For almost forty years, I have studied and researched women of the nineteenth-century American West, always looking for a subject for a fictional biography. But I never heard of Lillian Smith. Now, historian Julia Bricklin has shed light on this neglected woman's career, bringing her out of the shadows and shattering some misconceptions along the way.
If known at all, Smith is known as Annie Oakley's rival. But the two shootists were vastly different. Oakley was demure, petite, married for a lifetime to Frank Butler, content to retire to her dressing room or tent after a show: Smith's figure was generous, and she was flamboyant, a woman who lived life large but had trouble staying with one man. Bricklin suggests that the rivalry between the two may have been exaggerated by the press, but elsewhere the historian provides a quote to the effect that Annie was nervous enough about Lillian joining Buffalo Bill's show that she subtracted six years from her age, giving herself the advantage of more youth. It was probably Annie and Butler who got Lillian ousted from her early career with the Buffalo Bill Wild West, after the troupe's successful visit to England and command performance before Queen Victoria. And finally, there's a suggestion that Annie and her husband were responsible, by innuendo, for Lillian's lasting and unjust reputation as a slovenly alcoholic. Although never as famous, Lillian is praised by many as the better shootist of the two, An accomplished horsewoman, she perfected the act of shooting from horseback, an act Annie never duplicated.
After her ouster from Buffalo Bill Cody's show, Lillian for many years was in the uncertain and difficult world of the free-lance artist, working small local shows and living from job to job. Lillian's father, Levi, managed her career during this period and might best be described as a jack-of-all trades who saw profit in his talented daughter's skill and manipulated it to the best of his ability. Apparently, he was not nearly as successful a manager at Oakley's Frank Butler, and Lillian eventually severed her ties with him—twice.
Fairly early in her career, Lillian took the identity of Wenona, a "rehabilitated" Sioux princess, abandoning her Anglo identity permanently, except for a brief spell around 1908. Although she probably darkened her skin with greasepaint, her naturally dusky complexion and dark hair made the transformation plausible. She became one of many show-business Anglos to imitate Native American identity, a fact somewhat resented by the real Indians who performed regularly for less attention and pay.
Lillian Smith was not as successful in love and marriage as Annie. Lillian first eloped with rodeo performer Jim Willoughby, a marriage that became public in spite of the bride's attempts to deny it. She threatened to sue Willoughby if he revealed it. Father Levi Smith was angry about the marriage, because he thought it signaled the end of her career. The marriage was not long-lasting and when it dissolved, Lillian returned to California and Levi's management. Perhaps her most outrageous stunt during this period was a foolhardy trip alone in a small (6.5 x 3.5 feet) boat following the Columbia River to the Pacific and south to San Francisco. Some reporters claimed she had made the boat herself.
Smith's second marriage was to Frank Hafley. Together they invented and introduced the persona of Wenona, often in fictional re-enactment dramas. Hafley formed California Frank's Wild West Show and joined his small troupe first to the Pawnee Bill show and then the Miller 101. The marriage lasted about eight years, until Hafley was overly attracted to Mamie Francis, who dove headfirst, on the back of her horse, sixty feet from a platform into a tub of water. Bricklin hints that Wenona carried a torch for her ex-husband after that. She had no children, but there is the possibility she had a baby in seclusion—the dates make it plausible—and that child later became Nellie, the younger sister she was particularly close to.
In the 1920s Smith, then in her fifties, suffered from declining health, much of it due to her career in rodeo, with ailments shared by many other rodeo performers. She was arthritic and probably deaf, and developed congestive heart failure. A severe case of food poisoning weakened her and a few years later, in February 1930, she died of double pneumonia. The world she knew, the men she had worked with were all gone. Moving pictures had heralded the end of Wild West shows. Bricklin writes that "Annie Oakley was the woman who shot to make a living, and...Lillian Smith was the woman who lived to shoot."
Bricklin's study is thorough, relying on archival sources, books both popular and scholarly, periodicals and interviews. Occasional letters, sometimes signed by Lillian, sometimes anonymous, provide clues to her thinking and life, but there are still gaps. Bricklin writes in a readable, accessible style, though, like many scholarly studies, the print on the page is too dense for easy reading.
Bricklin has done Lillian and the history of women in the American West a great service by bringing the shootist life to public attendtion.
Julia is an independent historian and lecturer who focuses on the American West. Her work has appeared in Wild West, Civil War Times, and Frontier History. She lives in California and is a contributing editor to the journal, California History.
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