The life of Annie Oakley, known as “Little Miss Sure Shot” while celebrated in books, on stage and on screen, began and ended in Darke County.
Born in 1860 just north of Greenville, Oakley was the fifth daughter in a farming family.
Tragedy upended the family’s life when a blizzard trapped Oakley’s father and a team of horses as they retrieved supplies during winter in 1865. Her father was able to make it home but later died, leaving a desperate widow with seven children.
Out of necessity, Oakley picked up her father’s old muzzle loader when she was 8 years old, according to Marilyn Robbins of Greenville, the author of five books about Oakley.
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“She was trying to put food on the table,” she said in a 2016 interview.
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Despite her efforts to assist her family, they were destitute. At about age 10, according to Robbins, Oakley was sent to live at the county home.
She was hired out to a man who “told her a glorious story that she would be able to spend time hunting and shooting,” according to Robbins, but instead “the family treated her horribly and abused her.”
She eventually ran away from “the wolves,” as she referred to them in her autobiography, and reunited with her family.
She continued to hone her shooting skills hunting small game, birds and quail that were sold to area stores and restaurants.
Her skills with a gun began to bring her acclaim. A Cincinnati hotel keeper arranged a shooting contest between Oakley and Frank Butler, a professional exhibition shooter. Annie was just 15 and Butler was 25.
The rules were simple. Twenty-five birds would be released, and whoever shot the most would be the winner. Butler shot 24 of the 25 birds, but Oakley triumphed, shooting all 25.
Not only did she win the contest, but she won Butler’s heart. The two married a year later and began a life performing together in stage shows and circuses. Oakley’s performances helped break down barriers for women.
“You never heard of a woman carrying a gun or shooting in a competition,” Robbins said. “Show women were known as being sleazy in those days, and she never wanted to be known like that. She was a lady.”
Buffalo Bill Cody learned of the couple’s shooting skills and recruited them to join his Wild West Show, a traveling spectacle featuring sharpshooters, Pony Express reenactments and staged Indian attacks. The show performed across the county and traveled twice to Europe, garnering worldwide recognition for the couple.
Oakley advocated for gun safety during her career and was a proponent for women using guns, just not for obvious reasons, said Robbins.
“She always said that a woman should know how to shoot not only to protect herself but also to have good poise in her body,” she said. “It took a special poise to aim a gun – you stood straight and your back stood straight.”
The couple eventually left the show and settled in Maryland. There, they adopted an English setter named Dave, who grew accustomed to the crack of gunfire as he went hunting with the couple.
Dave’s nerves were so steady that he became part of an act to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I. The dog sat like a statue and Oakley shot an apple off of his head.
Oakley died of pernicious anemia in Greenville on Nov. 3, 1926, while her husband was visiting a niece in Michigan. He died 18 days later.
“The story is that when he heard Annie had died he just stopped living,” said Robbins. “We say he died of a broken heart.
“It really surprises me that she could remain in the life she was in and be such a humble person. She didn’t want to be known as a star, she didn’t want to be known as a champion. She was just very thankful for everything she got.”
ABOUT THIS FEATURE HISTORY EXTRA is a weekly pictorial history feature showcasing the Miami Valley’s rich heritage. If you have a unique set of historic photos found in your parents’ or grandparents’ attic that depicts the past in the Miami Valley, contact Lisa Powell at 937-225-2229 or at Lisa.Powell@coxinc.com.
ABOUT THIS FEATURE
HISTORY EXTRA is a weekly pictorial history feature showcasing the Miami Valley’s rich heritage. If you have a unique set of historic photos found in your parents’ or grandparents’ attic that depicts the past in the Miami Valley, contact Lisa Powell at 937-225-2229 or at Lisa.Powell@coxinc.com.