Did you know that Annie Oakley sued fifty-five newspapers for defamation and won fifty-four of the battles?
You might know her as the crack-shot star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but that’s just a small piece of who this woman was.
How do we know this?
Well, like so many of the stories we’ve learned, it started with a little brown sign by the side of a small highway.
This particular highway was US 127, running north-south along the western edge of Ohio, and the sign said “Annie Oakley Gravesite.
Knowing her as a wild west figure, we were surprised to find that she grew up in northwest Ohio and was fostered out as a child because her father had died and her mother couldn’t afford to feed all the Oakley children.
Sent to live with a family that treated her a bit like Cinderella, Annie returned home, took up her father’s rifle, and vowed to put food on the table.
Soon, in addition to feeding the family, she was selling excess game at a Dayton market.
By the time she was a teenager, she’d paid off the family debts and the mortgage on their farm.
When she was fifteen, and well known locally as a markswoman, she went to Cincinnati for an exhibition by Frank Butler.
Famous for his shooting displays, Butler offered twenty dollars to anyone who could beat him.
On the twenty-fifth shot, he missed and Oakley hit the mark. Butler was smitten.
A year later, after a feverish courtship, the two were married.
When they joined Buffalo Bill’s show, it became clear she was the star, and though he never gave up shooting, he spent the rest of his career as her manager and assistant.
After Annie Oakley was injured in a train accident, the two retired to Cambridge, Maryland.
We recently drove by their place, which has a nice view of the Choptank River and a tiny balcony onto which “the two would climb out from their bedroom and amuse themselves shooting ducks a quarter-mile away on the water.
It didn’t last long, though. They quickly got tired of retirement and were soon back with the Wild West Show.
After her retirement, newspapers ran a story claiming Annie had stolen a man’s trousers and sold them to buy cocaine. She was incensed.
As it turns out, the actual perpetrator had given the name Any Oaklee. Happy for the sensational story, many papers played fast and loose with the facts.
By the time Annie had finished her crusade in the courts, they were probably a bit sorry.
Annie Oakley spent much of her life fighting for women’s rights. She sent a large share of her earnings back to Western Ohio to support women and orphans.
She taught thousands of women how to shoot, teaching until the week she died.
The National Women's History Museum has a nice biography on this interesting woman.
This legend of the American West, honorary daughter of Chief Sitting Bull, is buried beside her husband Frank in a country graveyard not far from where she was born, along a little country road, out here, off the beaten path.
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