Annie Oakley 1

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  • Topic: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Wild West Shows
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  • Published : April 25, 2012
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Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley, legendary sharp-shooter and celebrated member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, was one of America's first superstars. In the late nineteenth century, her image was known all over the world. She had tea with Queen Victoria, met the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, and was challenged by Grand Duke Michael of Russia to a shooting match. Though the Grand Duke was noted for being an excellent wing shot, Annie Oakley beat him, missing only three birds out of fifty, while he missed fourteen. (AnnieOakleyFoundation.org)

The great Sioux warrior Chief Sitting Bull was so impressed by Oakley's skill that he adopted her, giving her the name "Watanya Cecilia"--"Little Sure Shot." Though her life inspired dime novels, a Broadway play, and Hollywood movies, little is known about the real Annie Oakley, an intensely private, complicated woman who excelled publicly in a man's sport. (Foundation)

Near the end of her life, Will Rogers paid her a visit and then wrote about her in his daily newspaper column: "She was the reigning sensation of America and Europe during the heyday of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. She was their star. Her picture was on more billboards than a modern Gloria Swanson. It was Annie Oakley, the greatest rifle shot the world has ever produced. Nobody took her place. There was only one." (Edwards)

Annie Oakley, an American Experience documentary film which aired May 8, 2011 on PBS, separates life from legend. Filmmaker Riva Freifeld says she was initially attracted to the project because "I thought this was the most extraordinary story of somebody breaking out of a mold. A woman of the Victorian age, small, petite, who had a horrible, miserable childhood. She pulled herself out of all that through her own talent and worked through the pressures against women and made herself into the most famous practitioner of a sport that is quintessentially male: sharpshooting." (Vonada)

Virginia Scharff, professor of history and director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico, agrees. "She is the epitome of the self-made woman. This is somebody who triumphs over about as miserable a childhood as you can imagine. You would never know that by looking at her public persona. She seemed like the all-American girl who must have grown up amid motherhood and apple pie, but the truth of the matter was that she grew up in the most abject kind of poverty." (Vonada)

She was, hands down, the finest woman sharpshooting entertainer of all time. Oakley was always drawn to guns. Her father may have taught her to shoot when she was very young, and Oakley herself said that when she was barely big enough to lift her father's old Kentucky rifle, she dragged it outside, rested the barrel on the porch railing, and shot a squirrel clean through the head. When Oakley returned home, instead of going to school, she earned good money by shooting game and selling it to the Katzenberger brothers' grocery store, which shipped the game to hotels in Cincinnati. She was so successful that she was soon able to pay off the mortgage on her mother's house. She once remarked that from the age of ten, she never had money in her pockets that she had not earned herself. (Kim-Brown)

In addition to game hunting, Oakley entered local shooting contests that were popular at the time, winning so many turkey shoots that she was eventually barred from them. But such was her reputation that when professional sharpshooter Frank Butler was passing through southern Ohio claiming he could outshoot anyone around, the locals accepted his challenge. They failed to tell Butler that his opponent was a teenage girl. "I got there late and found the whole town, in fact, most of the county out ready to bet me or any of my friends to a standstill on their 'unknown,'" Butler later said. "I did not bet a cent. You may bet, however, that I almost dropped dead when a little, slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me."...
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