On this day in 1860, the woman known as Annie Oakley is born. That wasn’t her real name, of course. The famous sharpshooter’s name at birth was Phoebe Ann Mosey.
Annie was nothing if not talented. “At 30 paces she could split a playing card held edge-on,” one commentator notes, “she hit dimes tossed into the air, she shot cigarettes from her husband’s lips, and, a playing card being thrown into the air, she riddled it before it touched the ground.”
She could even fire over her shoulder, using only a hand-held mirror (pictured).
Nevertheless, there was more to Annie than sharpshooting. “The incredible woman who called herself Annie Oakley,” her biographer writes, “overcame poverty, prejudice, physical setbacks, and her own inner shyness to become a star shooter and a durable legend.”
Trouble began early. Annie’s father passed away unexpectedly, leaving his wife behind with seven children under the age of 15. The family was barely getting by before. Now it was worse.
Annie must have been tough. At age 6, she was already helping to put food on the dinner table: She began by setting traps for small game, but then she moved on to using her father’s rifle. He’d taught her to shoot game through the head, leaving most of the meat untouched. She got it done.
Her efforts helped, but it still wasn’t enough. Annie was sent to Darke County Infirmary, where she earned money sewing or patching inmates’ clothing. Then matters took a turn for the worse.
A man arrived one day, claiming that his wife needed help watching an infant. Would Annie do it? He promised 50 cents a week, plus time to go to school.
Annie later called him a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “I was held a prisoner,” she said of this time. “They would not let me go.” Annie worked in harsh conditions. Once, she was forced out into the snow because she fell asleep while darning socks. “I was slowly freezing to death,” Annie recalled. “So I got down on my little knees, looked toward God’s clear sky, and tried to pray. But my lips were frozen stiff and there was no sound.”
She barely survived.
Annie hung on, believing that her mother was receiving her 50 cent salary. She lasted for nearly two years before she ran away.
Annie was loved at home, but she was still an extra mouth to feed. Thus, she was soon back at the infirmary. She worked hard, but she was also happier than she’d been in a while. She’d escaped the “wolf” family. She was finally learning to read and write—and she even earned a raise. But her homesickness couldn’t be kept at bay. She decided to return and help her mother “build a little home.” She invested in traps, powder, and shot. She began trapping and shooting small game.
She was quite good at it. Not only was she able to supply her mother’s dinner table with food, but she also had enough left over to supply a local shopkeeper. Annie’s business thrived, and she saved enough to pay off her mother’s mortgage. “Oh, how my heart leaped with joy,” Annie later remembered.
Little did Annie know it, but her life was about to change—again. The exact date is disputed, but at about age 15, Annie appeared in a shooting match with Frank Butler, an accomplished shooter who sometimes offered a challenge to local champions.
Annie won, of course. She hit 25 targets to Frank’s 24, which earned her a $50 prize. More importantly, she’d met the man who would become her husband and her future partner in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Naturally, the story of Annie Oakley’s rise to fame is a story for another day.
Glenda Riley, The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley (2000)
The Annie Oakley Center Foundation: Frequently Asked Questions about Annie Oakley