On August 13, 1860, Jacob and Susan Mosey welcomed their ninth child into the world, a daughter whom they named Phoebe Ann. Two more children followed Phoebe. Another child was stillborn. The large family lived in a small log cabin on a rented farm in the northeastern part of Darke County, Ohio, known as “the wilds.” Phoebe’s parents were poor and spent most of their time laboring at the never-ending chores of farm life.
In the late winter of 1865, Jacob drove a team of horses into town to have corn and wheat ground at the mill and to purchase supplies. Before he returned home, Darke County, Ohio was struck by a blizzard. For several hours, snow fell in thick sheets. Visibility was reduced to just a few feet at best. The wind blew and whipped in gusts in excess of 35 miles per hour. The Mosey family stayed as near as they could to the small fire and awaited Jacob’s return. When the snow finally slowed, the Mosey family peered out of their log cabin and saw that everything was covered in a deep snow that would have been measured in feet rather than inches.
When Jacob finally returned to the warm cabin, he was shaking uncontrollably and seemed confused. His body temperature had dropped to a dangerous level. He was suffering from hypothermia. He huddled next to the small fire to try to rid of himself of the shivers. Jacob’s strength was weakening. No longer able to stand, he sat in a chair near the fire. Within a short time, Jacob was too weak even to sit in a chair. Susan helped him to bed.
Eventually, Jacob’s shivering and confusion subsided, but his strength never returned. He had lost the ability to farm the land, hunt, and fish. His children struggled to provide for the family in the same manner that Jacob had. The kids hunted, fished, and tended to the crops to the best of their abilities. Phoebe understood at an early age that missing a shot at wild game meant the family would have no meat to eat. She quickly developed a keen eye.
In March of 1866, Jacob began to cough and run a high fever. The sickness evolved into pneumonia. In his already weakened condition, Jacob’s body was unable to fight off the sickness. Jacob died and left Susan a widow.
More for practicality than love, Susan married Daniel Brumbaugh the following year. In 1870, Daniel died from an unknown cause, which made Susan a widow for the second time. She would never remarry. Susan did everything in her power to keep the children fed.
In 1870, a local family made an agreement with Susan that Phoebe would help the family raise their infant child in exchange for food, shelter, education, and a small allowance. Susan saw this as a great opportunity for Phoebe which would also lessen the burden on the rest of the family. As per the agreement, Phoebe “would have no work except to watch the three-week-old baby boy.” Phoebe became a “bound girl,” essentially an indentured servant, to a family that she later referred to as “the wolves.” “All went well for a month,” she wrote in her autobiography, “then the work began to stack up. I got up at four o’clock in the morning, got breakfast, milked the cows, fed the calves, the pigs, pumped water for the cattle, fed the chickens, rocked the baby to sleep, weeded the garden, picked wild blackberries, got dinner after digging the potatoes for dinner and picked the vegetables—and then could go hunting or trapping… I was held prisoner. They wrote all the letters to my mother telling her that I was happy and going to school.” Contrary to the letters, Phoebe was not happy and was not allowed to attend school. She never revealed the name of the family to whom she was “bound.” For two long years, Phoebe endured physical and mental abuse from “the wolves.” In 1872, Phoebe finally escaped from “the wolves.”
Three years later, in 1875, Phoebe visited her sister who lived near Cincinnati. A local hotelkeeper heard that Phoebe was an excellent shot and, as a publicity stunt, arranged a trap shoot match against professional exhibition shooter Frank Butler. Frank and Phoebe took turns firing at clay birds. Frank would fire and hit his bird, the Phoebe would fire and hit hers. This continued for 24 consecutive shots each. Spectators speculated the trap shoot would end in a draw. Frank and Phoebe were determined to continue the competition until a winner was declared. On the 25th bird, Frank fired at his bird. The crowd gasped when Frank’s shot missed. If Phoebe made her shot, she would win the competition. She took a quick but careful aim and fired. Her aim was true, and the shot broke the clay bird. At fifteen years old, Phoebe had outshot a professional marksman ten years her senior.
Rather than being irritated or embarrassed that he was upstaged by a shy fifteen-year-old girl, Frank was smitten. He and Phoebe married the following year. They began holding shooting exhibitions with Phoebe as the star of the show. They capitalized on Phoebe’s young appearance and told audiences that she was even younger than her true age. For most of the next five decades, Frank and Phoebe made a living by traveling the world and entertaining people with shooting exhibitions. It was at one of these shooting exhibitions that the Indian chief Sitting Bull gave Phoebe Ann Mosey Butler the nickname Watanya Cicilia, “little sure shot.” The rest of the world knows Phoebe by her stage name… Annie Oakley.
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