Annie Oakley Queen of the Wild Frontier
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.
At the peak of her career Annie Oakley made as much money as the President of the United States, an unheard of feat for a woman of her era. When most women in the 19th and early-20th century were home cleaning house and changing diapers Annie traveled the world as a legendary sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
When Buffalo Bill first met Annie he figured she was too small and too fragile to command center stage and hold an audience. After all, she used shotguns weighing 10 pounds while weighing only 110 pounds herself.
Annie made him a deal. If she couldn’t convince Buffalo Bill during an audition, she would pack up her things and head for home.
Buffalo Bill had heard about Annie’s endurance shooting earlier that year. After practicing for hours with glass balls and a shotgun, she managed to shatter 4,772 out of 5,000 balls in a single nine-hour period from 15 yards away.
On a Monday morning in the spring of 1885 Annie started target practice once again at a baseball field in Louisville, Ky., where the Wild West Show was performing. With the help of a mechanical launcher Annie loaded her weighty shotgun as the clay pigeons soared into the air.
The sharpshooter hit clay pigeon after clay pigeon as she switched from right to left hand. When she finished a well-dressed man came across the infield and said, “Fine! Wonderful! Have you got some photographs with your gun?”
The man was Nate Salsbury, Buffalo Bill’s partner and the power broker behind the scenes. That was the beginning of a relationship lasting almost 20 years.
“The travel and the early parades were hard,” she said. “But I was happy. A crowned queen was never treated with more reverence than I was by those whole-souled western boys.”
About Buffalo Bill Annie said this. “Cody (Buffalo Bill) was the kindest hearted, broadest minded, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew.”
As a performer the sharpshooter never bragged about her talent. She let her marksmanship speak for her.
At her best Annie said she drew a streak of greased lightning when she hit targets. Even if she missed the bull’s-eye, she never stopped going for it.
At the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 the Wild West Show took up 14 acres. And Annie had top billing. Her sharpshooting was the fair’s most popular attraction drawing almost 22,000 people. She was first on the program in one of her 35 hand-sewn costumes.
Shooting the end of a lit cigarette off, slicing a playing card in half lengthwise with a pistol, or scrambling eggs by shooting them as they sailed through the air, Annie never ceased to amaze.
An estimated six million people attended the Wild West Show at one time or another. As the headliner Annie became one of the most famous women in America.
On June 23, Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction in Denver, Co., featured a selection of Annie Oakley items in its auction. Here are some current values.
Glass Target Ball: found in Annie’s traveling trunk; with six other balls; glass is cracked at top; missing one square inch; includes scarce Schultze Powder Booklet, “Powders I Have Used” by Annie Oakley; 13 pages; $1,380.
Postcard; from Annie to the famous Lulu Bell Parr on the S.S. Merion; handwritten in ink; $1,380.
Cabinet Card; image of Annie with shooting medal and classic hat; by Baker’s Art Gallery, Columbus, Ohio; lithographed signature on front under photo; on reverse an inscription in Annie’s hand to Wm Phil Stern; $2,300.
Cabinet Card; by Richard Fox, Publisher of Police Gazette; shows Annie in fancy dress with her shooting table cover draped behind her; on the reverse is an inscription possibly in Annie’s hand; $2,588.