Originally featured in Points West magazine in Summer 1998
By Christine Houze
Former Curatorial Assistant, Buffalo Bill Museum
Ed. note: The source materials for the following article are clippings in the Annie Oakley scrapbooks in the McCracken Research Library, and a telephone interview with Dorothy Ulrich, who, as a child, met the famous sharpshooter.
Annie Oakley made target shooting respectable for ladies. A combination of charm, femininity, and remarkable skill made her a role model for women and girls who saw her perform. When asked if women could shoot as well as men, she answered, “Sex makes no difference…it is largely a matter of determination and practice that make good marksmen and women. Individual for individual, women can shoot as well as men.” Annie’s personal mission was to teach women and girls how to shoot and, in the process, she taught thousands.
Performing with the Wild West show was only seasonal employment. To supplement her income, Annie often competed against men in shooting matches. Wives on the sidelines asked Annie to give them shooting lessons. Quick to realize their avid interest, Annie began to give lessons in the use of rifles, shotguns, and revolvers “to ladies only.” She did not lack for pupils. With genuine sincerity she wrote to President McKinley in 1898 as war loomed with Spain, offering “to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.” The Secretary of War dismissed her offer.
After a train accident in 1901, Annie left the Wild West show. Her injuries were serious but she resumed giving exhibitions and teaching as soon as she recovered. In the fall of 1915 Annie and her husband, Frank Butler, joined the staff of the elite Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Frank, an expert marksman, was in charge of the shooting range while Annie gave lessons and exhibitions. During the 1916 – 17 season, she coached and instructed 3,500 of Pinehurst’s guests. In the summers, she was employed by the posh Wentworth Hotel near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “I have been teaching women to shoot for many years at Wentworth in summer and Pinehurst in winter, without compensation because I had an ideal for my sex. I have wanted them to be capable of protecting their homes.”
Dorothy Ulrich of Richmond, Virginia, met Annie Oakley at the Wentworth. Dorothy was only 4 or 5 years old but the famous Annie Oakley made an indelible impression on her. “I liked her very much. She was very nice to me and told me when I got bigger she would teach me to shoot.” Annie did teach Dorothy’s mother to shoot. Her mother, Alice Smith Ulrich, came from a family of great shots, all men. Women simply didn’t do such a thing. But Dorothy’s father, George Ulrich, thought it was a fine idea that his wife learned how to shoot. Dorothy later learned as well. Looking back, Dorothy thinks it was ironic that many of the proper society matrons who couldn’t resist Annie Oakley because she was so famous really didn’t approve of her because she was an entertainer.
By 1922 at Pinehurst, Annie had instructed more than 10,000 women and girls. “She is an admirable teacher…. Her method is original and unique, the first lesson always consists of the proper handling of firearms without a shot being fires, cautions and safety firsts are generously meted out; her great asset being commonsense and patience.”
Annie Oakley made a place for herself and thousands of other women in the masculine world of shooting. Of her life’s passion she said, “…if there is any sport or recreation more conducive to good health and long life than shooting, I do not know what it is. Why spend the afternoon at the bridge table, sipping tea, when there always is a gun club near where you may shoot at the targets? I know from experience that the woman will be welcome guest.”