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Thursday, March 16, 2023

March 16, 2023: Wild West Stories: Annie Oakley

[175 years ago this coming weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to a weekend birthday post on engaging Earp!]

On three figures who each and together help us see the human realities behind the mythic sharpshooter.

1)      Frank Butler: By the age of 15 Oakley (then known by her birth name Phoebe Ann Moses) was already well known in her native Ohio as a sharpshooter. But it was when she bested famous traveling trick shooter Butler in an 1875 Thanksgiving Day contest in Cincinnati (or maybe an 1881 one—it can be tricky to discover the realities behind the myths!) that she really became Annie Oakley, in every sense—not only due to the acclaimed victory, but also and especially because she and the 28 year old Butler soon married and began touring together (with Oakley now going under that stage name). Their age gap and respective ages at the time might seem creepy; but the date of their meeting is a bit unclear, it was the 19th century, and in any case this was without question a lifelong partnership—when Oakley died in 1926 at the age of 66, Butler apparently stopped eating and died less than three weeks later. For half a century and even after death, Oakley and Butler were genuinely inseparable.

2)      Lillian Smith: In 1885, after touring together for a few years, Oakley and Butler joined one of the period’s most famous entertainments, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was there that Oakley met one of the few Americans who could genuinely be said to be her match—Lillian Smith, who was a 15 year old shooting prodigy when she joined the show in 1886. It seems likely that at this time Oakley began reporting her age as a few years younger in order to compete more directly with Smith, leading to another level of subsequent mythic confusion over basic details of her story and identity. What’s definite is that Oakley left the show for a time, returning only when Smith herself left in 1889. When she returned Oakley became the show’s second-highest-paid performer, after only Bill himself, so it was clearly a smart business and career decision—but also one that reflects human uncertainties behind the sharpshooter’s supremely and justifiably confident performance.

3)      Sitting Bull: If romantic partners and rivals are two kinds of distinctly human relationships behind a mythic story, then certainly good friends are a third, and one of Oakley’s closest friends happened to be one of the most famous Americans of the era. The Hunkpapa Lakota warrior Sitting Bull met Oakley in 1884, famously requesting a picture with her, and perhaps not coincidentally he likewise joined Buffalo Bill’s show in 1885. He gave her a new nickname, “Little Sure Shot,” that she used for the rest of her career; and the two became so close that he symbolically adopted her as a daughter (his own had tragically died young) and into his tribe. As Oakley would later write, “he had asked me to take the place of the daughter he lost.” A mythic moment behind two American legends to be sure, but also a powerfully human one—and while Sitting Bull was himself tragically killed in 1890, there’s no doubt that his legacy stayed with Oakley for the rest of her life.

Last Wild West story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?

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