Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Wyoming
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Recreating the Curious Life of Annie Oakley

Recreating the Curious Life of Annie Oakley

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Discovering history at Buffalo Bill Center of the West

By Katie Jackson

A trading card featuring a photo of Annie Oakley holding a rifle in the collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum in Cody, Wyoming

One letter can be all the difference between a bad day and a good day. Or it can be all the difference between a good day and a great day. Today is a great day. I got an “A.”

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“A” is for Annie Oakley

I was really hoping for Amelia Earhart. But Brinna called dibs on her. So Mrs. Kay suggested I be Annie Oakley for our 4th grade class’s living wax museum. “The gun lady?” I asked, secretly hoping there was another Annie Oakley. Maybe the first woman to land on the moon or invent ice cream or something cool like that. 

“The markswoman,” said Mrs. Kay. “There’s a lot to learn about Annie Oakley that isn’t in our history book. You should do your research at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody if you can. It tells, and shows, more of her interesting story.” Then she leaned in like she had a secret the rest of the class didn’t need to know. At least, not yet. “For example, her real name isn’t even Annie,” Mrs. Kay whispered.

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Fashionably short

“Thanks, Mom,” I said when she paid for me and my friend Dana’s tickets to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West the following weekend. Dana was assigned Sacagawea for the living wax museum so she wanted to check out the Center’s Plains Indian Museum. I was told I’d find all I needed to know about Annie—or whatever her name was—in the Center’s Buffalo Bill Museum. “Turn left at the talking Buffalo Bill hologram,” the museum’s greeter told me.

Talking hologram? What kind of museum was this?

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know about this mystery woman was what she looked like since I’d have to dress up as her. I was expecting her to look like a cowgirl in chaps, so when I approached the exhibit with the fancy wool jacket she wore from 1902–1915, I was confused. It had a satin lining and more buttons than any jacket I’d ever seen. A pair of leather gloves were displayed next to it. They had more fringe than any gloves I’d ever seen. Another thing that surprised me? Both items were tiny! Well, about my size. Did the museum accidentally put the jacket and the gloves in the dryer and shrink them?

Nope. A few minutes later I read that Annie Oakley was only ever five feet tall. That means when she died, at age 66, she was only a little taller than I am. And I’m barely nine years old!

A poster featuring Annie Oakley, The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot, in the collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming

Outdoorsy and artistic 

When I was eight years old, I had a pet hamster. When Annie Oakley—who I learned was born Phoebe Ann Moses—was eight years old, she shot a squirrel. She had to. While my idea of helping with dinner is setting the table, Annie grew up having to actually put food on the table. The animals she shot or trapped were essential to her family’s survival. For Annie at least, a challenging childhood meant endless adventure.

I’ve known how to read since I was five. Still, when I read that 15-year-old Annie paid off her family’s house with money she earned from hunting, I had to reread the words. I could barely afford to buy Dad a birthday present! Annie eventually earned even more when she started touring and starring in Wild West-themed shows. And she didn’t just make money. She also made her own costumes. When she wasn’t shooting, she was sewing. One minute I was looking at the glass ball targets she used to shoot. The next minute I was looking at a pink pillowcase she embroidered with the names of all her famous friends.

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A performer and a pioneer

“Figure out what all of the information has in common,” Mom said when I told her I was worried about telling a story with all of these historic names, dates, and places for my presentation. I realized everything was somehow related to Annie’s firearms. She used them to get food, travel the world as a performer, and even find her husband, Frank. The first time they met was when she beat him in a shooting contest.

Since Annie was the better shot, and people were more excited about the idea of a woman in a dress shooting a gun, Frank became her assistant and manager. When they both joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885, Annie was one of the most popular acts. She could shoot a cigarette butt out of Frank’s mouth. When they were traveling in Europe, she even did the same trick with German royalty! I was amazed she could hit something so small, from far away, with something so big. On one of the show’s advertising posters, Annie’s rifle was standing on its end next to her. They were almost the same height! She performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West until 1901.

Some of Annie’s favorite guns were on display next door in the Center’s Cody Firearms Museum. I wanted to see them if we had time. But first, I was curious about the little firearm in the case in front of me. It was a pin in the shape of a rifle. The story behind the tiny gold medal told even more chapters of Annie’s life. It was from a North Carolina resort where she gave shooting lessons to other women. Annie Oakley was one of the first famous female marksmen in history. She was also determined not to be the last.

A trading card featuring a photo of Annie Oakley offering a toy to a dog in the collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum in Cody, WY

“A” is also for amazing

In a perfect world, I’d take my class on a field trip. I’d lead them past a talking Buffalo Bill hologram and take them back in time. Then, I’d introduce them to Phoebe Ann Moses, the spunky girl who would grow up to become Annie Oakley, aka “Little Miss Sure Shot.” But, I don’t know how to drive a school bus. Plus, the whole point of our class’s living wax museum was to bring famous names and faces into the classroom.

“You did such an amazing job I’ll probably accidentally call you Annie every now and then,” Mrs. Kay joked as she handed me my grade after the living wax museum project was over. I looked at the piece of paper and immediately knew it was going on the fridge. The letter at the top was exactly what I’d been hoping for.