During the latter part of the 1800s, there may not have been anything quite as popular as reenactments of the wild west and in particular, the performances put on by Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West. Cody beyond doubt had a knack for knowing what the public wanted to see. He was also a man who lived the wild west life and had the relationships to recruit the people who could make his dreams and that f the public come to life.
One of the things that made Buffalo Bill’s Wild West different from most any other form of late 1800’s entertainment was the fact that his performers in most instances were not actors. They were the genuine article. At one point in the middle 1880s, Cody persuaded the great Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull to join his traveling show. Although Sitting Bull only toured with the show some four months he was extremely popular and earned about $50 per week. The Sioux chief also made quite a lot of money during this time selling autographs to a fascinated public.
The Amazing Female Sharpshooters
When it came to sharpshooters Cody had little difficulty finding top-notch performers. Buffalo Bill recruited two of the best shots the old west produced. One was Annie Oakley who was raised in Ohio and the other, somewhat less known today, was a woman named Lillian Smith from Southern California. Lillian Smith would go on to perform with several other wild west shows during her career including Mexican Joe’s Wild West, The 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West. While each of these performance companies had a good following it was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West that gained the most worldwide attention.
So what were some of the sharpshooting talents of the little-known Lillian Smith? She could hit a plate thirty times in fifteen seconds. Her act also included breaking ten glass balls on a string and then she shot the strings without missing once. Her act also included shooting at a glass ball thrown in the air and after intentionally missing the first three times, shatter the ball on her fourth shot. Sounds pretty impressive. Lillian also picked up the name “California Girl” which was used extensively during her time with Bill Cody’s show. Later, she would use other stage names.
Because the events happened so long ago there’s a bit of disagreement as to how and when Bill Cody first discovered Lillian Smith. One story is that he saw her at a Los Angeles shooting gallery while on a trip to the city. Another says that he actually discovered her when his Wild West was performing in 1886 in Erastina on Staten Island in New York. Regardless, it’s believed that Lillian, who preferred to perform with two Winchester Rifles, joined the Wild West in 1886 at the age of fifteen. Cody reportedly was fascinated with his new young sharpshooter.
Annie Oakley aka Phoebe Ann Mosey along with her husband Frank Butler, also a sharpshooter, joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1885. Oakley was twenty-six at the time. The combination of both Oakley and the “California Girl” Lillian Smith on the same show bill didn’t work out too well. At least not how Cody would have liked. While both performers were undoubtedly excellent sharpshooters, Lillian was some eleven years Oakley’s junior and promoted herself in that manner. Lillian was also known to be a bit rough talking and manner not as refined as Oakley’s. Lillian Smith had also picked up a husband by the name of Jim Kidd. Kidd was a cowboy and champion roper who also had a reckless demeanor. A collision between the two personalities was inevitable. There were times that words were exchanged between the two and the situation deteriorated. Everything between the two came to a head in 1887 while they were in England for a six-month series of performances in London, Birmingham, and Manchester during the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Trouble During the Tour of England
The most popular story regarding what happened in England had to do with meeting the Royals. Supposedly both female performers gave a lot of attention to Queen Victoria upon their meeting and in response, the Queen had complimented both. When the London newspapers printed a story about the meeting between the three women the press gave the majority of publicity to the “California Girl”. That certainly didn’t help an already fragile relationship. At the same time, it seems that Annie was having a hard time witnessing Cody’s fondness for the “California Girl”. In addition to that, Oakley was also competing against a new teenage sharpshooter in the troupe named Johnny Baker. All in all, Oakley’s as well as her husband’s, relationship with Buffalo Bill Cody was going downhill fast. There were also accusations made that Lillian Smith’s husband, Jim Kidd, wrote a slanderous letter against Oakley’s reputation and name. As a result of all the tension, accusations, and ill-will, Oakley and her husband quit Cody’s Wild West in 1887 after the tour of England.
After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
The California Girl stayed with Cody for a short while after Oakley’s departure but by 1889 she was gone from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Oakley mended the fence with Cody and returned to his organization. The California Girl ended up divorcing Jim Kidd. Lillian went through two other short marriages and then wed a man named Frank Smith, another old Buffalo Bill sharpshooting performer. Lillian eventually moved to Oklahoma in 1907 where she joined up with the popular Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. There she performed under the name of “Princess Wenona”, a fictionalized Sioux princess. During this time she also made appearances with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West. Lillian Smith (The California Girl, Princess Wenona) finally retired from show business in 1920 and passed away ten years later in Ponca City Oklahoma which was also the home of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
Annie Oakley went on with an illustrious show business career with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In 1901 Oakley was seriously injured in a train wreck while traveling with the Wild West and decided to retire from traveling in 1902. At that point, she entered acting in a stage play called The Western Girl. The play was written for her and she was able to rope and shoot as part of her role. Incredibly, Annie Oakley continued with shooting demonstrations into her 60’s. She also worked for various social causes during this time such as promoting women’s rights. Around 1922 she had intentions of making a show business comeback but it was also at this time that she and her husband were involved in a serious car wreck. What’s amazing is that even after this automobile accident, and because of it, having to wear a steel brace, she performed again in 1924 and again set shooting records. Unfortunately, her health went downhill in 1925 and she passed away a year later in 1926 in Greenville Ohio of pernicious anemia. She was buried in Brock Cemetery in Greenville.
What’s very interesting about this story is that, beyond a doubt, both Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith were excellent sharpshooters. In fact, you might say that they represented the top two female sharpshooters the world has ever known. Which one was better is a question that may not have an answer or the answer is with whomever you might ask. Before Lillian Smith left Buffalo Bill’s show, the flamboyant showman offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could outshoot Lillian. As it turned out nobody accepted the challenge and that included Annie Oakley. As far as their personal life was concerned, Annie Oakley definitely had the better. Annie Oakley’s marriage to Frank Butler lasted where Lillian went through several relatively short marriages. One remarkable thing is how both women continued to perform in some manner through their later years. Annie Oakley passed away at 66 years of age and Lillian Smith at 59.
Their Place in History
Aside from their personality and age differences when both women performed together in Bill Cody’s Wild West, the greatest difference was how their reputation and fame fared in later years. Annie Oakley not only received better press coverage during the early 1900s, but as years went by after each had passed away, Annie Oakley appears to be the one who caught the public’s lasting fascination. Annie Oakley was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth Texas. There is also the Annie Oakley Center at the Garst Museum in Greenville Ohio. There have also been motion pictures depicting the life of Annie Oakley as well as the stage play, Annie Get Your Gun. There can be very little found today in history books regarding Lillian Smith. I have also not been successful in locating memorials or exhibits concerning her career. The one thing that both of these performers certainly had in common was their unparalleled sharpshooting ability.