- America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith by Julia Bricklin
By Julia Bricklin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. ix + 202 pp. Illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 cloth.
Legendary cowboy and vaudeville performer Will Rogers once proclaimed Annie Oakley as "the greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced. Nobody took her place. There was only one." It turns out that Rogers missed the mark. Julia Bricklin's impressively researched new book recovers the life of Lillian Frances Smith, a tremendously popular trick shooter who made the rounds in vaudeville circuits and Wild West shows from the 1880s to around 1920. Born in Coleville, California, in 1871, Smith learned how to use a rifle from her father, who quickly recognized the commercial potential of his daughter's talents and signed her up to perform in venues up and down the central coast. Smith wowed audiences with her ability to shoot glass balls out of the air with fantastic precision. At only fourteen, she joined Buffalo Bill Cody's troupe, and a few years later she reinvented herself as Wenona, a sharp-shooting Sioux Indian princess. Smith "played Indian" until 1920 or so, when she retired from show business. She died ten years later and her name faded into obscurity.
Bricklin begins this book with an intriguing question: why have people largely forgotten Lillian Frances Smith, who enjoyed widespread fame in her day? Bricklin demonstrates how the legacy of Annie Oakley, Smith's contemporary and rival, has overshadowed Smith's accomplishments. Bricklin argues that Oakley molded her public persona to fit societal expectations of white Victorian womanhood. Her ability to appear pious and respectable, combined with the fact that she left behind [End Page 444] numerous interviews and documents, made her a more palatable person to memorialize and an easier subject to study. Smith, on the other hand, garnered a reputation as a "flirtatious, brash," and "uncouth" (4) woman with too many romantic partners and a drinking problem. As a result, historians tend to downgrade, dismiss, or entirely exclude Smith. Bricklin draws on newspaper articles, promotional materials, letters, and other sources to get beyond the rumors surrounding Smith and fill an obvious gap in the literature.
Historians will not find much attention given in this book to the rich historiography on gender, race, and colonialism in the North American West or the political, cultural, and economic context in which Lillian Smith operated, but aficionados of nineteenth-century vaudeville performers and Wild West shows will enjoy reading about Smith's exploits. This book should also encourage more investigations into this truly fascinating figure and the way she manipulated the boundaries of race, gender, and class to pursue her one true love: shooting.
University of California, Santa Barbara