Annie Oakley - A Woman of Confidence and Courage
By Judy Deeter
On the south end of Broadway Street in downtown Greenville there is a plaza honoring hometown heroine and world renowned sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The plaza features both a statue of Annie and an Ohio History Connection historical marker.
I recently visited the plaza. As I gazed at the statue, memories of my childhood came flooding through my mind. It was back then that I first heard the inspiring stories of Annie’s life.
My paternal grandparents were Darke County natives, but had moved north to Allen County years before I was born. About once a month for probably the first nine or ten years of my life, I went with my grandparents to visit their relatives in Darke County. Riding along in grandpa’s Oldsmobile—he always owned an Oldsmobile—two things seemed to happen nearly every trip. I always heard one of them say, “Please get off the floor of the car and sit on the seat!” (In those days, there were no seatbelts or child safety seats). Also, as we neared an intersection somewhere along the way, one of them would announce that, “Annie Oakley used to live right down that road!”
Never once, however, did they take me down the road to see where Annie had lived. As I grew older, remembering their pride in Annie Oakley piqued my interest to learn of her life. Who was this woman that they were so proud to recognize as having once lived in Darke County?
Born a Poor Young Country Girl
Annie was born April 13, 1860 to Jacob and Susan (Wise) Moses in the Darke County town of Brock. Her parents named her Phoebe Ann. It is said that she hated the name Phoebe. When she was about nine-years-old, she asked people to just call her Annie. She was the couple’s fifth child and fifth daughter. (More children came after Annie’s birth; a son in 1862 and another daughter in 1864). There is some confusion about the family surname. While most biographies indicate that it was Moses or Mosey, records show that family members spelled and perhaps pronounced the name in a variety of ways: Mozy, Mauzy and Mozee. Annie’s younger brother used the name Moses, but her father was buried with the name Mosey.
Annie’s family was poor and it is said that they had gone through several times of hardship. They had come to Darke County from Pennsylvania where their family tavern had been destroyed by fire. Their Darke County farm did not produce enough food to support their needs so Annie’s father worked as a mailman to help supply the family with income.
Jacob Moses died when Annie was five. In November 1865, he was caught in a blizzard while returning home from town and a visit to a grain mill. Some historians believe the grain mill he visited was Bear’s Mill, which is today a local tourist attraction. He is known to have been with a team of horses, but stories also say he walked through blowing snow, deep drifts and bone-chilling cold. Although Jacob made it through the blizzard to his house, he never recovered from the exposure. He passed away a few months later. During those months, he was sometimes delirious, often talking of his days as a young man in Pennsylvania. He died in March 1866. Many stories say that he died at the age of 67, but a tombstone later bought by Annie shows his age as 82.
The next year (1867), Susan married Daniel Brumbaugh, who is reported to have been 22 years older than her. Their marriage brought about the birth of a baby girl named Emily in 1869. The marriage didn’t last long. Unfortunately, Daniel Brumbaugh passed away sometime around 1870.
Times were hard for Annie’s family. Getting enough food to eat was sometimes difficult. Her older sisters often looked for food from sources near their home: nuts and berries from a nearby woods, fish from a river and apples blown from trees. Finally, Annie’s mother got a job as a nurse to help support the family. In those days, jobs for women outside of the home were limited and in Annie’s family there were many mouths to feed.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
A woman named Mrs. Edington, wife of the Superintendent of the Darke County Infirmary, asked if Annie could help her at the institution. In exchange for her work, Annie would receive an education. Annie liked the superintendent’s wife, but did not like the inmates there, who sometimes teased her. One story says that an inmate made up a rhythm of her name, calling her “Moses-Poses.”
After about three weeks working for Mrs. Edgington, an opportunity came for Annie to work for a local farmer and his wife. She was to care for their baby at 50 cents a week and would receive an education. Annie went to work for the couple. Stories say that instead the couple treated Annie very badly. Life with the family was a nightmare. They physically abused her, ordered her to get up at 4 a.m. to make breakfast, made her milk and feed cows and she seldom was allowed to attend school. The wife wrote letters to Annie’s mother telling her that Annie was happy and doing well. Letters to Annie from her mother were intercepted and destroyed. Annie later referred to the couple as “the wolves.”
Finally, Annie ran away from the horrible place. She went to a nearby railroad station, but had no money for a ticket. She told her story to a man there. He bought her food and a train ticket home.
An online story at The Annie Oakley Center Foundation, Inc. website tells what happened after her arrival home: “Her mother was away, so Annie went to a friend of her mother’s named Shaw. The Shaws took her in, cared for her while her mother worked, until the ‘He- Wolf’ showed up at Annie’s school one day. With the help of six-foot-two Frank Edington, the ‘He-Wolf’ was turned away and did not return.”
Another tragic event happened in Annie’s family as she was growing up. At some point during her youth, Annie’s 15-year-old sister, Mary Jane, died of tuberculosis.
After Daniel Brumbaugh’s death, Annie’s mother married a man named Joseph Shaw, who was about 30 years older than Annie’s mother.
Tired of Being Poor
Annie was tired of being poor. She came up with the idea that she could trap and/or shoot game (wild birds/ animals) in the nearby woods and sell them in the town of Greenville. Though it is hard to imagine in today’s culture, stories say Annie started trapping birds when she was five and used her father’s gun to hunt when she was about eight or nine. In those days, people ate wood- land birds and animals as food. The woodland creatures were referred to as “game.” It was not unusual to kill game in the woods or fields and bring it home to eat. (Note: My grandmother’s cookbook has recipes for game such as rabbit, deer, opossum, squirrel, and moose.) Annie took her father’s gun and went into nearby fields and woods.
One day, after securing enough game for her family to eat, Annie readied her items to sell to the public. She prepared both animal skins and meat for sale, and then set out for the 15-mile trip to Greenville. It is said that a local farmer saw her walking and gave her a ride most of the way.
In Greenville, she met with merchant Charles Katzenberger. He bought all of her meat, which he then sold to area hotels and restaurants. This was the start of an ongoing business proposition between the two. Annie’s skills with a gun, brought financial security to her and her family and her reputation as a sharpshooter grew throughout the area. It is said that she even paid off the family mortgage with the use of her gun.
Keep in mind that most of these events started or took place before Annie was a teenager. She was trapping and shooting birds when she was just a girl!
A Visit to the Shooting Gallery & Love at First Sight
In 1875, when Annie was 15, she went to visit (some sources say to live with) her older, married sister Lydia Stein, who lived near Cincinnati. While there, she visited local shooting galleries where she hit target after target, amazing everyone who saw her shoot. It is believed that she also shot birds for a hotel keeper name Jack Frost. He arranged for her to shoot in a competition match with a professional exhibition shooter named Frank E. Butler. Butler agreed to the match. He thought it was a joke. As it turned out, Annie won the match.
The Annie Oakley Foundation, Inc. website says: “The match was run according to the regular rules of trapshooting. Frank shot twenty-four out of twenty-five birds. Annie won, killing all twenty-five of her birds.”
“Frank would later say that he had lost as soon as he saw the pretty and shy 15-year-old girl step to the mark. What is certain is he had fallen for her. In his professional shooting act he was assisted by a dog, a French poodle named George. Annie fell for George. So Frank courted Annie by sending her letters and cards ‘signed’ by George.”
A few months later, Frank and Annie were wed. How and where they were married has not been confirmed. Some historians say that they were wed at her sister Lydia’s Cincinnati home on August 23, 1876. Mysteriously, there is a marriage license in Ontario, Canada showing they were married there in 1882. Annie is reported to have said near the end of her life that the date of August 23, 1876 was the correct one.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show & Chief Sitting Bull
Professionally, Annie was known as Annie Oakley. Some researchers believe that she took the name from a Cincinnati suburb named Oakley. It has also been speculated that the kind man who paid her train fare when she escaped “the Wolves” was named Oakley. She may have used his name to honor him.
Following their marriage, Annie and Frank performed both in America and in Europe. In 1885, they began performing with the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was through this show that Annie gained a strong friendship with Indian leader Chief Sitting Bull. It was he who had drawn Native American peoples together at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, where General Custer was defeated. The Chief had previously seen Annie and Frank perform at St. Paul, Minnesota in March 1884. It is said that he was captivated by her shooting skills and asked to meet her. He called Annie “Little Sure Shot.” Eventually, Annie became like a daughter to the Chief. He too toured with the Wild West Show starting in 1885.
In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show went to London to perform at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The group went to London on the steamer Nebraska. It is said that there were 200 passengers on board, including 100 Native Americans. (Some of the Native Americans are said to have believed in an old legend that if they crossed the “big water” they would die.) Many animals were on board too: 160 horses, 18 buffalo, Texas steers, mules and donkeys. In London, Annie and Grand Duke Michael had a shooting match. Annie, of course, won.
Annie is said to have performed two trick shots that astounded audiences. She could stand in front of a mirror and hit a target holding her gun to the rear and she could shoot a cigarette out of Frank’s mouth. In fact, she once shot a cigarette out of the mouth of German Prince Wilhelm.
Retirement and “Annie Get Your Gun”
Frank and Annie traveled most of their lives — always living out of a trunk. The Annie Oakley Center Foundation, Inc. website says: “Annie always yearned for a domestic life. When she achieved it, she found she was too restless to enjoy it.”
The couple did have homes or lived for periods of time in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Annie retired from her show-business-life in 1913.
Annie and Frank were honored as celebrities wherever they traveled. Their story caught the attention of Hollywood. After they retired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Annie performed in a Melodrama written for her. She played the part of Nance Barry, a woman who saves the story’s hero and falls in love with him. In 1946, a Broadway musical titled “Annie Get Your Gun” opened. It became one of the greatest musicals in the history of Broadway. Originally, it starred Ethel Merman. Since then, several well-known actress/musicians have performed in the title role. MGM made a movie of the musical starring Betty Hutton. It is said that “Annie Get Your Gun” has never been out of production. In the 1950s, a television show named “Annie Oakley” was created by movie star Gene Autry’s company, Flying A Productions. The show starred actress Gail Davis. It is said that the television character of Annie Oakley was very different from the real Annie Oakley. In recent years, she has been the subject of a segment of the PBS television show the “American Experience.”
And a Dog Named Dave
Frank and Annie never had children, but they once had a dog named Dave that they loved as much as a child. He was an English setter that they adopted in Cambridge, Mary- land. He eventually became part of their act. The Annie Oakley Center Foundation, Inc. website says: “He sat patiently as Annie shot an apple off his head. During World War I, when the Butlers toured Army camps and raised money for the Red Cross, Dave became known in the press as ‘Red Cross Dave.’ Annie and Frank sent Christmas cards to friends with his picture and signed it ‘Dave Butler.’” Sadly, in 1923 Dave was struck and killed by an automobile at Leesburg, Florida. Annie and Frank felt as though they had lost a child. Frank published a story about Dave titled “The Life of Dave. As Told to Himself.”
During much of Annie’s lifetime, women could not vote, could not enter some fields of employment and often did not earn as much money as men for the same work. Annie often said things that inspired other women. Several websites feature her inspirational words. Annie demonstrated that a woman could handle firearms as well as a man. She overcame poverty to become an international celebrity and broke many barriers for women along the way. Annie has been honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
A Full Circle
In 1925, Annie moved to Dayton to be with her sister, Emily. The next year she returned to Greenville. She died in Greenville on November 3, 1926. Frank died a few days later on November 21, 1926 while visiting his niece, Fern, in Michigan. Frank and Annie are buried ext to each other in Darke County, just as she is said to have desired: “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.”