I’m a lousy shot. Most Wyoming women have learned at least two things about guns – how to handle them safely and how to shoot them. I never mastered that second part.
Like many Wyoming dads, my father would take me to the shooting range on Saturdays and yuck it up with his friends as we little gals – protective earmuffs as big as our heads – tried to shoot inside those teeny concentric circles on the targets. He would try not to look mortified when my target would come back without a scratch.
Hoping my talents were of a more domestic nature, my Mom put me in Saturday-morning sewing classes instead. The apron-like creation I made after six agonizing weeks – with its holey pockets and rusty stains from my bloody fingers – became a bit of a family legend as the rapidly unraveling cloth found uses as dog bedding, dust rag and car-buffer.
I eventually took up the violin.
I found myself thinking about my lack of those skills as I pondered an exhibit about Annie Oakley in the Buffalo Bill Museum in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. For Phoebe Ann Moses, as she was known until she took her more recognizable stage name, those two skills started her trajectory to fame that is as enduring as the Irving Berlin song “Anything You Can Do I can Do Better” from the 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” (You’re humming the tune right now, aren’t you?)
After her father and stepfather died in quick succession leaving Annie’s mother with seven children, Annie learned sewing skills and received an education at a local infirmary in exchange for helping with the children in the home. When she returned home to her poverty-stricken family, she began honing her skills as a huntress, supplying game to a grocery store, which re-sold the meat to hotels and restaurants. At the age of 15, she paid off the mortgage on her mother’s house, and men noticed her increasingly impressive skills.
One of those men was Cincinnati marksman Frank E. Butler. Although he was beaten by Annie in a shooting competition, he won the contest for her heart, and the two were married in 1876 when Annie was 16 years old.
The remarkable Butlers began appearing in shooting shows, and Annie adopted her well-known stage name. The Butlers performed around the country and made important friends along the way. Lakota leader Sitting Bull was particularly entranced by the unassuming Annie, and he presented her with the nickname, “Little Sure Shot.” Annie and Frank eventually joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and Annie was given top billing, a remarkable accomplishment in a time when most women in the country still couldn’t vote. (Unless they lived in Wyoming – which in 1869 became the first territory to grant unrestricted suffrage to women – or a few other territories in the West. But that’s a story for next week.)
Traveling with a mostly male troupe, Annie once again relied on her resourceful ways and designed and sewed her own costumes for the show. Ladies in the audience were intrigued by how the costumes allowed her to move freely, and often asked their own dressmakers to emulate the style.
After an injury in a train accident, Annie and Frank left the show in 1901 to pursue a life with less travel, although they still occasionally performed. They ultimately retired in 1917 – the year Buffalo Bill died and the country began fighting in World War I. Annie and Frank died nine years later.
Phoebe Ann Moses made her mark on the world in many ways, and now 90 years after her death, I am once again celebrating her remarkable life.
Until next time, I’m loving life and humming a happy tune here in Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country.