Annie Oakley is perhaps the most famous female sharpshooter in American history. Her wholesome image as a diminutive and demure housewife who could outshoot both her marksman husband, Frank Butler, and every other man in the arenas of Buffalo Bill's Wild West made her an enduring figure. Oakley's remarkable skill with a rifle and her groundbreaking role as a woman in a male-dominated field has left an indelible mark on popular culture. Her life and legend inspired the hit Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun," which immortalized her story through its catchy tunes and romanticized portrayal of her life, helping ensure that "Little Miss Sure Shot" would be remembered as the Queen of the Marksmen. But Annie Oakley might not have been the best female sharpshooter in America. She might not have even been the best female sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
Lillian Frances Smith, born in 1871 and 11 years younger than Annie Oakley, emerged as one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Wild West shows, renowned for her exceptional sharpshooting skills. Her journey into fame began at an incredibly young age, earning the moniker "The California Huntress" before she even reached her teenage years. Smith's prowess with a rifle was so extraordinary that she was performing as a professional sharpshooter by the time she was in her teens, quickly catching the eye of Buffalo Bill Cody. In Cody's Wild West Show, she performed breathtaking feats of marksmanship, such as shooting targets off the back of a galloping horse, which not only thrilled audiences but also established her as a top-tier attraction in the male-dominated sphere of sharpshooting.
The most intriguing aspect of Smith's career was her rivalry with the legendary Annie Oakley, when both were showing their rifle skills with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. While both women were phenomenal sharpshooters, they were markedly different in their public personas and life choices. Oakley, known for her conservative and demure image, contrasted sharply with Smith's more flamboyant and bold demeanor. This rivalry was not just a matter of skill; it reflected the broader societal expectations of women during that era. Smith's willingness to defy these norms, such as wearing flashy clothes and mingling freely with her cowboy and Native American costars, set her apart from Oakley and added an extra layer of drama to their professional competition.
Smith's career extended beyond Buffalo Bill's show, with her talents also shining in other Wild West shows, such as the 101 Ranch. Her ability to reinvent herself was evident when she took on the persona of "Princess Wenona," a character that played into the romanticized and often misconstrued narratives of Native American culture prevalent at the time. Despite the challenges and criticisms she faced, Smith remained committed to her craft, continually demonstrating that her skills as a sharpshooter were second to none. Her legacy, although overshadowed for many years by the more widely remembered Annie Oakley, is a testament to her skill, resilience, and determination to live life on her own terms in an era that was often unkind to women who dared to defy convention.
Julia Bricklin's book 'America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith' is a masterful biography that brings to light the incredible life of a largely forgotten icon of the Wild West. Bricklin delves into the life of Lillian Frances Smith, known as the fierce rival of Annie Oakley, yet distinct in her own remarkable ways. This book is not just a recounting of Smith's extraordinary sharpshooting skills; it's a vivid portrayal of a woman who dared to defy the norms of her era.
Bricklin's meticulous research unfolds the story of Smith, the 'California Huntress,' who captivated audiences in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show with her audacious sharpshooting from horseback. The book reveals how Smith, not content with being in anyone's shadow, reinvented herself as 'Princess Wenona,' challenging the conventions of her time with her vibrant persona and controversial choices.
What sets this biography apart is Bricklin's ability to weave together the nuances of Smith's personal life with the broader context of a changing America. Through family records, interviews, and an array of sources, Bricklin paints a comprehensive picture of Smith's fifty-year career, her tumultuous private life, and her courageous defiance of Victorian femininity. The book not only celebrates Smith's remarkable talents but also offers a critical examination of the era's gender dynamics and the sensationalism of the press.
In 'America's Best Female Sharpshooter,' Bricklin has achieved a rare feat: she resurrects the legacy of Lillian Frances Smith, presenting her not just as a mere competitor to Annie Oakley but as a trailblazing figure who lived passionately on her own terms. This book is a compelling read, providing a unique window into the life of a woman who was much more than a sharpshooter – a resilient pioneer in a man's world. A must-read for anyone interested in the untold stories of powerful women who shaped American history.