The Public Image of Miss Annie Oakley

Since a teenager, I have been fascinated with Annie Oakley, the sharpshooting ‘cowgirl’ of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was mainly because she had found local fame in her native Ohio as a teenager herself, taking part in shooting contests. Yet it was this, as well as touring with her husband Frank Butler, that would eventually lead her to the international fame being a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West brought. To me then, as well as now, there is something attractive in the fact this petite woman became respected in a man’s environment. So much so that her own husband saw her skills and backed out of the limelight to let her shine. This is part of what gives Annie Oakley a timeless quality, especially to women.

As Glenda Riley suggests, her image of a respectable woman who had gained her fame through hard work is what gives Annie her universal appeal, both in her own time and long after her death nearly a century ago.[1] She purposefully distanced herself from other performing women at the time as she maintained an air of Victorian femininity. She purposefully wore long skirts with leggings underneath and always used side-saddle for her horse riding tricks.[2] Her look was key to gaining her acceptance in a career that was often thought risqué and degrading, especially for the other cowgirls who donned men’s attire.[3]

Fox, R. K., Copyright Claimant. Annie Oakley – famous rifle shot and holder of the Police Gazette championship medal. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Her skill with a gun was undeniable and she was purposefully marketed by Buffalo Bill’s show as the strong woman, which helped to be an idol for the women coming to watch.[4] Just as Buffalo Bill was the embodiment of the male experience of the Wild West, so Annie became the poster girl for the female experience.[5] As one Glasgow journalist commented on the young woman’s skill with a shotgun and a horse:

Annie “is another living illustration of the fact that a woman, independent of her physique, can accomplish whatever she persistently and earnestly sets her mind to overtake”.[6]

No one would have guessed, despite the obvious signs of shear hard work that had gone into developing her skills, just how bad her childhood had been to force her into learning how to sharp shoot. Her family were very poor farmers and she was one of 7 children by the time her father Jacob passed away from pneumonia in 1866 after he had been caught out in a blizzard. She was passed around different homes and was often physically abused but for the sake of her family hopefully being paid by her work, she taught herself to shoot and trap small animals.[7] The little and destitute Annie Oakley of those days could never have dreamed of finding international fame in later life, but her associations with upper and middle class society allowed her a voice she wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise.

C. mid-1880’s poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, advertising “Miss Annie Oakley, the peerless lady wing-shot” (Wikimedia Commons)

She was often quite vocal on training women to shoot, even if only for protection purposes. Given her own background, it is clear why she would have thought this a necessity. Still, there was a need for any woman who chose to learn how to wield a gun to maintain an air of dignity. At the time it was suggested that women should hide guns in their parasols, which sounds as if it could be in a James Bond film. By acting as a female role model in this way, Annie helped broaden the female sphere, showing it was acceptable for women to be independent by learning how to shoot, but whilst still adhering to female ideals at that time. She made sure the best furniture, such as carpets, tables and chairs, were available so that she could invite friends for tea and cake, but always made sure her guns were on display.[8] Many women joined shooting clubs themselves, following on in Annie’s image of the respectable lady shooter, especially many society women she taught to shoot, hunt and camp whilst in London. For this reason, despite not caring in a political form of feminism, just for extending the pursuits of women, “she became and has remained a symbol of the liberated female”.[9] Even during World War 1, when she was nearing her 60s, Annie offered her services. Writing to officials, she offered to be the officer for a regiment of women shooters or to assist in training cadets how to shoot.[10] Unfortunately, both of these offers were rejected. What a story it would have turned out to be if they hadn’t though!

Annie Oakley, with gun Buffalo Bill gave her / staff photo. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The pair retired in 1901 following a train crash that left Frank’s back injured, but Annie continued to have letters and messages from nostalgic fans who remembered her in the good old days. She died in 1926 and Frank followed her 18 days later following spouts of ill health for them both. Little Sure Shot, as her adopted father Chief Sitting Bull nicknamed her, was gone, but her ability to combine Victorian dignifying femininity and the Wild West still lingers on and I hope it will for a long time to come.

Despite being the first cowgirl of note, since her death, Annie Oakley has become more associated with the idea of show business rather than her true skill. Whilst there is of course some element of show business to her life, it was all based around her innate handling of a gun. Despite her appearance in many Hollywood films, many seem to forget how her she found a unique sense of Victorian femininity that promoted her in many ways above her husband. For instance, in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Annie purposefully loses to her future husband Frank in a gun competition. This suggests that as a woman, she shouldn’t defeat a man.[11] In reality, Annie had first met Frank, when she was a teenager, by beating him at a local shooting competition. They did act as partners in a show that showed off their shooting skills following an illness of his show business partner. However, once Annie’s fame grew, it was he that stood back and became an assistant to her, not the other way around.[12]

[1] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)

[2] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, Montana The Magazine of the Western History, 45.3 (1995), pp. 40-41.

[3] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 40.

[4] W. E. Deahl, ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, 1885’, Annals of Wyoming, 47 (1975) cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, pp. 34-35

[5] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[6] Eastern Bells, December 1891, cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 38

[7] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[8] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley; Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 41.

[9] Kaspar, S., Annie Oakley (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 246.

[10] Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum

[11] S. K. Schackel, ‘Women in Western Films: the Civilizer, the Saloon Singer, and Their Modern Sister’, in A. P. McDonald (ed), Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 46.

[12] Sayers, I. S., Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1981); Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum

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