Years ago, I wrote a short story featuring Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank. I had a great time reading about her and the life she led, and it was fun imagining and penning a tale where Annie’s shooting skills dazzled a crowd of onlookers.

Annie Oakley preparing for an over-the-shoulder shot. I’m betting she didn’t miss her target. (Bettmann/Corbis)

In the course of gathering information, I ran across a young woman who was a major competitor of Annie’s named Lillian Frances Smith. With my focus on Annie, I didn’t pursue any in-depth facts on Lillian. I finished my story and moved on to other things, forgetting all about Annie’s rival.

Until a few months ago.

I discovered a new biography – in fact, the only biography – on Lillian Frances Smith, America’s Best Female Sharpshooter, written by Julia Bricklin. I couldn’t resist it, and ordered the book.

Lillian turns out to be a fascinating character in her own right.

Known as “The California Girl”, Smith amazed crowds at the age of fourteen, performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. As time changed circumstances, she was shrewd enough to reinvent herself in the public eye, becoming “Princess Wenona”. Chameleon-like, she used dark makeup and wore Native American dress, to bill herself as a Sioux sharpshooter. While she invented her Sioux heritage, her sharpshooting skills were real. Records credited to Lillian by the time of her death included such accomplishments as: breaking 71 of 72 glass balls thrown in the air while on the back of a running horse, hitting 300 swinging glass balls in 14 minutes and 33 seconds, and making 24 of 25 8-inch bull’s-eyes at 200 yards. Not shabby shooting at all.

A publicity shot of “Princess Wenona”. (Library of Congress via Smithsonian.com)

This biography not only brings Lillian Smith to life, but discusses the rivalry between Smith and Oakley in a way that helps us understand the differences and similarities between these two women. A look at how the Old West shows were operated by Buffalo Bill and other such entrepreneurs is a bonus.

Julia Bricklin is certainly qualified to tell Lillian’s story. She’s written for Wild West, Civil War Times, Financial History, True West, Smithsonian.com, and History.net. She¬†edits California History.

If you’re looking for a well-researched biography about a strong woman from America’s past, I’d suggest picking up a copy.

Attention historical novelists! Wouldn’t “Princess Wenona” make a fabulous heroine for your next book?

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