“The California Girl”

lilsmithONE DAY in 1886, Buffalo Bill Cody got a glimpse of a rifle-shooting girl he just had to have for his traveling show. The daughter of a shooting-gallery owner, fifteen-year-old Lillian Smith “made my own efforts (with a weapon) seem like the attempts of a novice,” said Cody, whose Wild West Show had made himself and his headlining sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, “America’s first superstars,” according to Western writer Larry McMurtry.

Cody’s touring show, which he’d debuted in 1883, included flamboyant horseback riding and crack shooting demonstrations by Oakley and others. Debuting with the show on June 28, 1886, Smith initially entertained crowds between main acts before earning a spot in the regular lineup. Billed as “The California Girl” and the “Champion Rifle Shot of the World,” Smith’s aim was so true that Cody offered $100,000 to anyone who could outshoot her in public.

Smith presented a flashier (some would say trashier) image than Oakley, who despised her rival. The younger woman’s “mere presence on the lot irritated Annie to an extreme,” McMurtry wrote in 2005’s The Colonel and Little Missie. Smith’s wardrobe was a particular irritation to the conservative Oakley. During a shooting demonstration at the Wimbledon sporting club in London, Smith shocked the British onlookers by wearing “a dress that sported a vivid yellow sash, and a plug hat the likes of which had never been seen in this august club before,” McMurtry wrote. Smith also spoke coarsely, saying such things as “Swing de apple dere, young fellers, an’ let me bust his skins.”

Smith never matched Oakley’s popularity and quit the show in 1889. In 1902, the women sharpshooters competed at a shooting contest in Kansas City, with Oakley winning. Almost unrecognizable, Smith had darkened her skin and adopted the stage name “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot.”

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