This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2017, Volume 63, Number 3)

AMERICA’S BEST FEMALE SHARPSHOOTER The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith

By Julia Bricklin. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2017.

America’s Best Female Sharpshooter, a study of Lillian Frances Smith, ‘the California Girl’ (1871 – 1930), is Volume 2 in the William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West, a co-ordinated attempt to create a library comprehensively documenting the legacy of the Buffalo Bill phenomenon, an undertaking with which I am myself proud to be associated.

The first section of the title, by implying that Lillian was actually better than her contemporary and long-time rival, Annie Oakley, is intentionally provocative and attention-grabbing but as Ms Bricklin clearly demonstrates, citing the impressive range of records set and still held by Lillian at the time of her death, together with the effusive endorsements of Colonel Cody who gave her top billing, it is not without justification.

Books in the Buffalo Bill genre too often disappoint as purely derivative literary exercises but this engaging ‘lost history’ is free from criticism on that particular ground. It is meticulously researched and assembled from the limited available sources – Lillian herself showed little interest in documenting her own life and if speculation has to be enlisted in order to fill certain key blank spaces, then that is certainly through no fault of the author. It is further to Ms Bricklin’s credit that she has succeeded in sourcing and tapping several fonts of family lore. It is unquestionably a useful exercise, for the available literature on her chosen theme has hitherto been sparse.

We are all familiar with Annie Oakley but no one writes hit musicals in celebration of the parallel and no less remarkable figure of Lillian Smith, who never quite attained iconic status. Annie’s prim and conservative figure was more in tune with late Victorian morality and its notions of feminine domesticity; she enjoyed a long and happy marriage to Frank Butler, a fellow marksman whom she quickly eclipsed and who obligingly relegated himself to the role of her manager. Lillian, by way of contrast, was never able to settle into ‘the same romantic narrative’, drifting through a succession of ill-conceived and unstable relationships with a number of show-business characters; with one sole exception the formal legal basis of these temporary unions remains unclear.

Ms Bricklin is resourceful in the use of census records and other genealogical sources to trace the Smith family’s New England roots to one John Smith, Lillian’s six times great-grandfather, who had quite literally arrived on the Mayflower.

In the wake of the Civil War, Lillian’s parents, Levi Woodbury Smith and Rebecca Robinson, went west and settled first in Mono County, in the high Sierra country on the Nevada / California border. A couple of years after Lillian’s birth in Colville on 4 August 1871, the family moved on to Merced County, California.

There the rapid influx of settlers, with the concomitant introduction of grain-farming and artificial waterways, created an ecological imbalance which resulted in an over-abundance of wildfowl; this was an opportunity for Levi, who carved out a career for himself as a commercial hunter, slaughtering a prodigious quantity of ducks and geese. In this undertaking he was assisted by young Lillian.

As social conditions in the West began to settle, thoughts turned from the practicalities of everyday survival to a celebration of a romanticised frontier past and the need for organised entertainments. The 1870s and 1880s were therefore the heyday of the exhibition shooting circuit, the preferred recreation of a gun-obsessed society. Before the age of ten, Lillian, a child prodigy, was already a regular, successful and astonishing participant in these contests, marking her debut at the Watsonville Opera House on 4 June 1881. It quickly became apparent that she had inherited her father’s twin genius for marksmanship and self-publicity.

From 1886, Lillian was a teen sensation in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. She famously participated in the 1887-88 English season and was presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of a command performance, all much to the chagrin of Annie Oakley, who temporarily left the show in protest when the show moved from London to Birmingham at the end of October 1887. What exactly transpired and what concessions were demanded is unclear but when Annie returned to the fold at the start of the 1889 Paris season, Lillian was gone.

Following her departure from the Wild West and the disintegration of her union with cowboy Jim ‘Kid’ Willoughby, Lillian spent several years on the vaudeville circuits and was exploited by her family.

From May to November 1901, Lillian appeared as one of the headlining attractions, alongside Geronimo and Martha Jane Canary, otherwise ‘Calamity Jane’, in Cummins’ Indian Congress at the Buffalo, New York, World’s Fair. This event is chiefly remembered for the assassination of President William McKinley.

Probably the most remarkable dimension of Lillian Smith as a performer is that during this engagement she permanently adopted the persona of ‘Princes Wenona, the Indian Girl’. Publicity materials elaborate a personal history in which it is pointless to look for consistency. Her parents were – fictitiously – a Sioux chief and a white captive woman who had been taken from a wagon train. The young Wenona quickly emerged as the best rifle shot in her tribe and was the only female permitted to participate in councils. On at least one occasion, it was solemnly asserted that her father was none other than Chief Crazy Horse. In accordance with the assimilationist ethos of the age, she was purportedly a graduate of the Carlisle Indian School, in other words, a shining and sanitised paradigm of what a ‘good Indian’ - or half-Indian - was supposed to be.

Pondering this metamorphosis, Ms Bricklin offers the following analysis:

By examining the events that led up to Lillian’s identity shift and the events that followed, it becomes apparent that Smith not only used “Princess Wenona” as a professional passport of sorts, but also as a way to distance herself from her biological family and solidify ties to those who provided unconditional friendship and support for her. Often, these people were also untethered from their own biological families. (p. 7)

Lillian / Wenona may have blazed a trail of sorts; she was a probable inspiration for such figures as Archie ‘Grey Owl’ Belaney, Robert Bailey ‘Montana Bill’ Robeson and Frank T. Hopkins, all of whom boosted their show business / literary careers by invoking imaginary Native American mothers and carefully concocted frontier origins. In Lillian’s case, this may have been a manoeuvre to escape the clutches of her controlling father, for whom she appears to have had little affection. It may be noted that she had a sister, Nellie, who passed herself off as ‘Princess Kiowa’. 

Wenona and her partner Frank Hafley also toured with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West for a couple of seasons from 1904. In 1907, they joined up with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch for the Jamestown Exhibition, held at Norfolk, Virginia, from 26 April until 1 December, in celebration of the tercentennial of the first permanent English settlement. The 101 Ranch was a touring Wild West show based on an actual working ranch in Oklahoma, which included Oto and Ponca reservations within its extensive confines.

In 1908, Wenona was engaged to California Frank’s Wild West which Hafley established at Dreamland, one of the amusement parks on Coney Island, later rejoining the 101 Ranch and returning to California when it shifted its base of operations there in 1911.

The book comes into its own in Chapters 6 & 7, which outline the histories of the various Wild West outfits which co-existed with and ultimately eclipsed Buffalo Bill’s. The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch, more than any other show, provided the bridge into the emerging movie genre, a transition which Lillian / Wenona never negotiated. There is a wealth of material on the various performers and other extraordinary characters with whom she associated during these years.

In 1916, she joined Pioneer Days, a downscaled version of Gordon W. ‘Pawnee Bill’ Lillie’s spectaculars of seasons past. Princess Wenona’s Wild Western Show enjoyed a fleeting existence during 1918.

In 1921 Lillian/Wenona, with Emil Lenders, the last in a succession of men with whom she contracted a temporary and complicated alliance, settled down to raise chickens on land set aside for her on the 101 Ranch.

Lillian Frances Smith died of heart failure on 3rd February 1930, at the Ponca City Hospital, aged 59.

This superbly crafted biography fills a clear gap in the market and is strongly recommended to all interested parties. The story of Lillian/Wenona and her unique role in simultaneously celebrating and falsifying the American West is one which had to be told.

Tom F. Cunningham


English Westerners' Society  

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