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Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

by Shirl Kasper

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“Nothing more simple, I assure you. . . . But I’ll tell you what. You must have your mind, your nerve, and everything in harmony. Don’t look at your gun, simply follow the object with the end of it, as if the tip of the barrel was the point of your finger.”—Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley is a legend: America’s greatest female


“Nothing more simple, I assure you. . . . But I’ll tell you what. You must have your mind, your nerve, and everything in harmony. Don’t look at your gun, simply follow the object with the end of it, as if the tip of the barrel was the point of your finger.”—Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley is a legend: America’s greatest female sharpshooter, a woman who triumphed in the masculine world of road shows and firearms. Despite her great fame, the popular image of Annie Oakley is far from true. She was neither a swaggering western gal nor a sweet “little girl.” Annie Oakley was a competitive and resolute woman who wanted to be the best and succeeded. In this comprehensive biography Shirl Kasper sets the record straight, giving us an accurate, honest, and compelling portrait of the woman known as “Little Sure Shot.”

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio in 1860, Annie took her first shot at age eight—“one of the best shots I ever made,” Annie later said. It was the start of her lifelong fascination with shooting. Early local acclaim led to a contest with Frank Butler, a professional sharpshooter. Annie won—and Frank fell in love with her. Annie and Frank (who eventually gave up his own act to be Annie’s manager) were wed not long after and remained married for forty-two years, until their deaths in 1926 just days apart.

Annie’s sharpshooting career began while on the road with Frank’s show, but she rose to fame in her seventeen years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Her speed, agility, uncanny precision, and charm soon made Annie world famous. Shooting was her passion; apart from her career with the Wild West, Annie hunted, shot trap, entered many shooting contests, performed for World War I troops, and, in her retirement years, taught thousands of women how to shoot.

Annie Oakley provides a vivid and unforgettable portrait of this American original: a prim and proper woman, conservative in her views, hardworking and frugal, whose greatest source of pride was to be accepted as “a lady.” Significant events are documented here for the first time: Annie’s decision to join the struggling Wild West show; her meeting with Sitting Bull; the nature of her feud with Lillian Smith, another Wild West markswoman; and the real reason that Annie’s hair suddenly turned white when she was only forty-one. Thoroughly researched, fully annotated, and entirely unsentimental, this volume is the most complete and accurate record of Annie Oakley’s life and achievements.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Although thought of as a Westerner, Oakley was a very proper Ohioan who was determined to be the best in the very competitive world of sharpshooting. Kasper details Oakley's life and career, carefully documenting major points that have become lost in the legend, such as her decision to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West, her meeting with Sitting Bull, and the real reason why her hair turned white at age 41. This careful attention to documentation has yielded an account that is as accurate as existing sources allow and that supersedes all previous biographies. Presented in an enjoyable and readable style, this is strongly recommended for all public libraries. Specialists in the history of shooting sports, performing arts history, and the West will also find this book useful.-- Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
Covers a fifty-year period from 1928 to 1978. The primary works section gives title-page description, collation, pagination, contents, binding, and publication history for each entry. The secondary works sections, under topic, gives publication data and annotation. After researching contemporary newspaper articles, court records, and family scrapbooks and diaries, Kasper reveals Oakley as she truly was: petite (5 tall; 110 pounds), competitive, conservative, adopted daughter of Sitting Bull, and sharp-shooting member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. With 30 b&w illustrations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Annie Oakley

By Shirl Kasper


Copyright © 1992 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5606-4


A Darke County Girl

Darke County, Ohio, is a tranquil farmland, carved from what once was a thick, virgin forest stretching from horizon to horizon. That was in the early days, before General ("Mad") Anthony Wayne built his formidable fort at Greenville and defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. White settlers flocked in after that. They cleared the lush forests to plant corn and graze cows.

They were men like Jacob Moses, who came west from the hills of Blair County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Susan, his three young daughters — and his old Kentucky rifle. Jacob was a pleasant, athletic man, who even at age fifty-six could outjump anyone in the county and hunt as well as the next. In those days, a man had to know how to use a gun, even if he was a Quaker, as Jacob Moses was.

Jacob arrived in the woodlands of Darke County in about the spring of 1855 and settled just outside a tiny village called, appropriately, Woodland. The community was only eighteen miles from the county seat of Greenville, but it might as well have been eighty miles. There was no rail service, and the post office was a half mile south of town. In time, Woodland would boast a buggy shop, an ice house, a saloon, a restaurant, and a cream station, but the day Jacob arrived, it didn't even have a general store.

Determined to make his living from the land, he set about clearing a plot just northwest of town. He cut the trees and piled the logs in windrows, then took a broadax and hewed them smooth so they fitted at the corners. He built a cabin, making the roof out of rough timbers and the fireplace and chimney out of sticks plastered with a thick coating of clay.

In Jacob's rough cabin cut from the Darke County forest, Susan Moses gave birth to another daughter on August 13, 1860. Susan called her new baby Phoebe Ann, but the name didn't stick: the baby's sisters called her Annie. She grew into a small child, strong despite her size, with thick, dark hair and eyes that people noticed, for they were blue-gray, large, and bright with a direct gaze. Annie was a vivacious girl, an admitted tomboy who took no interest in her sisters' ragdolls. She palled instead with her father and her brother John, who was born two years later.

They picked brush and built fences around the little farm. They butchered a young cow and tanned the hide to make shoes. They smoked ham, pickled beans, and tucked away apples before the winter set in. Annie spent hours wandering through the woods, listening to the birds and tracking rabbits. The woods were full of hickory nuts, walnuts, and wild cherries. Roses grew unchecked, and the wild ducks and geese flew free.

It was during her forays into the Darke County woods that Annie Moses learned to shoot a gun. It must have seemed a natural thing to an independent little girl who already knew the ways of the forest and its creatures. Her father had taught her to make traps out of cornstalks, and by the time she was seven, Annie already was trapping quail and rabbit for the family table. Eager to learn to shoot, she was drawn with an uncontrollable curiosity toward the old Kentucky rifle that Jacob had brought from Pennsylvania. It hung, forbidden, over the fireplace.

The day that Annie Moses took that rifle down and fired her first shot has become an ingrained part of the Annie Oakley legend, though the facts are long lost. Annie herself told the story on occasion, though she, like everyone else, romanticized the moment. "I was eight years old when I took my first shot, and I still consider it one of the best shots I ever made," she once said. "I saw a squirrel run down over the grass in front of the house, through the orchard and stop on a fence to get a hickory nut." She ran into the house, climbed on a chair and slid the rifle down to the mantel. She lugged it outside, rested the barrel on the porch railing, and took aim. "It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side," she said.

Even historians couldn't resist the urge to tell a good story. In the History of Darke County, Frazer Wilson wrote that Annie's brother was so angry she had used the rifle that he secretly put a double load in his shotgun and handed the gun to Annie, hoping the kick would discourage her from ever shooting again. He threw up his hat as a target, but to his surprise, the hat too was quickly pierced, "and the sister, undaunted, won the day."

That the sister won the day was, of course, the very foundation of the Annie Oakley story. Girls weren't supposed to shoot guns, let alone hit what they aimed at. It was Annie's gender that made her stand out, even as a girl of eight in the Darke County woodlands. "My mother ... was perfectly horrified when I began shooting and tried to keep me in school," Annie said, "but I would run away and go quail shooting in the woods or trim my dress with wreaths of wild flowers."

Annie's carefree childhood ended on a snowy day early in 1866 when Jacob Moses set out by buckboard to take his corn and wheat to the local mill, fourteen miles away. He was gone all day, and as the hours passed, a blizzard set in. It was past midnight, the snow still coming down, when an anxious Susan Moses, surrounded by her children, heard the creak of wagon wheels pulling up to the cabin.

"Mother threw the door wide open into the face of the howling wind," Annie recalled. It was a scene she never forgot. Her father sat upright in the buckboard seat, the reins around his neck and wrists. His hands were frozen and his speech gone. The doctor came, but there was little he could do. That March, Annie's father died.

The destitute family moved to a rented farm, but life did not improve. Annie's oldest sister, Mary Jane, came down with tuberculosis and died, and Susan Moses sold Pink, the family cow, to pay doctor and funeral bills. She tried to earn a living by nursing in the county but made only $1.25 a week by taking maternity cases. Susan was so poor that she let a family named Bartholomew take her youngest child, Hulda, born in 1864. And Annie fared no better. About 1870, when Annie was ten years old, Susan sent her to live at the county poor farm. The hard times would leave an indelible imprint on Annie Moses and perhaps were the beginnings of a deep and abiding pride that would mark her character for the rest of her life. Though she never denied her early struggles, she was too proud — or perhaps too hurt — ever to admit that her mother sent her away from home to save money.

The county poor farm, or the Infirmary as everyone called it, was a three-story brick building that spanned the Greenville and Easton pikes, just two and one half miles south of Greenville. In 1870, Greenville was a booming town of three rail lines, four pike roads, and two newspapers, the Democrat and the Journal. Life revolved around the public square, which stood within the boundaries of old Fort Greenville and extended down Broadway to Third Street. As the name suggested, Broadway was a wide street, bordered on both sides by a score of businesses. There was Farmer's Bank, Tomilson & Sons' saddle shop, and Juddy & Miller's furniture store. A man could get a drink at Gutheil's saloon or take a room at the Broadway Hotel. There was a bookstore, a hardware store, a baker, and a fur trader, Allen LaMott.

Before Annie had much time to become acquainted with Greenville, an area farmer came by the Infirmary looking for a girl to serve as a companion for his wife and new baby. It was a common practice in those days to farm out poor children, and it was not unusual that Annie went with the farmer, whom she described later as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." The farmer, whom she never would identify, made a slave of her.

"I got up at 4 o'clock in the morning, got breakfast, milked the cows, washed dishes, skimmed milk, fed the calves and pigs, pumped the water for the cattle, fed the chickens, rocked the baby to sleep, weeded the garden, picked wild blackberries and got dinner," she said. "Mother wrote for me to come home. But they would not let me go. I was held a prisoner." The couple also physically abused her, although to what extent is not known. The only mention Annie ever made of it was in her autobiography, when almost in passing she talked of scars and welts on her back and said that one night the farmer's wife threw her barefoot into the snow because she had fallen asleep while doing some darning. Annie said she would have died had not the farmer come home and let her in. Life became intolerable with the couple Annie forever afterward called "The Wolves," and one spring day, probably in 1872, the already independent and resolute Annie Moses ran away.

She went back to the poor farm, where she lived with the new superintendent, Samuel Crawford Edington, and his wife, Nancy Ann, who Annie said was a friend of her mother's. They treated her as a daughter and let her stay in their living quarters. She made friends with the Edington children and began attending school with them. They called her "Topsy" because when she smiled she showed all of her teeth, just like the little girl in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In time, the Edingtons paid Annie to work as a seamstress, and she sewed dresses and made quilts for the Infirmary inmates. She learned to embroider and stitched fancy cuffs and collars to brighten the orphans' dark dresses. Annie was such a responsible youngster that the Edingtons put her in charge of the Infirmary dairy. She milked the twelve cows, saved the cream, and made butter for the kitchen. One day she got a raise and, just as she would always do, began to save her money.

Annie was about fifteen when she returned to her mother, who had remarried and was building a house near the North Star crossroad, not far from Woodland. Annie had big plans for the future. As she left Greenville, she stopped at the Katzenberger brothers' grocery store at the corner of Main Street and the public square. She had probably been there dozens of times before on errands for the Edingtons, so she knew that hunters and trappers could trade their wild turkeys and rabbits there for flour, wheat, and ammunition. According to Annie's autobiography, G. Anthony and Charles Katzenberger had purchased game from her before, back in those early days when she was just learning to trap and shoot. And now, fed up with being poor, Annie proposed a new business deal. She was going home, she said, and planned to hunt and trap again up in the north county woods. She wanted the Katzenbergers to buy any small game she shipped to town. When they agreed, Annie took them at their word, went home, and launched her trade. For the rest of her life she would earn her living with a gun.

"I donned my linsey [dress] and hied me back to the deep, quiet woods," she wrote in her autobiography. "Oh, how grand God's beautiful earth seemed to me." She studied game lore, set her traps, and hunted. She learned that the rabbits hid in the hedgerows, the ruffed grouse in the wooded gullies and ravines, and the quail in the stubble fields. They flew from their covert so fast that one barely caught a glimpse of them. She had to be quick, aiming by intuition. She never could bring herself to shoot sitting game, as some people did. "I always preferred taking my shot when the game was on the move," she said. "It gave them a fair chance, and made me quick of eye and hand."

Annie Moses became a familiar, though odd, sight around North Star. She was a slender girl of sixteen dressed in coppertoed boots and long yarn stockings. She wore a short, sturdy dress with knickerbockers, and heavy mittens with a trigger finger stitched in. She spent countless hours in the woods and the fields, enjoying nothing more than the crunch of leaves underfoot and the smell of burnt gunpowder. "I guess the love of a gun must have been born in me," she once said. Her ability with firearms was uncanny: her eye was true, her hand steady, her rhythm natural. To Annie Moses, shooting was as easy as pointing her finger at the object and pressing the trigger. "Nothing more simple, I assure you," she once said. "But I'll tell you what. You must have your mind, your nerve and everything in harmony. Don't look at your gun, simply follow the object with the end of it, as if the tip of the barrel was the point of your finger."

The Katzenberger brothers took a liking to Annie, and one Christmas they sent her a very special present: one can of DuPont Eagle Ducking Black Powder, five pounds of shot, and two boxes of percussion caps. It was Annie's first can of high-grade powder, a gift she treasured so dearly that it was days before she could bring herself to break the seal and use it. "I was assured by the merchant that it was the best powder made," Annie said, "and I never again expected to own another can of such a grade."

Around the same time, Annie was given what she called her first real gun, a Parker Brothers 16-gauge breech-loading hammer, complete with one hundred brass shells. Annie's new gun was a testament to the great strides being made in the development of firearms. The breech-loading shotgun, which swept over America in the late 1870s, enabled the shooter to load his shells at home and simply slip them into the barrel in the field. It was quicker, more convenient, and more reliable than the old muzzle-loaders. No longer would Annie have to carry a powder horn, use an unwieldy ramrod, or worry about damp or rainy days, when the powder might get wet and fail to ignite.

With her new gun, she shot more game than ever. She wrapped them in bunches of six and twelve, then shipped the packages by mail coach to the Katzenbergers, who in turn shipped the game to hotels in Cincinnati, only eighty miles from Greenville. Legend has it that hotelkeepers preferred the quail and rabbits Annie killed because they always were shot through the head. That way, guests never complained of buckshot in their dinner meat — a charming story that cannot be verified.

In those days, Annie Moses would have been called a market hunter. Unusual as it was for a girl, the occupation itself was nothing out of the ordinary. The country still teemed with game, and a farmer armed with an old muzzle-loader might kill two or three thousand prairie chickens a year for the market. Unthinkable though it seems now, conservation was not a public issue, and there were no game limits. Around the Great Lakes, for example, a competent hunter could kill 150 to 200 white-tailed deer in one autumn and get between fifteen and twenty dollars for each. Money like that was more than the average lumberjack, farmer, or miner could earn in a year.

In later years when the public conscience was raised and game limits were set, Annie was embarrassed when Charles Katzenberger showed her his old account books, listing the amount of game he had purchased from her. "I won't say how much, as I might be called a game hog," she said. She never said, either, how much money she made, though it was enough to pay off a two-hundred-dollar mortgage on her mother's house at North Star. That Annie paid off the mortgage with her gun became a famous piece of the Annie Oakley legend, one that undoubtedly was true. Annie was proud of the story, just as she always would be proud of her self-sufficiency and her earning power. She was fond of saying that from the time she was ten years old, she never had a dollar that she did not earn.

By the time Annie Moses was in her late teens she had shot so much game and entered and won so many local turkey shoots, a popular entertainment of the time, that she finally was barred from entering them. This local reputation led to the most important shooting match of her life.


The Fancy Shooters

While Annie Moses was growing up in Darke County, Americans were talking about another shooter, one Captain Adam H. Bogardus. Annie was only nine years old when Captain Bogardus made a name for himself by killing one hundred pigeons without a miss. That same year, 1869, he also bet a Mr. R. M. Patchen a thousand dollars that he could kill five hundred pigeons in 645 minutes. The captain did it with 117 minutes to spare. By 1871, Bogardus had defeated the champion shooter in his home state of Illinois and taken the national title from Ira Paine. And that was only the beginning of the captain's career. By the time Annie Moses was fifteen years old, Bogardus had been to England, challenged any man there, won eighteen matches, and come home with a medal declaring him the champion of the world.

Champion shooters, though, were plentiful in the 1870s and 1880s, and Captain Bogardus was just the most famous of a growing string of exhibition shooters. His most celebrated — and flamboyant — rival was Doc Carver, who tried to outdo the captain on a bright summer morning in 1878. Doc looked very western as he made his way to Deerfoot Park in New York City that day. He carried a shiny Winchester rifle at his side, and wore a broad sombrero on his head and a silk scarf around his neck. He tucked his pantaloons inside his boots and fastened his belt with a gold buckle that the newspapermen said was nearly as large as a railroad frog. They chuckled at Doc's long hair and his velvet shirt, but they found nothing funny about his plans: Doc said he was going to break 5,500 glass balls in 500 minutes, a feat never before attempted with a rifle.


Excerpted from Annie Oakley by Shirl Kasper. Copyright © 1992 University of Oklahoma Press. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shirl Kasper, who holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas-Lawrence, is a journalist with the Kansas City Star.

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