When Annie was 6, her father, Jacob Moses, died of pneumonia, leaving her mother, Susan Wise Moses, with six children and little else. Annie’s mother remarried but her second husband, Dan Brumbaugh, died soon after, leaving her mother with a new baby.
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses but called Annie by her family. She was born on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio, USA. Annie was an unassuming woman from a humble background, who performed before royalty and presidents.
Around the age of 8 or 9, Annie went to live with Superintendent Edington’s family at the Darke County Infirmary, which housed the elderly, the orphaned, and the mentally ill. In exchange for helping with the children, Annie received an education and learned the skill of sewing from Mrs Edington, which she would later use to make her own costumes. She remained with the Edington family until she was 13 or 14. This early experience of working in such a sobering place probably aroused Annie’s lifelong compassion for children.
Annie returned to her family to find that her mother had married a third time to Joseph Shaw. Even with this remarriage, the family finances remained marginal and Annie used her father’s old Kentucky rifle to hunt small game to help with the family finances. The game was sold to the Katzenberger brother’s grocery store in Greenville, Ohio, where it was resold to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati, 80 miles away. Annie who was only 15 years old, was so successful at hunting that she was able to pay the $200 mortgage on her mother’s house from the money she earned. Her noted shooting ability brought an invitation from Jack Frost, a hotel owner in Cincinnati who had purchased her game, to participate in a shooting contest against a well-known marksman, Frank E. Butler.
Butler who was on tour with several other marksmen typically offered challenges to local shooters. Annie won the match with twenty-five shots out of twenty-five attempts, whilst Butler missed one of his shots. Annie entranced Butler, and the two shooters began a relationship that resulted in their marriage on August 23, 1876.
On May 1 1882, Butler’s usual partner was ill and Annie filled in by holding objects for Frank to shoot at, but also did some of her own shooting. This was the first time they appeared in a show together and when Annie adopted the stage name of Oakley. Off stage, she was always Mrs Frank Butler. For the next few years, the Butlers travelled across the country giving shooting exhibitions with their dog, George, as an integral part of the act.
At a performance during March 1884 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Annie befriended the legendary Lakota leader Sitting Bull who won a victory over George Armstrong Custer at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was impressed with Annie's shooting, her modest appearance, and her self-assured manner. Although Sitting Bull was still a political prisoner at Fort Yates, he arranged to meet Oakley and quickly became fast friends. It was Sitting Bull who dubbed Annie “Little Sure Shot.”
In 1884, the Butlers joined the Sells Brothers Circus as “champion rifle shots,” but only stayed with the circus for one season. After a brief period on their own, Butler and Oakley joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Showin 1885. This was a significant turning point in Annie Oakley’s life and her relationship with Butler. Until this time either Butler had received top billing or they both shared the limelight. However, with the Wild West Show, Annie was the star and it was her name on the advertising posters as “Champion Markswoman.” Butler happily accepted the position as her manager and assistant and Oakley and Butler prospered with the Wild West Show and remained with the show for seventeen years.
In 1887, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show toured the UK to join in the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. When the show opened in May, Oakley was the subject of considerable press attention due to her shooting skills and presence. During this tour, Annie increased her growing collection of shooting medals, awards, and trophies.
The Wild West Show returned to Europe in 1889, and Annie had become a seasoned performer and earned star billing. The troupe stayed in Paris for a six-month exhibition and then travelled to other regions of France, Italy, and Spain. Oakley proved especially popular with women, and Buffalo Bill made the most of her fame to demonstrate that shooting was neither detrimental nor too intense for women and children.
Both Oakley and Butler wanted less extensive travelling, and a severe train accident that injured Annie's back, caused them to leave the show in 1901. Annie continued to perform and eventually joined another wild west show, “The Young Buffalo Show,” in 1911. Butler signed a contract as a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company in Connecticut during this period. This was a position that allowed both Butler and Oakley to make endorsements for the company and to continue their shooting exhibitions. Finally, in 1913, the couple retired from the arena and settled down in Cambridge, Maryland.
It was during their time in Cambridge, the Butlers welcomed a new member into their family, a dog named Dave. Dave was to be a constant companion to the Butlers. When they eventually returned to the arena, Dave became an important part of the act—one trick being Annie shooting an apple from the top of Dave’s head. In 1917, they moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina. That was the same year that Buffalo Bill Cody died. Annie Oakley wrote a touching eulogy for Cody and the passing of a golden era.
The United States was pulled into World War I in 1917, and Oakley offered to raise a regiment of women volunteers to fight in the war. She had made the same offer during the Spanish-American War; neither time was it accepted. She also volunteered to teach marksmanship to the troops. Oakley gave her time to the National War Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association, War Camp Community Service, and the Red Cross.
Annie began making plans for a comeback in 1922 and attracted large crowds in Massachusetts, New York, and other major cities. She also planned to star in a motion picture but at the end of the year, Oakley and Butler were severely injured in an automobile accident and it took Oakley more than a year to recover from her injuries. By 1924, she was performing again, but her recovery did not last long. By 1925, she was frail and in poor health. Oakley and Butler moved to her hometown in Ohio to be near her family. They attended shooting matches in the local area, and Annie began to write her memoirs, which were published in newspapers across the country.
In 1926, after fifty happy years of marriage, the Butlers died. Annie Oakley died on November 3 and Frank Butler died on November 21, within three weeks of each other. Both died of natural causes after a long and adventuresome life.