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Lillian Smith: The Champion California Huntress

Portrait of Lillian Smith

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was a staple of Old West entertainment during the 1800s and featured many of the era’s famous sharpshooters and pioneers, such as Annie Oakley, James “Wild Bill” Hickok, and Calamity Jane herself. However, the youngest ever to join Buffalo Bill’s troupe of performers was a brassy California teen by the name of Lillian Smith… who would then become Annie Oakley’s strongest female rival.

Born Lillian Frances Smith in Colville California, she was the quintessential tomboy at age 7 (when, growing bored with playing with dolls, she asked her father for a rifle to play with instead). By age 10, she was nearly unbeatable and her father bet $5000.00 to anyone that could surpass little Lillian’s shooting. Buffalo Bill was touring in California at this time, and discovered the girl prodigy, inviting her along to be a part of his troupe at the mere age of 15 and naming her “The Champion California Huntress.”

 

A young Lillian with a Stevens Tip-Up Rifle

This new addition to the troupe didn’t sit well with one of its veterans, though. Annie Oakley was an excellent sharpshooter, besting many male professionals, and had already established herself as a star in Buffalo Bill’s show. Though Oakley preferred to perform with a shotgun, while Lillian excelled with a rifle, tensions rose when the young Smith was invited into Buffalo Bill’s fold. Lillian’s constant bragging about her prowess didn’t help, especially when she was heard by many saying that “Annie Oakley was done for” now that Lillian had arrived. Much younger than Oakley, and feeling on top of the world, Lillian was known, during the show tours, for her shameless flirting… and dressed in much more flashy attire than Oakley dared to. Perhaps feeling threatened by the 15-year-old, Oakley began telling people she was six years younger than she really was — and had a brand new outfit made for the Wild West Show’s opening parade in order to attract much wanted attention her way.

Things didn’t get better between the two starlets. When Cody’s show headed to London in 1887, their competitive personalities and the publicity surrounding the London tour made tensions rise– and after an embarrassing rifle shot by Lillian, Oakley stepped forward and delivered such an impressive performance, that Prince Edward congratulated her personally. This small triumph wasn’t enough to remedy Oakley’s resentment towards Lillian — Ultimately, Oakley decided to leave Cody’s show at the end of the London season.

Lillian Smith featured in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Lillian now had her chance to gloat at having driven Oakley away — and Cody enabled the pretense that Lillian was a loyal performer, by snubbing Oakley and praising Lillian, when he recounted her triumphs at his meeting with Queen Victoria in London. However, Lillian’s performance in Cody’s show didn’t seem to have as much draw as before, and he came to the realization that she would never be as highly regarded as Oakley. Lillian must have realized her glory days were over as well; she left Buffalo Bill’s troupe right before Oakley rejoined in 1889.

A performer nonetheless, Lillian didn’t give up the public eye. Still beating many male rifle shooters, she challenged Oakley to a match many times — but the invitations were declined. Nonplussed, Lillian turned up in Mexican Joe’s Wild West show, her skin darkened — and performed under a new name: “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot”. She did meet up with Oakley one more time, at the 1902 Grand American Handicap competition, where Oakley once again bested the young rifle-woman.

 

Lillian Smith might not have been the icon Annie Oakley was — but as the youngest performer in Cody’s Wild West show, she certainly established herself as the best rifle shot in California and was heralded as a force to be reckoned with in the Western plains.

Lillian Smith as “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot”

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