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Wild Women Of The West: Lillian Smith

Historians report that sharpshooter Annie Oakley was jealous of Lillian.

May 30, 2018

Lillian Smith. Photo courtesy of PBS.

The polite but enthusiastic applause from 40,000 Londoners brought a huge smile to fifteen-year-old Lillian Smith’s face.  Her performance before England’s Queen Victoria was the highlight of her early time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the queen’s rule, and the stands were filled with royalty from across Europe.  Lillian had dazzled the onlookers with her marksmanship. Using a .22 rifle, the teenager hit a tin plate thirty times in fifteen seconds and broke ten glass balls hung from strings swinging around a pole.  The queen had been so taken by the girl’s talents she asked that Lillian be presented to her at the end of the program.

When it came time for Lillian to meet the queen, she led her horse to the royal box, removed her hat, and coaxed her ride into a curtsy.  Queen Victoria nodded pleasantly and asked to see Lillian’s gun. Lillian gently turned the weapon over and politely described everything about the rifle that made it special to her.  Cody was impressed with the noble woman’s attentiveness and with his star’s genial response.

“Queen Victoria was a kindly little lady, not five feet in height, but every inch a gracious Queen.  I had the pleasure of introducing her to Miss Lillian Smith, the mechanism of whose Winchester repeater was explained to her Majesty, who takes a remarkable interest in firearms.  Young California spoke up gracefully and like a little woman.”

William F. Cody – 1888

Buffalo Bill met Lillian Frances Smith in 1885 at her father’s shooting gallery in Los Angeles.  He was amazed at the young girl’s talent with a gun.

“She made my own efforts (with a weapon) seem like the attempts of a novice,” he admitted.

Cody initially signed the teenager to appear in his Wild West Show as an interlude performer.  She would keep the audience entertained in between the star acts.

Annie Oakley’s popularity prompted Buffalo Bill and his business partner Nate Salsbury to hire on another female sharpshooter.  They believed Lillian would eventually have a fan base on par with Oakley’s. Cody billed Lillian as The California Girl – The Champion Rifle Shot of the World.  The publicity he created for her, borrowed in part from her life, claimed that when she was a little girl she traded her toys for a gun.

“Tired of playing with dolls at the age of seven,” Cody told the press, “she took up the rifle, shooting forty mallards and redheads a day on the wing and bobcats out of the towering redwoods.”

Lillian Smith was born on February 3, 1871, in Coleville, California.  Her first performance with the Wild West Show was in St. Louis in the later part of 1886.  Her proficiency with the rifle left such a lasting impression on audiences that within six months she had earned a spot on the regular show lineup.  Lillian’s remarkable target-shooting act kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Each performance ended with her firing at a glass ball that was tossed into the air.  She would purposely miss it three out of four times. The bullet from the last shot would shatter the ball to pieces. It was that display of skill that prompted U.S. and European newspapers to proclaim her act to be “spellbinding and captivating.”

“A brilliant display of shooting on foot and horseback was given in the Wild West Show arena and the magical promptitude with which glass balls and other objects are shattered before her never-erring aim while riding at full speed must be seen to be believed…”

The London Times – December 17, 1887

In addition to England’s Queen Victoria, famous Americans such as Mark Twain, General William T. Sherman, and Elizabeth Custer saw and admired Lillian’s performance.  Cody was so proud of Lillian Smith and so sure of her rifle skills he offered her $10,000 to anyone who could outshoot her in public.

Not everyone was pleased that The California Girl was so well received.  Historians report that sharpshooter Annie Oakley was jealous of Lillian. Annie felt that the teenager was getting far more attention than she was, and in the fall of 1887, she left the Wild West Show.  The only condition upon which Annie could be persuaded to return was if Lillian Smith were no longer with the Buffalo Bill program.

In 1909 when Buffalo Bill and Gordon Lillie (also known as Pawnee Bill) combined their Wild West shows, Lillian’s billing changed to Princess Wenonah – Champion Indian Girl Rifle Shot.  With her new name came a new background.

Now the Wild West program listed her as the daughter of a Sioux Indian chief named Crazy Snake.  Lillian did not disappoint the crowds who gathered to see the “Indian princess.” She was as proficient with a shotgun and revolver as she was with a rifle.

Lillian was not as successful in her personal life as she was in her professional, however.  She was married numerous times to men who were also part of the Wild West Show. Some of her husbands even participated in her act, holding up dimes that she would shoot out of their hands.

Lillian Smith left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1889 and formed her own short-lived western program.  A desperate struggle with alcohol and weight gain forced her to abandon the self-titled show. She then joined the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West production.  Lillian retired from performing in the mid-1920s and lived out the rest of her days in a cabin along the banks of the Salt Fork River in Oklahoma.

On December 3, 1930, The California Girl contracted pneumonia and died.  She was fifty-nine-years old. The bulk of her personal belongings, which consisted of a life-sized portrait of herself, a beaded blanket, a pair of silver-plated spurs, an ermine-trimmed buckskin dress, four Winchester rifles, and two gold-plated Smith and Wesson pistols, was left to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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