the Indians who had attacked the train and was made prisoner. The chief of the tribe took a fancy to her and added her to his list of squaws against her will. Some years later a daughter was born and this was Wenona." The biography also said that, at ten years old, she had become the most expert rifle shot of the tribe.

Conveniently, this story for Anglo readers claimed that her father, the chief, asked that she be adopted into a white family upon his death. After graduating with honors from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the story continues, Wenona found that she could not get a job, and so she cast aside the garments she had learned to wear "in civilization," and "once more donned the blanket of the Sioux and became active in the tribe's welfare."

Because of her schooling, continues this fanciful biography, Wenona was the first woman permitted to sit among the Sioux councils, and her "word soon became a law" within the tribe. Her adoptive parents valiantly sought her return to her white family, but the life she knew in infancy was the one she wished to adhere to in adulthood. Thus, she became part of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1910, and the other Sioux took their orders from her.

In truth, Lillian, later "Wenona," had not one drop of Native American blood. She was born to Quakers, and both sides of her family hailed from New England for at least five generations. Her sixth great-grandfather, John Smith, was an indentured servant on the Mayflower. Eventually, he won his release and purchased land in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, as did several Quaker families. These half dozen clans intermarried throughout the next two hundred years and every generation produced some of the finest boat crafters in New England.

In 1856, Lillian's grandfather, Captain Levi Smith, famous among whaling agents for his abolitionist sentiment and his fish chowder, succumbed to an infected gall bladder and died writhing in pain. His job, a well-paying one as Dumpling Rock Lighthouse keeper, went to one of his older sons instead of his youngest, Levi Woodbury Smith. Nonetheless, at age twenty-two, Levi W. was already a fairly accomplished boat carpenter and engaged to Rebecca Robinson, the daughter of another boat builder.

A year after the couple married in 1857, Rebecca gave birth to a son, George, but like so many other children at that time, he died before his second birthday. For Levi's wife, it may have been small comfort that she was pregnant again. When Charles was born in October of 1859, Rebecca moved back in with her parents for support while her husband bunked in the Buzzard's Bay harbor for days at a time, sailing the custom houseboat.

Somehow, Lillian's father escaped the horrors of the Civil War battlefields, perhaps because his family had already provided two young men in the form of his brothers. He worked a few years as a boat builder in Bristol, Rhode Island, but found the lure of California too much to resist and moved there with Rebecca and Charles, right after the war ended.

The Smiths likely took the Great Western and Central railways to Bridger, Utah. From there, they joined an emigrant train, and forked southwest past the City of Rocks in Idaho toward Nevada, eventually stopping at the seat of the Sierra Nevadas in far eastern California.

This journey required Lillian's parents and her brother to become good shooters. Press reports told the Smiths that wagons were constantly besieged by Indians, who "fought different than that of white men," which was to rush in on the ponies for a little while, just to make their arrows fly, and then "run their horses for all they are worth and get out of gun shot as quickly as possible." It was not long before the Smiths realized it was more likely they could be harassed by desperate white drifters after the close of the states' conflict. Every able-bodied member of a family had to know how to shoot, and shoot often. They needed to hunt for food, and be at the ready in case of attack, whether it was by human or animal. A female contemporary of the Smiths who followed a similar path to the West and lived in Merced at the same time described their readiness training: "I'll bet our train threw a ton of bullets into the Platte river. We always camped about a hundred yards from the river in order to have water. It was the rule for everybody to take all his guns after supper and go down to the river and shoot. All guns were kept loaded. Some snag perhaps a couple of hundred yards away would be selected and everybody would shoot at it."

Emigrant train families took no chances. At that time, everybody used loose ammunition, and every man, woman, and child knew how to stuff a revolver — even a six-shooter — as well as a rifle and shotgun, which were muzzle-loading, cap and ball affairs. Powder had to be poured down the muzzle and then a ball "rammed home." To fire the gun, a cap was put on the tube to explode the charge. "This target practice every evening," recalled Lillian's friend, "was to make sure each gun was fresh loaded and that the cap would be sure to go off and not just snap."

Levi stopped his westward travels in Mono County. Bodie Gold Mine and its ancillary businesses had long declined to a trickle, but neighboring Bridgeport and Coleville — also in Mono County, on the Nevada-California border — were rich in alluvial soil and could produce boom crops of hay, barley, potatoes, and especially wheat. In the 1870 U.S. Census, Levi listed himself as a farmer in Bridgeport, but he may also have hired himself out as a carpenter for silver mine framing. Daughter Lillian Frances Smith was born on August 4, 1871, in Coleville.

A couple of years later, Levi moved the family down to Merced County, which straddled a large segment of the San Joaquin River and constituted a large part of California's Central Valley. Farming apparently did not pan out for Smith in Mono, and the bitter Sierra winters were just too harsh, even for an easterner. Mark Twain observed of his time spent there, "There are only two seasons ... and these are, the breaking up of one Winter and the beginning of the next. ... Under favorable circumstances it snows at least once in every single month in the year, in the little town of Mono." The family set out on Big Oak Flat Road, which at this time had become easily accessible from various outposts of the Yosemite Valley, and wound through the cool Sierra foothills. They headed toward Stockton, the San Joaquin County seat, passing wagonloads of prospectors coming from the other direction, and then continued south along the San Joaquin to a hamlet called Los Banos, which had just opened its first post office in 1873.

Levi settled his family a few miles north of the main house of the Miller and Lux Ranch on the west side of the river. If Levi had not heard of Miller and Lux before leaving Coleville, he certainly had by the time he reached Stockton. Henry Miller and Charles Lux, German immigrants and butchers by trade, had started acquiring vast tracts of land in the 1850s, eventually owning about a million and a half acres in California, Nevada, and Oregon.

Before this, few Californians had seriously considered permanent settlement in the San Joaquin Valley because of its isolation from centers of trade and population. Fear of Indian attack also kept rancheros from settling the interior valley. Miller and Lux, however, saw its natural water sloughs and grasslands as a starting point for a massive cattle-grazing business. These capitalists spent nearly $1 million in the valley during the summer of 1871, building a canal forty miles long. It extended across the plains from the Fresno Slough to the Los Banos Creek. The canal water had two purposes: primarily, it was intended to bring water out on the plains in order to grow wheat. The canal itself was to be used again to float barges of grain down to Antioch on the San Francisco Bay, where oceangoing ships would take it to all parts of the world.

No doubt, in 1873, Levi Smith read many of the pages-long proclamations printed in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Daily Union about what this Miller and Lux enterprise planned to do in terms of irrigation to expand its grazing lands and also to farm on an unprecedented level. Essentially, Miller and Lux built an irrigation and barge system connecting the Tulare Lake Basin with the San Joaquin River at Mendota Pool. By the early 1880s, Henry Miller and Charles Lux controlled thousands of miles of irrigation ditches around the San Joaquin and Kern rivers, not to mention large portions of the main rivers.

By now, these industrial barons were the biggest producers of beef cattle in California, and had forever changed the landscape of the state's Central Valley region, displacing the small rural farmer but creating new jobs for the influx of new residents. It would have been up to R. M. Brereton, chief of the canal engineering company, to hire some of these new residents who had the right skills — someone like Levi Smith — to help build the hundreds of locks and channels needed for the irrigation system, and also the watercraft necessary to monitor its progress. Although this irrigation system triggered plenty of litigation between Miller and Lux and the State of California for decades to come, all it meant for Levi was the chance to earn some consistent cash to feed his family.

With so many men flocking to the area for jobs, especially young, unattached ones, Miller and Lux could set relatively low wages across their work force, sometimes as low as sixty-six cents a day. This financial limit, and the fact that he had no formal degree or recommendation for an engineer's job, may have kept Levi within the ranks of those doing hard labor by digging ditches, building levees, running scrapers, constructing irrigation checks, and watering or draining the endless fields of alfalfa.

So Lillian's father — strong and able-bodied but turning forty — shifted his attention to a phenomenon developing in this rapidly changing landscape of the San Joaquin Delta — to something that offered more autonomy and more money. Ducks and geese flocked to the artificial waterways by the hundreds of thousands, the destruction of their natural food and life cycles offset by the thick layers of alfalfa and wheat seed spread by farmers. Sarah Summers Clarke, a contemporary of Lillian's who lived near her in Los Banos, recalled, "Ducks and geese used to fill the sky in countless numbers in the early days. I have seen the ground covered with geese as far as the eye could see. A person would almost think the ground in the distance was covered with snow."

Thus, Levi became one of the first, and certainly one of the best, commercial hunters of ducks and geese in the San Joaquin Valley. He was credited with inventing the "live blind," a method that used a trained animal to allow a hunter to stalk his prey. Levi skiffed along the miles of irrigation canals and natural streams, experimenting with various boat and canoe shapes and sizes, depending on the size of the waterway. Lillian and Charles often went with him on these excursions. When on land, Charles drove the wagon for Levi while Lillian kept her dad's rifle full of cartridges. William T. White, the sheriff of Merced County, remembered that when he was a little boy in the late 1870s and early 1880s, market hunters could make a pretty good living while the geese and ducks were plentiful: "There was Kirby and Bill Browning and Old Man Smith. Browning had two or three outfits [but] all he did himself was to haul the game up to the shipping point. ... [Mr.] Howard shot for Browning. [His] record was 224 ducks in two shots. With geese his record was 84 geese with two shots. ... Old Man Smith lived at Smith's Ferry just a short distance down the river from the present San Joaquin Bridge. His daughter Lillian was a remarkable shot. "White was being derisive when he also remarked that "Howard's shots were the record," noting that Howard could only shoot this astounding number of birds because he was hiding behind oxen. The Merced Express gave the same impression of Lillian's father:

Mr. Levy Smith, a gentleman who follows hunting for a living in this county, and who is at the present time engaged in that business on Miller & Lux's ranch, on the West Side, killed the other day 140 geese at two shots, discharging both barrels of his gun at each shot. Mr. Smith is the most successful buster of which we have any knowledge, having within the last five months killed and shipped to San Francisco over 9,000 head of geese and ducks. He takes undue advantage, however, of his prey. He owns an ox [which] he trained to allow his master to walk in beat posture by his side to within easy range of the geese, when the shooting is done either over or under the animal, and without previous knowledge on the part of the geese of danger's proximity.

The paper added that although this procedure was "rather an unfair advantage to take of the poor unsuspecting birds," it was of great advantage to the hunter and the farmer whose grain was being destroyed.

In deepest winter, when even the heartiest of duck hunters stayed away from the San Joaquin River basin, Levi found a way to make some cash while also saving on the cost of bird shot. After they harvested their crops, Miller-Lux farmers would stack the grain in high, conical bundles, which allowed them to dry some of it and thresh as needed or as market commanded the highest price. When a stack was entirely threshed, a pool of seed was left on the bottom, and water birds descended upon it by the thousands. This gave the enterprising Levi an idea.

Smith pounded two flexible poles into the ground on one side of the stack bottom, and then bent the poles clear down to the ground. Over the poles, he laid an old fishing net maybe thirty feet long and fastened one side of it securely to the bottom of the poles. He used rocks of two or three pounds to weigh down the other side of the net. Levi, Lillian, and Charles dug holes in the ground, climbed in, covered themselves with straw, and waited. Lillian usually had the pleasure and responsibility of holding the end of a rope Levi had fastened to the weighted side of poles. When the ducks and geese settled down and began to feed away greedily by the moonlight, Lillian pulled the rope, and up sprang the poles, casting the net over the birds, covering them before they had a chance to fly away. In their efforts to escape, the fowl stuck their heads up through the net. Levi and the kids rushed up to wring the birds' necks, taking just minutes to kill scores of them. Using this technique, the family could get at least five hundred heads for market in one fell swoop.


Excerpted from America's Best Female Sharpshooter by Julia Bricklin. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Series Editors' Foreword xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 3

1 Never Alone, Never Lonely 11

2 Buffalo Bill, Queen Victoria, and Little Sure Shot 32

3 A Tough Transition 54

4 Wenona and Frank 67

5 Sioux Legacy, the 101, and Easier Living 104

6 New Friends, Old Friends 114

7 The Girl in California 135

8 Sunlight in Oklahoma 143

Afterword: Recoil 169

Appendix:: Lillian's Guns 177

Notes 181

Bibliography 197

Index 203

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