“Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.” — Annie Oakley
One of our favorite programs on PBS is American Experience. If you are not aware of this program, let me highly recommend it for excellent, in-depth American history features. During January 2012 the theme was The American West. Some of the weekly shows included George Armstrong Custer, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and my childhood idol, Annie Oakley.
A few years later, a Sunday supplement to our newspaper featured an article about the REAL Annie Oakley. [see picture above] Was I horrified! She wasn’t a cute lady with pigtails wearing buckskins! She looked very plain—even ugly—compared to Gail Davis, the actress who portrayed her on TV. That was the end of Annie Oakley for me!
Fortunately, American Experience featured a wonderful biography of my forgotten heroine a couple of weeks ago. It reignited my admiration for this woman. Annie was born in 1860 to a Quaker family in Greenville, Ohio, and endured a poverty stricken childhood after the death of her father. She was put out to work very early in life and suffered considerable rough treatment until she finally returned to her family and honed her sharpshooting skills. She supported her family from the age of nine by shooting game. Possessing superior eye-hand coordination and a sturdy grip, she could out shoot every man around her.
Annie was a petite 5 feet tall and only 15 years old when she went to Cincinnati to participate in a sharpshooting contest where she met and out shot Frank Butler, a well-known sharpshooter. They were both attracted to one another, married and traveled the vaudeville circle as a shooting act. Eventually they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and traveled the world with horses, buffalo, American Indians, teepees, cowboys and other sharpshooters.
Annie was one of the featured members of the Wild West Show because she was so small, and feminine, yet amazingly competent with a gun. Unlike some of the other acts with women, she always dressed conservatively in clothes that she made. They covered her body and accentuated her ladylike personality, even though she could shoot better than anyone else, male or female. She always had a star on her cowboy hat and shooting metals displayed across her bodice.
As her acclaim grew, she used her reputation to promote charity for young women, widows and orphans and advocated that women learn to handle guns and shoot straight. She was quoted as saying, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.” So many women took her advice that she was able to offer President McKinley the services of “50 lady sharp shooters” should a war between Spain and America occur.
In 1902 Annie and Frank left the Wild West show for a quieter life. Annie took up acting in a play written for her. She continued to enter shooting competitions and winning. In her later years she suffered two series injuries that could have ended her shooting career. One was a spinal injury obtained in a train wreck, the other a leg injury in a car accident. Both times she overcame the injuries and returned to sharpshooting in contests.
Annie cherished her hard earned reputation. When the Hearst Corporation spread an untrue story about Annie Oakley being arrested for stealing to support her cocaine habit, she fought it in the courts. In fact, an actress claiming to be “Annie Oakley” was arrested for this crime, but she had given a false name. Annie took part in 55 court cases for libel to clear her name, which she did at considerable cost to her time and finances.
Annie Oakley continued her sharp shooting into her sixties. She died in 1926 from pernicious anemia at the age of 66. “After traveling through fourteen foreign countries and appearing before all the royalty and nobility I have only one wish today. That is that when my eyes are closed in death that they will bury me back in that quiet little farm land where I was born.” Indeed, she was.
Annie Oakley is a relevant role model for today’s woman. She took charge of her life and lived it with integrity and pride. She encouraged women to be more than the role that had been defined for them. She worked to improve the lives of women and children who were impoverished. She gave encouragement and material help to young women who needed it. She never compromised herself. I was wise when I chose to admire her at the age of seven. I wish I had not let a bad picture discourage me from finding out more about the real person behind the invented legend.