Annie Oakley, known as "Little Mis Sure Shot," was born in Darke County.

Annie Oakley: From Darke County farm to ‘Wild West’ and worldwide fame

Sharpshooter advocate for gun safety.

The life of Annie Oakley — known as “Little Miss Sure Shot” while celebrated in books, on stage and on screen — began and ended in Darke County.

Born in 1860 just north of Greenville, Oakley was the fifth daughter in a farming family.

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Annie Oakley uses a mirror to shoot over her shoulder in an undated photograph. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM

Tragedy upended the family’s life when a blizzard trapped Oakley’s father and a team of horses as they retrieved supplies during winter in 1865. Her father was able to make it home but later died, leaving a desperate widow with seven children.

Out of necessity, Oakley picked up her father’s old muzzle loader when she was 8 years old, according to Marilyn Robbins of Greenville, the author of five books about Oakley.

“She was trying to put food on the table,” she said in a 2016 interview.

Born Phoebe Anne Mosey Aug. 13, 1860 Annie Oakley, as she was later known, learned to shoot at the age of 8. In the fall of 1875, she was invited to take part in a shooting contest in Cincinnati against Frank Butler, a professional vaudeville stage shooter. When she won, Butler convinced Phoebe to travel with him across the country, demonstrating her skills. In June of 1876, they were married and they traveled across the country together. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM

Despite her efforts to assist her family, they were destitute. At about age 10, according to Robbins, Oakley was sent to live at the county home.

She was hired out to a man who “told her a glorious story that she would be able to spend time hunting and shooting,” according to Robbins, but instead “the family treated her horribly and abused her.”

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She eventually ran away from “the wolves,” as she referred to them in her autobiography, and reunited with her family.

She continued to hone her shooting skills hunting small game, birds and quail that were sold to area stores and restaurants.

Annie Oakley takes aim at an apple sitting on top of her dogs' head. The English setter, named "Dave," grew so accustomed to the sound of gun fire while hunting with Oakley and her husband Frank Butler he became part of their show. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM

Her skills with a gun began to bring her acclaim. A Cincinnati hotel keeper arranged a shooting contest between Oakley and Frank Butler, a professional exhibition shooter. Annie was just 15 and Butler was 25.

The rules were simple. Twenty-five birds would be released, and whoever shot the most would be the winner. Butler shot 24 of the 25 birds, but Oakley triumphed, shooting all 25.

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler took in a black, tan and white English setter they named "Dave." The dog became so accustomed to the sound of gun fire they incorporated him into their act. Oakley would shoot an apple off his head as he sat on top of a stool. Dave was killed by a car in Leesburg, FL in 1923. The Leesburn newspaper reported the couple "feel the sorrow that parents would feel for the loss of a child." PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM

Not only did she win the contest, but she won Butler’s heart. The two married a year later and began a life performing together in stage shows and circuses. Oakley’s performances helped break down barriers for women.

“You never heard of a woman carrying a gun or shooting in a competition,” Robbins said. “Show women were known as being sleazy in those days, and she never wanted to be known like that. She was a lady.”

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Buffalo Bill Cody learned of the couple’s shooting skills and recruited them to join his “Wild West Show,” a traveling spectacle featuring sharpshooters, Pony Express reenactments and staged Indian attacks. The show performed across the county and traveled twice to Europe, garnering worldwide recognition for the couple.

Oakley advocated for gun safety during her career and was a proponent for women using guns, just not for obvious reasons, said Robbins.

Annie Oakley, known as "Little Miss Sure Shot," was born in Darke County north of Greenville. She and her husband Frank Butler, a professional exhibition shooter, traveled the world with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM

“She always said that a woman should know how to shoot not only to protect herself but also to have good poise in her body,” she said. “It took a special poise to aim a gun – you stood straight and your back stood straight.”

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The couple eventually left the show and settled in Maryland. There, they adopted an English setter named Dave, who grew accustomed to the crack of gunfire as he went hunting with the couple.

A family portrait of Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, and their dog, Dave, photographed in the 1920s. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ANNIE OAKLEY CENTER AT THE GARST MUSEUM
Photo: Staff Writer

Dave’s nerves were so steady that he became part of an act to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I. The dog sat like a statue and Oakley shot an apple off his head.

Oakley died of pernicious anemia in Greenville on Nov. 3, 1926, while her husband was visiting a niece in Michigan. He died 18 days later.

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“The story is that when he heard Annie had died he just stopped living,” said Robbins. “We say he died of a broken heart.

“It really surprises me that she could remain in the life she was in and be such a humble person. She didn’t want to be known as a star, she didn’t want to be known as a champion. She was just very thankful for everything she got.”

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