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

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.

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 to help put food on the table.

Despite her efforts to assist her family, they were destitute. At about age 10, 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, but instead Oakley said she was abused. She eventually ran away from “the wolves,” as she referred to them in her autobiography, and reunited with her family.

She honed her shooting skills hunting small game, birds and quail that were sold to area stores and restaurants and her talent brought 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.

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.

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 re-enactments and staged Indian attacks. The show performed across the country and traveled twice to Europe, garnering worldwide recognition for the couple.

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.

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.